Detroit’s only Sephardic synagogue, for Jews whose families came from North Africa and the Middle East, recently held another in a series of lectures and cooking demonstrations. This one was about the Jews of Tunisia.
Speaker Sylvie Jami Salei’s ancestors had lived in Tunis since 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and many settled in North Africa. But the Jewish community in Tunisia is much older. Remains have been found of a synagogue built in the 3rd century CE.
An ancient community
Under the rule of the Romans and the Vandals, the Jews of Tunis increased and prospered to such a degree that church councils enacted restrictive laws against them.
When Muslims ruled Tunisia, the Jewish community enjoyed years of good treatment interspersed with periods of anti-Semitism and discrimination. The community prospered during the country’s years as a French protectorate. Many Tunisian Jews became French citizens and identified strongly with French culture.
The community was at risk during World War II. France’s Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis and drew up plans to create North African concentration camps. Although about 160 Tunisian Jews were deported to European concentration camps, and others were forced to do slave labor, the Nazi sympathizers ran out of time and the community was saved.
As soon as Tunisia gained independence in 1956, the government implemented anti-Jewish measures. Anti-Semitism, both official and casual, increased when the French left for good in 1963.
Salei’s family left for Paris in 1965. She remembers that they had to buy round-trip tickets. They were not permitted to take any funds – her father’s pension was frozen – and they were body-searched as they left to make sure they weren’t hiding any jewels or other valuables. The belongings they arranged to ship never arrived in France.
By the late 1960s, the Tunisian Jewish community had been decimated. Once as large as 100,000, the community now numbers around 1,000. Most live on the small island of Djerba; Tunis, which once had tens of thousands of Jews, now has 500, most of them elderly and frail. Lucette Lagnado recently wrote a long article about The Last of the Arab Jews in the Wall Street Journal. She points out that in the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century there were more than 850,000 Jews. Today, there are fewer than 4,500. (Visit this website for more information about Jewish refugees from Arab lands.)
Refuge in Paris, Israel and the US
In Paris, Salei’s family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment. They received no help from the French government.
Salei’s childhood memories are mostly happy ones, of attending concerts and movies in Arabic, English and French, all of which she learned at school.
But later she realized that she wasn’t privy to the worries her parents faced, and that life was not so idyllic for the family. She and her siblings were all born at home because her mother was afraid to go to the Muslim-run hospital. Her youngest sibling, a girl, died soon after birth because she couldn’t get the care she needed. A cousin was kidnapped and killed by Arabs.
Salei’s family left Paris for Israel and emigrated to the United States in 1973.
In 2014, Tunisia implemented a new secular constitution – the first of its kind in the Arab world – that specifically protects minorities. In January 2014, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa nominated a Jew, Rene Trabelsi, as minister of tourism. Djerba is a popular destination for Jewish tourists.
Today’s recipe, provided by Salei, is for a sandwich that is popular in France as well as Tunisia. When these were served at the Keter Torah event, I recalled seeing similar sandwiches at a French bakery in Jerusalem, kind of the Middle Eastern Jewish version of a hoagie, hero or sub. The ingredients sound a little weird, but the combination makes a very tasty sandwich.