The Jews of Djerba

The Jewish community dates its arrival in Djerba either from 586 BC, following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, or from the Roman sacking of the same city in AD 70; either way this makes it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Some historians argue that many Djerban Jews are descended from Berbers who converted to Judaism. Over the centuries the community also received several influxes of Jews fleeing from persecution in Europe and elsewhere.

In the 19th century, Jews in Djerba were required to wear distinctive clothes: black pantaloons, a black skullcap and sleeveless blue shirts. Discrimination ended with the arrival of the French in 1881. The community was known for being staunchly traditional, and it rejected financial and educational aid from the rest of the Jewish world. Communities of Djerban Jews settled all over southern Tunisia, usually working as blacksmiths and famed for their jewellery, but returned to the island for the summer and for religious festivals.

Most Djerban Jews emigrated to Israel after the 1956 and 1967 Arab–Israeli wars; after centuries of relative peace, the clash between Arab and Israeli nationalism made their position untenable across North Africa. The community also suffered during WWII, when the Germans extorted 50kg of gold as a communal fine.

The Jewish community on Djerba now numbers less than 1000. Most live in the villages of Erriadh (aka Hara Sghira) and Hara Kbira. The community’s survival on Djerba was called into question in April 2002, when a truck bomb exploded at El Ghriba synagogue, killing 19 people in an event locals call ‘Le Catastrophe’. Muslim and Jewish locals are quick to point out that the two communities have lived in harmony alongside one another for generations, and blame the bombing on external elements.