The Jews of Tunisia During World War II
Although there were some indications of a cause for concern during the 1930s, the general impression is that nothing truly foreshadowed what the Jews of Tunisia were to undergo throughout the years 1939-1945. During the 1930s Tunisian Jews faced anti-Semitism from the French Right and from Italian Fascism, particularly following the Italian Manifesto of Race of November 1938. Moreover, Tunisian Jews were aware of the conditions facing European Jews, the Nazi rise to power in Germany, and the aggressive domestic and foreign policies of the Nazis. For this reason they participated in the boycott of German products. Additionally, developments in the Land of Israel affected and overshadowed Jewish-Muslim relations.
With the outbreak of World War II, Tunisian Jews holding French citizenship were drafted while others volunteered for the Foreign Legion out of readiness to support France and contribute to a victory of the Allies. Reality, however, soon slapped them in the face. The defeat of France and the establishment of the Vichy government in France in June 1940 brought painful news. Beginning in October 1940, various anti-Semitic edicts were published, with the principal aim of excluding Jews from any contact with French society and returning the Jews to the legal status and citizenship rank they had held prior to the French conquest of Tunisia in 1881.
The first edict rescinded the Jews’ French citizenship and expelled them from various occupations that entailed contact with the French. Consequently, employees of the colonial administration, physicians, bankers, pharmacists, journalists, teachers, hospital nurses, and others were forced to abandon the employment through which they had contributed rather significantly to the flourishing of French culture. The edict was not uniformly implemented because in the case of certain occupations, such as physicians, expulsion of the Jews might have undermined public health given the extremely salient and substantive function that Jews served. Another edict limited the number of Jews in the French educational system through the method known as “Numerus Clausus.” The number of Jews was limited to 7% of all students in the French educational system. Fortunately for the Jewish students, the educational program Alliance Israélite Universelle operated in Tunisia and was able to absorb all the students and prevent interruptions to their studies. Yet another edict dealt with the Jewish census and registration of their property, with the intention of nationalizing it.
As if this were not enough, Tunisia was also the only country in the Muslim world that experienced occupation and war on its own soil as well as the direct rule of Germany and SS officers. After American forces landed in November 1942 under Operation Torch, and following the German defeat in El Alamein in the same month, the Germans decided to take over Tunisia by military force in order to prevent the Allies from defeating the German and Italian forces. Thus, on November 22 the Germans began to assert control over Tunisia, and they continued to rule it for six months. A bloody war between the Allies and the Germans took place on Tunisian soil. The Germans, concerned about their conditions and logistical problems, used any resources they could confiscate from the Jewish community. In addition to the confiscated property it supplied, the Jewish community was obligated to provide human resources for forced labor in support of the Germans. More than 20 labor camps that imprisoned young Jews were established in Tunisia. In addition, Jews were subjected to heavy fines. The Jewish community organized itself in order to deal with the German demands while simultaneously addressing the needs of the Jewish population during this very difficult time, possiblythe most difficult period of the modern era for the Jews of Tunisia.
The course of the war eventually led to the end of German occupation in May 1943. The Jewish community and Jewish leadership began to remedy the damage caused during this period. The Jewish youth, however, understood that its future in Tunisia was shrouded in a fog of uncertainty and it organized itself through proactive Zionist youth movements. From this point forward the illegal immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel also became a focus of activity. There is no doubt that the period of World War II was a turning point in the lives of the Jews of this country.