The island of Djerba off the Tunisian coast has been placed on the U.N.’s World Heritage List, as NAD reported on 22.9.23. It is said to be the island of lotus-eaters on which Odysseus was stranded during his long voyage. Visitors already flock to this picturesque island, with its white-washed villages and cultural sights.
Believe it or not, this is of interest to Jews! In its appeal to the U.N., the island authorities cited the long oral history of continued and partly discriminatory Jewish life on the island over 2,500 years. Djerba is believed to have been one of the first, if not the very first, Jewish settlements in Africa. At one time, it was indeed a Jewish island.
Many Jews bear the surname Cohen. The first Jewish settlement is said to have taken place at the time of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. According to legend, the construction of the famed El Ghriba Synagogue goes back to the escape from the temple by the Cohanim, the High Priests. They carried a door and stones of the destroyed temple with them, which were later incorporated into the synagogue. The synagogue thus links the diaspora to the “sole sanctuary of Judaism.”
Today, the local Jews still wear traditional dress, including a black band, to signify the Temple destruction. This signifies the destruction of the temple. The island is home to 1,300 Jews among its 164,000 Arab Muslims, spread over three villages, with 14 synagogues, 2 yeshivots (Hebrew schools), and 3 kosher restaurants, according to Wikipedia.
The annual pilgrimage to the site of El Gheba is also a tourist attraction. Legend has it that after the death of a young girl who had lived as an outcast, Jews found her uncorrupted body and buried her in a nearby cave. Each year on Lag BaOmer, between Passover (celebrating the exodus from Egypt) and Shavuot (marking the gift of the Torah), this is the site of the pilgrimage. Lag BaOmer celebrates Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who first taught the Kabbalah during the second century of the Common Era and spreads love and respect for each other.
Djerba’s Jews had suffered three severe persecutions: in the 12th century under the Almohads, in 1519 under the Spanish, and in 1943 under the Nazis. In 1949, at the creation of the State of Israel, many Jews were expelled from Tunisia. According to anti-Jewish decrees, the destruction of synagogues, cemeteries, and quarters led to the en masse exodus of more than 40,000 Tunisian Jews between 1956 and 1967. The Tunisian diaspora is based mainly in Israel and France.
Despite the complex history, relations between the communities are said to be respectful, though not very close. Following the Arab Spring, the government extended its protection and encouraged Jewish life on the island of Djerba.