Tunisian Jewry can point to a uniquely rich heritage. Traditions passed down through generations of Tunisian Jews recount that the first Jewish settlers came to Tunis in the 9th century BCE, arriving in war-galleys built and sailed by seafarers from Phoenicia / Lebanon.
The 8th century CE ushered in the golden age of Tunisian Jewry, in which the yeshiva of the city of Kairouan became a center of Jewish law and legal rulings for the entire Jewish world. This yeshiva was led by some of the greatest luminaries of Jewish law and its interpretation, such as the Rif, Nagid Hagolah, Rabbeinu Hananel, Rabbi Yakov ben Nissim, and others. Tunisian Jewry’s golden age extended into the 11th century, when this Jewish community began to fade away. The Spanish expellees would restore glory to Tunisian Jews, bringing with them a new age of economic enterprise and prosperity.
The law offices of Cohen, Decker, Pex & Brosh can assist the descendants of Tunisian Jews to obtain Portuguese citizenship. Jews of Tunisian descent have a Sephardic background. They are eligible to receive a letter of certification from the Portuguese Jewish community. This certificate will then entitle them to receive Portuguese citizenship, thus granting them a European passport.
Spanish Expellee Communities in Tunis
Spanish Jewish expellees first began to flock to Tunisian shores in 1391, at the height of the pogroms carried out that year in southern Spain. In 1492, during the Great Expulsion, multitudes of Spanish expellees arrived in Tunis. The Jewish immigrants settled primarily in the coastal cities of Tunis, Bizerte, Djerba, Sousse, and Sfax. The expellee communities made themselves at home immediately, thanks to their intellectual talents and high social standing. Spanish Jews served in prestigious positions as diplomats, interpreters, agents, doctors, and more. The Sephardic spiritual leadership in these cities rested on the shoulders of the renowned Spanish expellees in Algeria such as Rabbi Yitzhak Bar Sheshet and members of the Doran family.
The expellees maintained their social status with their arrival in Tunis, and the local rulers continued to treat them as Dhimmi (a special status defined for non-Islamic subjects of other monotheistic religions – primarily Jews and Christians). They wore clothing of a specified color, marked with a badge to distinguish them from the ruling population. The Jewish quarter (“Harat Al Yahud” in Arabic) in each city was headed by community elders appointed from among the wealthy, respected families, under the overall authority of the “ruler of the Jews”.
The scholars of Tunisian-Sephardi Jewry
The expellee communities in Tunis were comprised of Spanish, Portuguese, and Sicilian Jews, including such luminaries as Rabbi Abraham ibn Bukrat; Rabbi Moses Alashkar (who was kidnapped on his way to Tunis but ransomed by the Jews of Tunis and saved from a bitter fate at the hands of pirates); and Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, who spent a period of his life in Tunis, where he penned his important work “Sefer Hayuchusin”, which details the history of the Jewish people from the creation of the world to the author’s day (about 1500). At the end of his life Zacuto settled in Jerusalem.
Tunisian Jewry under Spanish rule
In 1535, the Spanish Empire conquered a number of cities along the Tunisian coast. These included the main Jewish population centers, including Sousse, Sfax, Bizerte, La Goulette. Immediately, the Jews’ status deteriorated. The Spanish kidnapped some members of the Jewish communities and sold them into slavery in various Christian countries. The remaining Jewish communities were forced out, most choosing to emigrate to other Eastern countries, such as Livorno, Italy. A few chose to flee to the interior of Tunis, where Spanish rule had not penetrated. During the 40 years in which Spain ruled Tunis’ coastal cities, the coastal Jewish communities thinned out to the point where they almost disappeared entirely.
The conquest of Tunis by the Ottomans in 1574 opened a new chapter in the history of Tunis’ Jews. Their economic conditions improved, and they earned a name as successful merchants throughout the Mediterranean. Maritime trade with Italy flourished, and Tunis witnessed the return of Spanish Jews who had fled to Livorno during the Spanish occupation. When they returned, however, they did not assimilate into the existing Jewish communities. They saw themselves as Italian-Sephardic Jews, and called themselves the “Grana” communities. The Grana communities held themselves apart from other Tunisian Jews, creating their own quarters of the city and establishing separate communal institutions and synagogues. Feelings of superiority and identification with their brethren in Italy prevented the Grana communities from “mixing” with the local “Tuansa” communities; this split would continue into the 20th century.
Articles about Spanish Jewish expellees around the world
The following is a list of informative research articles on Spanish expellee communities and their lives in various countries. These articles will help you clarify your connection to these families and accordingly, whether you can begin the process of checking your eligibility for Portuguese citizenship. Thank you to Mr. Jonathan Gavrielov for his help in researching and writing the above article on Spanish expellees in Tunis and additional articles on Spanish and expellee communities.
- Libyan Jewry – the survival of Spanish Jewish communities and their restoration after the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition there
- Spanish expellee communities in Turkey and the flowering of Ladino
- Life of Spanish Jews in Bulgaria
- Morocco – the Land of Spanish Jewry
- Portuguese Forced Converts in Holland – the story of Jews that shaped the life of this country
Contact us to find out about eligibility for emigration to Portugal
The law offices of Cohen, Decker, Pex & Brosh are located in Jerusalem and Petach Tikvah. We will be happy to provide a preliminary check of eligibility, free of charge, for Portuguese citizenship. Call and arrange a consultation with an attorney regarding Portuguese citizenship for descendants of Tunisian and Spanish expellee Jews at the following numbers: