The Last Jews Of Tunisia

The future of one of the Arab world's oldest and last remaining Jewish communities is under threat, and it's not because of Islamic State militants.

Djerba, Tunisia --Cracked tombstones litter the perimeter of the cemetery behind the Great Synagogue that anchors this tiny Tunisian Jewish community, but it was not vandals who broke them.

Hundreds of Jews who moved away over the past five decades have taken their relatives' remains with them, leaving only these slabs of Hebrew-inscribed marble behind.

"There are bones that are 80, 90 years old. When you lift them up, they can break," said Yossif Sabbagh. The 42-year-old local helps exhume about a dozen bodies each year for transport to Israel, where the majority of Tunisian-born Jews have moved, and where they want their ancestors to move, too.

The flight of the dead seems to portend a bleak future for the Jews of Djerba, who trace arrival on this island to more than two millennia ago, after the sacking of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. More Jews arrived after the Spanish Inquisition and from Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.

They were once the traditional, observant branch of a vibrant Jewish community that numbered 100,000 across Tunisia. But the 1,100 Jews in Djerba are nearly all that are left after most others fled persecution between the 1940s and '60s.

Those who remained have been rewarded with new growth thanks in part to an emphasis on large families and patriarchal values. But the community now faces another challenge: Jewish women chafe at their restrictions and men suffer from the battered Tunisian economy. Moving to Israel, where as Jews they are entitled to automatic citizenship, could resolve both issues but could also bring an end to one of the last Jewish societies in the Arab world.

Point Of Pride

In late May, crowds filled the ornate white-and-blue tiled Ghriba synagogue in Hara Sghira, the smaller of two Jewish enclaves in Djerba, as part of the annual pilgrimage that has long attracted outsiders to the island.

Pilgrims lit candles in the sanctuary and placed eggs covered with handwritten wishes in a cave dug into the synagogue's floor. Across a cobbled street, revelers sang songs, ate couscous with fish, and drank fig brandy and beer in a sunny courtyard strung with red Tunisian flags.

The event marking the Lag BaOmer feast, which honors the second-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was clearly a point of Tunisian pride.

The annual pilgrimage to Djerba -- a colorful celebration of good life, excellent food, and a fertile future.

The event had been cancelled in 2011 amid the tumult of the Tunisian revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a protector of the country's Jewish population.

It was restored under the country's current government, which prizes the community as a symbol of stability. But three major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015, along with an infiltration by the extremist group Islamic State just an hour’s drive south of Djerba, raised security concerns and harmed tourism.

Participants and observers at this year's event appeared unfazed, however.

On the first day of the pilgrimage, Abdelfattah Mourou, deputy speaker of parliament and vice president of the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, embraced Tunisia's chief rabbi and Djerba resident, Haim Bittan, outside the Ghriba synagogue.

"Tunisia protects its Jews," Mourou said. "What leads to radicalism is having only one culture. Having many cultures allows us to accept one another."

Sense Of Security

Visitors to the pilgrimage walked through a metal detector and passed checkpoints overseen by special forces and a military truck mounted with a heavy automatic weapon. A helicopter patrolled from above. Security has been tight since a 2002 truck bombing killed 21 people, mostly tourists, at the synagogue.

This didn't prevent the Israeli government, in the weeks before the Ghriba festival, from issuing a travel advisory admonishing its citizens to avoid Tunisia, however.

Perez Trabelsi, the 74-year-old president of the Ghriba festival, says Israel has issued the same warning each year since the revolution.

"There's really no danger," he said. "We have the freedom to leave but we are not going anywhere."

Still, Trabelsi moved his father's grave to Israel three years ago. His six children live in Paris. Since the Tunisian revolution about 30 Jews have left Djerba, Rabbi Bittan said, and many more are considering moving to Israel -- but not because of fear.

A Cornerstone In Jerusalem

The Ghriba synagogue is built over foundations that locals say include stone from the sacked First Temple. In many ways, Jerusalem remains a cornerstone in the minds of Djerba's Jews.

