Sunday, May 29, 2016

Jews of Tunisia

Nadene Goldfoot                                               
Tunisian synagogue in Ghriba.  Today, Marcia Fine, author, said, "This is one
 of the places  (Tunisia) where Jews and Muslims live together in harmony. .
They work together, their children play together, they accept the other's traditions.
 Yes, it can work if people remain calm and caring."

Carthage was first a settlement founded by the Phoenicians in North Africa, directly across the sea from Italy.  It probably was the biblical Tarshish.  Tarsus, a town, was in Cilicia to the north of which were situated large forests and copper mines in biblical days.  Possibly, the ships of Tarshish were made there.  Some scholars maintain that the ships of Tarshish refer to vessels traveling to the Phoenician colonies in Sardinia and Spain.                                            
Carthage-notice the amp hi-theaterCarthage, today is a seaside suburb of Tunisia’s capital, Tunis
 Jews were first mentioned here about in 200 CE, but by then were already long-established.  There was a Jewish cemetery in Carthage from the Roman period which had 3,000 Jewish tombs.  Jewish proselytization was "apparently active in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The city started as one of a number of Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean that were created to facilitate trade from the city of Tyre on the coast of what is now Lebanon. 
 Justinian, the Byzantine emperor from 527-565 who was so intolerant towards religious minorities and brought about a thoroughgoing anti-Jewish policy,  brought on a conquest in 535 and so the Jewish community declined due to persecution by him. Jews were not allowed to serve in civil or military posts, to own Christian slaves, to give evidence against Christians, or to celebrate Passover at the same time as Easter.  In 553, he issued an edict regulating the synagogue service and forbidding the DEUTEROSIS, the rabbinic expositions.  Justinian didn't allow the rabbinic interpretation mentioned in the synagogue.  This would have been anything under the title of Targum, Mishnah or Midrash, and probably any rabbinic exposition.  In Africa, he outlawed synagogues in 535 and forcibly converted the Jews of Borion.
Samaritans living in Israel now-and their Judaism is more of a basic form of ours today.
 There was an unsuccessful revolt by the Samaritans (the Talmud called them the Kutim, people with their capital at Samaria, originally calling themselves Bene Yisrael or Shomerim-the keepers of the Law, descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh with an admixture of non-Israelite colonists) and Jews against his rule in Caesarea in 556.   There were many scholars mentioned in the Talmud from Carthage.  Now this area is part of Tunisia.

The city of Kairouan was the greatest center of rabbinic scholarship in the west.  The position deteriorated under the Almohades when many Jews accepted Islam in the 12th century.  These were Moslem sectaries who rose in north Africa and conquered southern Spain in 1149-1174.  In both areas they compelled all non-Moslems to become converted.  Though north African Jewry ultimately recovered from the blow, in Spain it brought final disaster to the communities living under Moslem rule, who embraced Islam or fled to Christian Spain.  Thus, today,  the descendants who are still Muslim could find Sepharic Jewish  DNA in their tests.  Of course, the Spanish Inquisition occurred in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism under penalty of death if they remained in Spain, so many didn't stay.  Many moved next door to Portugal.  .

.  Spanish refugees who settled in Tunisia were different in their customs and way of life from the native Tunisian Jews and founded separate communities.  The 2 groups merged later.

When Tunisia was under Spanish rule from 1535 to 1574, many Jews died or were sold into slavery.  The discriminatory legislation was lifted a little during the 19th century.  Tunisia passed under French protection in 1881, and its Jews were permitted to have French citizenship since 1910.

The community suffered from Vichy laws and the German occupation during World War II.  The members of the Bet Din curt in Tunis are appointed by the bey and their decisions are executed by the authorities.  The Great Council of Tunisia has 3 Jewish representatives.

There were 67,000 Jews in Tunisia in 1959 with 55,000 living in the town of Tunis.  Most of the Jews are merchants, storekeepers, and office workers, but by 1990, the total for the country had dropped to 2,500. as a result of emigration to France and Israel.
Tunisian Jewish lady praying in oldest synagogue-Ghriba 2015
She really looks like my Ashkenazic grandmother.  
Jews on the Tunisian island of Djerba (Jerba) (an island off the coast of Tunisia) trace their roots all the way back to Babylonian exile of 586 B.C., and still pray at Africa's oldest synagogue.  The Jews were saved in 1943 from extermination at the hands of the Nazis by paying a gold ransom.  Most of its Jews left for Israel in 1949.  Less than 1,000 remained by 1990, mostly pious and some deeply learned.  The ancient synagogue in the former place is a renowned center of pilgrimage and the subject of many legends.  

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
facebook: author, Marcia Fine

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