The recent upheaval in northern Africa, which has toppled the long-ruling governments in Tunisia and Egypt, have focused attention on those Arab countries — and on their dwindling Jewish communities, usually less known in the United States than European Jewry.
In recent months a synagogue in Tunisia was burned, part of a larger wave of arson. The president of Tunisia’s Jewish community last week told The Jerusalem Post that Tunisian Jews feel safe under the new government. “There’s been nothing against the Jews,” Roger Bismuth said, “but the fear does exist that someone might take advantage of it.”
The Jewish Week discussed this subject with Tunisian-born Sarah Taieb-Carlen, author of “The Jews of North Africa: From Dido to de Gaulle” (University Press of America).
Q: Hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in the Arab lands of north Africa in the middle of the last century. Most left, fled, when Israel was created. How many Jews are left in these countries now, and what type of life do they lead?
A: In Morocco, 8,000 to 10,000 Jews. In Algeria, none. Tunisia: 3,000 to 4,000. In Libya, none. In Egypt, less than 100. In Lebanon maybe 30. In Iraq, maybe 40. In Syria, none. In Yemen, less than 200. In general, they feel they should be as inconspicuous as possible.
In the streets, men do not wear a kipah and women dress very modestly. In quiet times, life is normal and Jews go through their daily routine like everyone else. Apart from the synagogue, there is no Jewish institution: no Jewish school, no Jewish social club, no Jewish community center. Socializing usually takes place among family or friends, most often Jewish friends.
Are conditions becoming more precarious for them now because of the recent social unrest and political revolutions?
Life is definitely more precarious for Jews in these countries. As described in the “The Jews of North Africa,” under Muslim rule, Jews were dhimmis: “protected” citizens without rights. Nowadays, any social or political unrest, any economic crisis is a good pretext for the Muslim masses – and sometimes the ruler as well – to attack the Jews. In Libya, since there are no Jews left, the Muslims desecrated graves in Jewish cemeteries.
The story of the Jewish refugees who came from Nazi Europe after World War II is well known. Why is the experience of the Jews from the Arab lands not known as well?
Maybe it is due to the magnitude of the unspeakable catastrophe which befell European Jews, or to the fact that the Israeli establishment was and still is composed mostly of Jews of European descent who naturally identify more with their European ancestors than with those Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Also this story of the Jews from Arab lands could be poorly known because of the resignation of this group who didn’t complain much and were resigned to their fate as refugees.
Is the Golden-Age stereotype of Jews living in peace with their Arab neighbors largely true or an exaggeration?
I will quote the famous Tunisian Jewish author, Albert Memmi: “The supposedly ‘idyllic’ life led by the Jews in Arab countries is all a myth … If we leave out the crematoria and the murders committed in Europe …. the sum total of the Jewish victims of the Christian world is probably no greater than the total number of victims of the successive pogroms, both big and small, perpetrated in the Moslem countries.” The famous Islamist, Bernard Lewis, wrote: “The golden age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam. The myth was invented by Jews in 19th century Europe as a reproach to Christians, and taken up by Moslems in our own time as a reproach to Jews.”
How much did the Jews of the Northern African countries contribute over the years to their homelands and to their new homeland in Israel?
The Jews have lived in North Africa since the ninth century BCE and they have contributed greatly to their homelands in all domains: literature, medicine, trade, politics, science, and crafts. After an initially difficult period of integration in Israel, today they have found their place in the Israeli society like all other groups.
In Israel, are they nostalgic about their homelands of Africa? Do they ever express a desire to go back for a visit?
Yes, most of them are quite nostalgic about their homeland, and many do go and visit, although many others would never do it. What is certain is that most of their children, who were not born or raised in North Africa, are not at all interested in visiting their parents’ native land.
Is there any future for the Jews of North Africa?
In North Africa, there is no future for the Jews.