Tunisia has been in the news lately because of the recent popular uprising that led to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The 1500-member Jewish community there, concentrated in the capital city of Tunis and the island of Djerba, has experienced anxiety about the implications of the country’s instability for the group’s safety. A few Tunisian Jews have already begun to make the move to Israel. And as these changes occur, one Tunisian immigrant watches with particular interest.
For Biya, the interest is personal more than political. Many of her relatives remain in Tunisia, and she hopes that some of them will join her and make aliyah in Israel. Her own story of immigration is more than fifty years old. For her interview, her oldest daughter accompanies her, as she feels more comfortable letting her speak for her. Over the next hour, we all piece together a story that began in Djerba and ended in moshav Gilat in the Northern Negev desert.
To understand Biya’s story, one must go back to 1956, when Tunisia became independent. At that time, many of the remaining Tunisian Jews became almost obsessed with the idea of having their own Jewish state. This desire let to their eventual decision to immigrate to Israel. Biya recalls that she and her husband, now deceased, were not in agreement on the move. She preferred to stay in the familiar and beautiful environs of Djerba, where she lived near a grove of figs and could hear the ocean from her courtyard. But her husband insisted that the family make the move, and once they did, Biya says she tried not to look back. Tunisian’s strong patriarchal system made resistance an unlikely option for her, Biya’s daughter explains.
When the family of four arrived in Israel, they were settled at moshav Gilat, a primarily agricultural community with a large number of Tunisian immigrants who made the same journey in the late 1950s. Biya socializes with other ‘ajawez, the “old people” of the community, and they often reminisce about the early disappointments of their immigration, when they left all they had ever known as home and found themselves in a literal tent community, not even knowing where they were being taken at the time.
Years ago, Biya says, she made her peace with the move. Her two youngest children were born here, and she has put down both family and community roots in her adopted country and Jewish homeland.
The Jews of Tunisia
Before the recent unrest, Jews in Tunisia had led a relatively peaceful existence for decades. Home to Jews since antiquity, this North African country was home to over 100,000 Jews in the early decades of the twentieth century. After this time, the Jewish population declined steadily, and is now reduced almost one hundred-fold.
As their numbers decreased, so did the remaining Jewish institutions. Biya remembers a time of greater cultural integration, but today there is not even one Jewish school in the country. The center of Jewish observance is focused around the La Ghriba Synagogue, site of an annual pilgrimage by thousands of Sephardic Jews in the region.
Today’s Tunisia is almost completely Muslim, but both communities have prided themselves upon their peaceful co-existence for decades, so it remains to be seen how the recent political changes will impact these relationships.
Tunisian Jews in Israel
The degree to which Tunisian immigrants have made the adjustment to living in Israel seems to be both generational and gender-related. As Biya’s daughter points out, older Tunisian women in particular have found the transition to be difficult. They were taught not to speak out publicly, and they have therefore been less likely to express concerns or seek relief for difficulties. Most of these women have learned little if any Hebrew, and tend to live more isolated lives than later generations who have made the transition.
For Biya today, she hopes to see her few remaining relatives in Tunisia join her here. When asked if she misses Tunisia, she smiles shyly and answers in a soft voice: “Always. But I love Israel. I’m a proud Jewish woman, a happy mother. I will die here with my people.”