The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times

By Reeva Spector Simon; Michael Menachem Laskier et al. | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER
24
Tunisia

HAIM SAADOUN

The smallest country in North Africa, Tunisia is bordered by Algeria on the west, the Mediterranean on the north and east, and Libya on the southeast. It includes the Kerkenna Islands off the east coast and the island of Djerba in the southeast. The north and the Sahel are the most urbanized and most densely populated regions of the country. Tunis is the largest city, a port, and the national capital. Other important cities include Sfax, Kairouan, Sousse, Djerba, and Bizerte. Tunisia's ethnic population base is a mix of Sunni Muslim Arab-Berber or Arabized Berber, who speak Arabic. A few Berber speakers remain in isolated regions of the south; Berbers were the indigenous North African people of the country. A Jewish minority exists, consisting of the Touansa (Jews who settled in Tunisia long before the seventh-century Islamic conquest) and emigres from Livorno (Italy) in the late 1600s and early 1700s. In the early 1950s Jews numbered about 100,000 in a population of three million that included more than 250,000 European setders.

Tunisia was ruled by the Romans and Byzantines in the pre-Islamic period. Since the seventh-century Islamic conquest, the area has been ruled by various Arab-Berber dynasties. Although Tunisia became an Ottoman province in the sixteenth century, in effect, it was autonomous under the Husaynid dynasty. This dynasty, consisting of Mamluk and Turkish officials known as beys, controlled Tunisia beginning in 1705 and pledged allegiance to the Ottoman sultan. The Husaynids became an integral part of Tunisian society through intermarriage and acculturation.

In 1881 the French protectorate was imposed on Tunisia, ending any Ottoman controls; it lasted until 1956. The country became dominated by French colonial forces that functioned alongside the surviving the Husaynid

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