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History of Tunisian Jews

The first documented evidence of a Jewish presence in Tunisia dates back to the second century when a community existed in the Latin territory of Carthage under Roman rule. Latin Carthage contained a significant Jewish presence, and several sages mentioned in the Talmud lived in this area from the 2nd to the 4th centuries. During the Byzantine period, conditions began to deteriorate, and in 535, when Christianity became the official state religion, discriminatory measures were introduced which barred Jews from holding public office and prohibited Jewish religious practices. Many synagogues were converted into churches and the construction of new synagogues was forbidden. Large numbers of Jews migrated from the cities to live amongst the Berbers in the mountains and desert. With the Arab conquest of Tunisia in the 7th century, conditions improved despite the imposition of the Jizya head tax on Jewish and Christian citizens by the new Islamic rulers.

During the 19th century, with the advent of French rule, the community was gradually emancipated. However, beginning in November 1940, when the country was ruled by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy authorities, Jews were subject to new anti-Semitic laws. From November 1942 until May 1943, the country was occupied by German forces. During that time, the condition of the Jews deteriorated further. Many members of the community had their property seized and were deported to labor camps.

Life became more precarious for the Tunisian Jewry in 1956, when the country gained its independence and undertook a process of “Arabization.” The rabbinical courts were abolished in 1957, followed the next year by the dissolution of Jewish community councils. The Jewish quarter of Tunis was demolished by the government, which justified its actions by citing the need to engage in “urban development.” The World Jewish Congress played a critical diplomatic role during the 1950s and 1960s in enabling Tunisian Jews to emigrate to France, Israel and elsewhere.

Excerpt taken from JIMENA. Read more about Tunisian Jewish history here

Listen to Tunisian Jewish music here


Tunisian Jewish women and the "Stambali" trance dance


Jewish women also practiced the trace dance called “Stambali” which was a healing kinetic dance ceremony to repel the evil eye and rid themselves of djinns (demons). It is said that “the dance movements are powerful and wild...they look like the desperate movements of a person seeking help. The dancer is in ecstasy and the ecstasy produces the movements”. Some dancers went so deep into their trance dance they lost their sense of pain and memory and have explained it as feeling as if their soul left their body and is operated only by the music and the demon.

Here is a quote from a Stambali participants in Israel:

"Every person has a little secret, some emotional trouble . . . in our community we don’t talk about such things . . .so when I am not well, I let it out during Stambali . . . I leave the band; I mix with the dancers. My thoughts become the movements of the dance. I dance so hard until this energy leaves me . . . I can’t tell if it’s me or the demon . . . [Chanter]"

Read more on "Stambali: Dissociative Possession and Trance in Tunisian Healing Dance" by Eli Somer here.

Tunisian Jewish Music and Dance

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