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Out of Tune

A Hamas official’s visit to Tunisia prompts an anti-Semitic demonstration—and soul-searching about the treatment of Jews in North Africa

Robert Zaretsky
January 17, 2012
Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
A Jewish retirement home in la Goulette near Tunis.Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
A Jewish retirement home in la Goulette near Tunis.Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

In the heart of historic Tunis stands the Lycée Pierre Mendès-France. Tunisia’s most prestigious high school, the lycée’s graduates include the Gaullist minister Philippe Séguin; the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë; and independent Tunisia’s founder, Habib Bourguiba. In 1983, then-President Bourguiba renamed the school after the French political leader with whom, in 1954, he negotiated Tunisia’s independence from France.

It so happened that Pierre Mendès-France’s religion was far less problematic for the Tunisian leader than it was for his political opponents in France, who insisted that an “Israelite” was selling out the French Empire. But Mendès-France’s religion would have been equally problematic, it now seems, for some in the enthusiastic crowd of Tunisians who welcomed the arrival last week of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, during his official visit to Tunisia. When Haniyeh appeared in front of the crowd, members of the welcome wagon greeted him with the chant “Tuez les juifs!” (“Kill the Jews!”)

Ennahdha, the moderate Islamist party behind Tunisia’s government, denounced what it called the work of troublemakers who “could be counted on the fingers of one hand.” In a press release, the government declared that these slogans, which do not “reflect Islam and its principles,” were meant to “stain” the government’s reputation. The release concluded: “Jewish Tunisians have lived peacefully in Tunisia for centuries and have the same rights and same duties as any other Tunisian citizen.”

As with so much else in the complex history of Arab-Jewish relations in North Africa, this claim is true—except when it’s not.

The roots of the Tunisian Jewish community run deeply into antiquity: According to Flavius Josephus, Julius Caesar granted a special status to the Jews of the newly created Roman province of Africa. With Rome’s fall and Islam’s rise, the Jews of Tunisia were obliged to choose between conversion or submission to the dhimma. They overwhelmingly opted for the latter and thus embedded themselves in a rigidly hierarchical society, paying a special tax and submitting entirely to Islamic authority.

As dhimmis, Tunisian Jews flourished. But of course flourishing is relative: When confined to the bottom rung of the social ladder, one is happy not to be groveling in the mud just below. The convivencia—the term coined by Spanish historians to depict the ostensibly harmonious ties among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the medieval Islamic world—requires a very large asterisk. This age, according to Princeton historian Mark Cohen, was “marked by a legally-prescribed regime of discrimination and even witnessed periodic outbursts of violence.” Yet, at the same time, the historical record is clear: Jews played a significant role in the culture and politics of medieval Islam, and the Jewish community as a whole knew “substantial security.” The occasional eruptions of violence signaled a temporary failure of the deal struck between Muslims and Jews, and not—as their Ashkenazi brethren could attest—a way of life (and death).

All this changed dramatically in 1881, when France, in order to secure the eastern border of Algeria, took control of Tunisia, which had been transformed into a protectorate by European powers. With the advent of French rule, the local Jewish community, numbering nearly 100,000, was once again the chosen people. This time, though, French military and civil representatives did the choosing: Thanks to their professional skills and place in the local economy, Tunisian Jewry was ideally placed to serve as their interlocutors.

Historians have long agreed that France’s much vaunted mission civilisatrice was largely a dismal charade for the vast majority of the colonized. As the sociologist (and Tunisian Jew) Albert Memmi observed in his landmark work The Colonizer and the Colonized, the civilizing mission was instead a relentless juggernaut, plundering the land, pulverizing local traditions, and transforming entire peoples into fierce opponents not just of the European presence, but European civilization as well. Tunisian Jews, along with their fellow Jews in Algeria and Morocco, nevertheless benefited enormously from French rule. Wined and dined with the promise of French citizenship, the Jews of Tunisia quickly dropped Arabic for French, traditional Arab dress for French prêt-à-porter, and Arabic (and Hebrew) names for—you guessed it—French names.

As the winds of independence grew stronger, most Jews threw themselves behind the Neo-Destour, Bourguiba’s independence party. Their rationale was simple: Bourguiba’s republican convictions would allow Jews to truly flourish as citizens of the new Tunisia. To be sure, once independence was achieved, Bourguiba’s government strove to welcome Jews. Laws guaranteed their religious and civil liberties, government ministries were offered to them, and Bourguiba maintained a vigilant eye. But the blood-dimmed tide swelling in Algeria soon spilled across Tunisia’s border. In 1961, following rumors that Tunisian Jews had helped the French army, there occurred a number of anti-Semitic acts. In 1967, anti-Semitic demonstrations enveloped Tunis; crowds stormed into the Grand Synagogue, destroying hundred of books and burning the Torah. A long series of violent provocations and murderous acts, climaxing in the bombing of the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba in 2002, put paid to the historic relationship between Muslim and Jewish Tunisians.

Ever since 1956, wave upon wave of Jewish immigration has rolled across the Mediterranean to Israel or France. Those Jews left in Tunisia will soon, like the extremists welcoming Haniyeh, be counted on the fingers of one hand. Not surprisingly, the community is fearful. Its leader, Roger Bismuth, did not mince his words concerning events of the past week: “It is worse than unfortunate—it is catastrophic, especially for Tunisia, given the repercussions these actions might provoke in other countries.” No doubt, Bismuth had not forgotten a similar demonstration held last year, soon after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, when several dozen protesters outside the Grand Synagogue chanted anti-Semitic slogans.

Then as now, the religious and political authorities have distanced themselves from these demonstrations. Bismuth met with the head of the Tunisian government, Hamadi Jebali, and the leader of Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, who reassured him they had matters under control. Significantly, France’s National Council of Imams also reacted, declaring that the demonstrations “are opposed to the humanistic values of Islam and tarnish the image of the new Tunisia.”

The sincerity of these reactions cannot be doubted. But Tunisian Jews, including the “Tunes”—the nickname given to those who have emigrated to France and who continue to visit and vacation in Tunisia—nevertheless have occasion to wonder. After meeting with Tunisia’s political leaders, Bismuth observed both he and Ghannouchi “were troubled that among those who were shouting anti-Jewish slogans were Ennahdha members.” It may well prove that Tunisian Jewry will experience the same breakdowns under the new republican contract that they had known under the old dhimma contract. If so, the troubles will not end.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and is a contributor to The Occupy Handbook, to be published next month by Little, Brown.

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