The Ultimate Ghetto

The Last Arab Jews: The Communities of Jerba, Tunisia

by Abraham L. Udovitch and Lucette Valensi
Harwood Academic Publishers, 178 pp., $36.00

At the close of World War II there were about a half-million Jews living in North Africa; today there are about 20,000, and those are submerged, partially and uneasily, in the anonymizing mercantilism of the largest cities. (Of Morocco’s perhaps 15,000, more than half are in Casablanca, and virtually all of the rest in Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes, Fès, and Tangier; of Tunisia’s 3,500 or so, about two-thirds are in Tunis.) Where once there were scores of integral Jewish communities long in place, socially self-enclosed, and culturally self-regulating, only two remain: Hara Kebira, “The Big Village” (pop. 804), and Hara Sghira, “The Little Village” (pop. 280), on the small offshore island of Jerba in southern Tunisia, fifty miles from the Libyan border.

The Last Arab Jews is an anthropological portrait of these two communities based on fieldwork carried out in them during 1978, 1979, and 1980. The researchers are, however, not anthropologists, but historians, one Canadian-born American, one Tunisian-born French, one an economic historian, one a social historian, one a medievalist, one a modernist, and, what is perhaps particularly important in this part of the world, one a man and one a woman. Between them they provide a brief but vivid overview of all the major aspects of local life—economic, political, religious, familial—and set it against the background of a long, half-mythicized past and the prospect of a short, dissolving future. Written in dispassionate, even subdued, tones, with the summary empiricism of the ethnographer, it is nevertheless a moving account, if only because these last of the last are quite probably just that, the concluding phase—“no more forever,” as an earlier account of the final days of an Algerian settlement was entitled—of an ancient and, for all its vicissitudes, extraordinary civilization.* There were 4,000 Jerban Jews at the end of the war; had they grown at the rate of the general Tunisian population they would now be 15,000, not 1,000. “The Jerban communities are amputated and their ability to reproduce themselves as a collective unit is in serious question. Outside Jerba…it might not [I would say, certainly would not] be possible at all.”

In the eyes of the Jerban Jews, their island within an island (more than 80,000 Muslims—Ibadis, Malikis, Hanafis—live variously around them) is a sort of diaspora Holy Land, “the antechamber,” as they put it, “of Jerusalem.” The main synagogue, called “The Marvelous,” and long a major pilgrimage site for North African Jews, is considered to date from the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC. Kohanim (priests), fleeing there from the disaster, carried with them (so it is said) a door and some stones from the ruined sanctuary which they incorporated into the new structure, making it something more than an ordinary synagogue, if not quite yet a true temple. (Until recently, The Little Village, where the Marvelous Synagogue—it is only one of no fewer than seventeen in the two settlements—is located, was apparently inhabited exclusively by Kohanim.)

A metal wire, rather like a clothesline,…

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