A strong Jewish community existed in the Medina of Tunis since the 13th century. Known as the Hara, Tunisian Jews inhabited similar buildings to the rest of the medina, with low and white edifices in small, serpentine shaped streets.
As opposed to many Jewish communities in the Arab world, which had little choice but to live on the outskirts of the city, the Hara was situated within the city walls; at what is now El-Hafsia. While some say the Jewish quarters to the lower points of the old city were chaotic and unclean, many others dispute the veracity of this statement.
Even the reason for the separation of the two communities is unclear. Official documents of the time suggest the Jews were forced, or pressured to live in the Hara. However, other sources show the Jewish community cohabited with many others prior to that time, making important contributions to the cultural and economic life of the capital.
The Hara helped shape Tunis’s multi-cultural past and present identity. The history of Jews in Tunisia dates back to the ancient Carthaginian Empire from the 7th to the 3rd century BC. Later, after the country fell to the influence of Islam after the 7th century AD, tolerance towards Jews varied; from alliances, to vindication, marginalization and persecution.
Tunisian Jews welcomed the French colonials in the 19th century, as their values of liberty, equality and fraternity gave them hope for a better life. During that time, much of the Hara took advantage of the opportunity provided by the protectorate to move to France, leading to their gradual disappearance from the medina.
Moreover, development grants extended to Tunis’ Jewish community by the French Protectorate resulted in the destruction of much of the original Hara, with what was remaining later turned into residential housing following independence.
After the Holocaust, many of the Tunisian Jews living in France moved to Israel. After the 2011 revolution in Tunisia tensions against Jews increased, leading many of the remaining Tunisian Jews residing in Djerba and Tunis to move to the newly founded country of Israel. The newly elected Ennahda Islamist party attempted to reassure the Jewish population they had no need to worry about life in a democratic Tunisia.
The remnants of the Hara testify to the Jewish presence in Tunisia. They are worth visiting for whoever wishes to understand the historical heritage of the old city, as well as the experience and contribution of one of the country’s oldest populations.