Despite their fairly liberal treatment by the current regime, Tunisian Jews have generally felt vulnerable to the effects of Arab nationalism and the potential threat posed by militant Islamists. In recent years, however, the Islamist infrastructure within Tunisia has been limited by a harsh crackdown by the Tunisian authorities. Recent economic growth and political stability has also contributed to the security of Jews in Tunisia.

Demographic data

Total population: 9.25 million

Jewish population: 1,700, mainly in Tunis and the island of Djerba

Political data

Although the Tunisian constitution provides for a parliamentary democracy, decision-making at all levels is dominated by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and his party, the Rassemblement constitutionel démocratique (Constitutional Democratic Rally). Ben Ali replaced President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987 and, as sole candidate, was elected president in 1989 and re-elected unopposed in 1994. Electoral reform has enabled four opposition parties to gain limited parliamentary representation, but Islamist parties are restricted by a ban on all parties organized by race, religion or region.

Throughout 1997 and 1998 security-related issues have dominated both foreign and domestic affairs in Tunisia. Concern about the escalation of political violence in neighbouring Algeria led the government to maintain restrictions on the Islamist movement. Nonetheless, at the beginning of 1997, a number of political prisoners were released, including the leader of the Mouvement des démocrates socialistes (Democratic Socialist Movement), the largest non-Islamist opposition party.

Economic data

GDP 1997: c. US$2000

Inflation: 4.5 per cent

Unemployment: c. 16 per cent

In the early years of Islam, at least in certain periods, Jews were tolerated and even respected. By the nineteenth century most Jews lived in squalor in the sprawling ghettos of Tunisian cities. Conditions for the Jews of southern Tunisia and those on the island of Djerba were considerably better.

Tunisia was occupied by France in 1830 and a French protectorate was established in 1881. By and large the Jews benefitted from the French presence. The so-called 'fundamental pact' of 1857 gave equality under the law to non-Muslims, and other liberal measures were introduced even before the protectorate. During the Second World War the brief German occupation of Tunisia led to the establishment of forced-labour camps for thousands of Jews.

Following independence in 1956 the situation of Tunisian Jewry was tolerable, but anti-Jewish rioting broke out during the Six Day War in 1967, resulting in the destruction of several Jewish shops and damage to the Great Synagogue in Tunis. Despite the authorities' concern to allay the fears of the Jewish community, occasional attacks on Jews and Jewish property have recurred, including the destruction of two synagogues, in 1979 on Djerba and in 1983 in Zaris, near the Libyan border.

The small Christian minority in Tunisia consists mainly of foreigners who are permitted to operate a small number of schools and churches. Members of the Baha'i faith, regarded by the government as a heretical sect of Islam, are only permitted to worship in private.

Islamist groupings

Islamist parties are restricted by a ban on all parties organized by race, religion or region. Continuing concern about the escalation of political violence in neighbouring Algeria has led the government to maintain restrictions on the Islamist movement.

The founder and leader of the Islamist opposition movement, Hizb al-Nahda, (Renaissance Party), Rashid al-Ghannouchi, was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in 1993 after receiving a life sentence in absentia for plotting to assassinate the president. Nonetheless, al-Ghannouchi continues to exercise influence over the movement in Tunisia. He has claimed that Jews and Zionists are responsible for a worldwide campaign against Islam. Al-Nahda publishes a bi-monthly journal in London, launched in April 1994, called Tounis al-Shahida (Tunisia the Martyr).

Since 1982 the presence of the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Tunis (tolerated by the Tunisian government not least for economic reasons) has deterred Jewish visitors to Tunisia.

President Ben Ali has recently encouraged tourism among Tunisian-born Jews living elsewhere, including many rabbis who had emigrated to France or Israel, and has sought to promote business links through these visits. Tunisian-born Jews have, for example, been invited to make the pilgrimage to the island of Djerba. Indeed, despite the virtual freeze on contacts with Israel, the Tunisian authorities appear keen to attract Jewish visitors. In December 1997, for example, a full-page article in the semi-official English-language weekly Tunisian News described the visit to Tunisia of a mother and son, currently living in Israel, and referred to 'the traditional harmony between Muslims and Jews in Tunisia'. In addition, in recent years religious sites, such as the Ghriba of Le Kef and the grave of Rabbi Itzhak Lumbroso in Tunis, have been renovated.

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Institute for Jewish Policy Research

© JPR 1999