Shiran Trabelsi, 23, teaches fourth grade in Hara Kebira, the larger of the two Jewish enclaves. She remembers visiting her grandparents in the Israeli seaside city of Ashkelon in 2006.

Most members of Tunisia's Jewish community are located in two neighborhoods on Djerba island. (Mapbox)

"I was in a different world," she said. "Over there there's trees and everything is blossoming and green and clean. When I got back here, I felt like there's no color in the city."

Trabelsi said the Jews of Djerba should move to Israel en masse -- although she conceded she would not move without her parents or a future husband.

Rabbi Bittan says that women should only work within the community, an injunction intended to reduce their exposure to the outside world. This rule restricts them to teaching, childcare, cutting hair, and tailoring clothes.

Kindergarten teacher Yiska Mamou, 24, said she studied economics in public school but, like most Jews in Djerba, did not go on to higher education. She, too, wants to move to Israel, because after work "there's nothing to do here but go home and clean."

It's a lament echoed by many young Jewish women, whose presence is key to the community's survival -- it is growing, thanks to at least 30 births a year -- but who pine for Israel's relative openness.

Young men, too, dream of moving, but with an eye on economic security.

Economy Inspires Emigration

Like many Jewish men in Djerba, Yoni Haddad is involved in the jewelry trade. The community is known for its silver filigree and elaborate, gold-plated wedding headdresses and necklaces that are popular with Muslim brides. It is a craft that has been handed down from generation to generation.

But on a recent visit, only a few Russian-speaking visitors walked the modest market in Houmt Souk, a working-class city that dwarfs nearby Hara Kebira.

Jewish and Muslim shopkeepers alike have suffered heavy losses as tourists abandoned Tunisia for fear of security after IS-affiliated gunmen attacked a beach hotel in Sousse to the north in the summer of 2015, killing 38 people, mostly British tourists.

Haddad said he has relatives in Jerusalem, but is hesitant to leave his house and business in Djerba. Should business get bad enough, however, he would consider relocating -- "of course, to Israel. It's the last stop."

Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes immigration to Israel, said "there is very little future for any Jewish community in any Arab country unless things change dramatically. Even if they are tolerated, I don't believe they have a real future there."

He noted that the Jewish community in Morocco -- the only one in the Arab world that is larger than Tunisia's -- is mostly elderly; the Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian communities have dwindled to a few dozen; and Jews are gone entirely from Libya and Algeria.

For now, Djerba's Jews are grooming their young for a split identity.

Home In Two Places

On a Thursday afternoon, Elinor Haddad, 16, mopped the kitchen of her family home in preparation for the weekend. Her older brother had returned the day before from a sponsored trip to Israel, and Elinor wore a bracelet he brought back. She would not be making the same trip, she said, because Rabbi Bittan ruled against girls traveling alone. But Israel has come to her.

To avoid assimilation into Tunisian society, Haddad's girls-only high school teaches an Israeli curriculum. Haddad speaks fluent Hebrew along with Arabic. Israeli mores have seeped into home life as well. Friday night dinner at Haddad's house would be the traditional Tunisian Jewish meal of couscous, but Thursday's lunch was chicken schnitzel -- a common Israeli meal, imported by European Jewish immigrants.

On Thursday night, Elinor giggled with friends in the Ghriba synagogue's anteroom while pilgrims passed by. Ordinarily, Elinor said, she sits with friends behind closed doors. The pilgrimage is a chance to see and be seen, she said.

"If I had the opportunity to move to Israel I would go," Haddad said. "But it's ok here too."

At the cemetery, Yossif Sabbagh said he had also considered moving to Israel, but hesitated because of the higher cost of living. When his father died, Sabbagh and his siblings flew the body to Israel and buried him in Jerusalem.

But for the older tombs, he said, "I think the bones should stay in their graves."


Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist reporting from the Middle East. She has reported on the Middle East for the Associated Press, Public Radio International, and McClatchy Newspapers.

Heidi Levine is an award-winning American photojournalist covering the Middle East. Levine started her career as a professional photojournalist with the Associated Press and is currently represented by the French Photo agency Sipa Press.