Tunisia’s Diverse Djerba Island and Its Annual Jewish Pilgrimage

Jun 2, 2015 by

[This post was originally published in June 2012]

Djerba_mapAn earlier post discussed Ibadi Islam, the predominant faith in Oman. In addition to Oman and its settlements in East Africa, the Ibadi faith can also be found in small pockets in North Africa. One notable center of Ibadi Islam is Djerba, an island in the Gulf of Gabes, off the coast of Tunisia. Today a popular tourist destination, known for its beautiful beaches and dramatic sunsets, Djerba has a complex history and is an important center not only for Ibadi Muslims, but for Christians and Jews. It is also one of the few remaining places in Tunisia where Shilha, a Berber language, is still spoken. Djerba is thus a microcosm of the diverse Tunisian society and a litmus test for the Arab Spring: whether the different communities of the island can get along will be a major indicator of whether the country’s new government is really committed to human rights and religious liberty.

Ibadi Muslims arrived in Djerba in the seventh century CE and found the island devastated by the Plague of Justinian a century earlier. The sixth century collapse came after nearly a millennium of intensive settlement on the island. Legend has it that Djerba was the island of the Lotus-Eaters where Odysseus was stranded on his voyage through the Mediterranean. Some sources associate Djerba with the mythical Ogygia, the island where the beautiful nymph Calypso kept Odysseus hostage for seven years in a failed attempt to make him her immortal husband. Tangible, non-mythical history of Djerba goes back as far as the fourth century BCE: remains of a large town dating from that period were found in the center of the island. Pliny the Elder mentioned another city on the island as a major center where Tyrian purple dye, made from Murex sea snail and used to color royal robes and other kinds of special ceremonial garments, was produced. In the early centuries of the common era, Djerba became an important center of Christianity: two bishops from the island assisted at the Councils of Carthage in 255 and 525 CE. Since the arrival of the Ibadis, the island has passed through the hands of numerous foreign rulers: Normans from Sicily, Spaniards, and Ottomans. To this day, Djerba has a sizeable minority of Maltese Catholics, who established themselves on the island as sponge-fishers.

Jews_Cohanim_by_haplogroupThe Jewish community on Djerba dates back nearly 2,600 years, much longer than the Christian or Muslim presence on the island. According to oral tradition, a group of Jewish priests arrived from the Land of Israel shortly after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE. They carried with them one of the gates of the destroyed Temple, and set it in the foundation of the synagogue built in Djerba. This legend is supported by genetic evidence discovered by a group of French, Israeli, and North African geneticists (Manni et al. 2005). They found that Djerba’s Jewish men belong to haplogroup J, which has roots in the Middle East. Moreover, the majority of them carried the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). This genetic signature, discovered by nephrologist Karl Skorecki and a team of geneticists from the Technion in Haifa in the late 1990s, is particularly frequent in Jewish men who self-identify as cohanim, direct male descendants of the Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses (Hammer et al. 2009). During the existence of the Temple, cohanim performed specific duties in the Temple, and the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) played a special role during the service of Yom Kippur. Today, cohanim retain a distinct status and remain bound by additional laws in Orthodox Jewish communities. The priestly status generally passes from father to son, but it can be lost due to complicated religious laws (e.g. the wife of a cohen cannot have had relations with a non-Jew, be a divorcee, etc.), which accounts for a small share of non-Cohen Jewish men with the CMH. The relatively low frequency of the CMH among non-Jews in Yemen, Oman, and Jordan is probably due to gene flow. The genetic research also points to the most recent common male ancestor of men with the CMH as living during the early Temple period, before the Jewish diaspora under the Roman Empire. Because microsatellite markers, which constitute the CMH, are rapidly evolving and not much variation is found among Djerba’s Jews, Manni and colleagues concluded that the island’s Jewish community arose through “a recent migration of families of ancient Jewish ancestry”. However, a much earlier migration seems likelier if bottlenecks and endogamy are taken into consideration.

Cohanim, or rather a daughter of one of them, also make an appearance in the story of the El-Ghriba synagogue on Djerba, considered to be the oldest in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. The current synagogue building was constructed in the 19th century over the remains of an earlier structure from the 16th century, but the foundation dates from at least the first century CE if not earlier. The Torah scroll housed at El-Ghriba is thought to be the oldest in the world and is believed to have been brought here from the Land of Israel by a virgin girl, a daughter of a Cohen. While the circumstances of her arrival on Djerba are enshrouded in fog, the mysterious and reclusive girl continued to live in a temporary building near the site of the synagogue. One morning, the islanders are said to have woken up to find the structure burned down but the girl’s body remaining intact. According to one version, she continued to appear at the synagogue after her burial, and according to another, miracles happened to those who visited her grave. These supernatural events gave the synagogue its sanctity and the name El-Ghriba, meaning “miraculous”.

The synagogue eventually became the site of an annual pilgrimage of Jews from Tunisia and abroad. Known as the Hiloula (which translates as “celebration”, the same root as in Hallelujah), this event takes place on the holiday of Lag BaOmer, 33 days after the beginning of the celebration of Passover, in commemoration of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, also known by the acronym Rashbi. An important legal scholar, reputed as a worker of miracles, Rashbi is also attributed with the authorship of The Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah. According to oral tradition, on the day of his death, daylight was miraculously extended until he had completed his final teaching and died. The anniversary of his death is thus commemorated by lighting bonfires, torches, and candles, which symbolize the spiritual light of his teachings. The Hiloula celebration on Djerba is second only to the one at the site of Rashbi’s grave in Meron, in northern Galilee. Today, fewer than 1,800 Jews remain of the once 100,000-strong Tunisian Jewish community (most of the rest have immigrated to France or Israel), but thousands of foreign visitors arrive for the Hiloula festivities each year, making it a barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season on the island. Because of that, the current Tunisian government has made promotion of the Hiloula a priority, hoping that it will help revive tourism after the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

The Jewish holidays on Djerba have not always been peaceful and joyful. In April 2002, the Passover festivities were marred by a deadly explosion when a natural gas truck fitted with explosives was driven by a suicide bomber past security barriers at the synagogue and detonated in front of the building. Fourteen German tourists, including an 18-month-old boy, as well as five Tunisians and two French nationals, were killed and more than 30 others wounded. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the bombing, which was reportedly organized by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In 2011, the Hiloula celebration was cancelled in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, due to security threats. The toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—“who had overseen generally good relations between Muslims and Jews over his 23-year rule”—put the status of the Tunisian Jewish community in question. Further concern arose in October 2011, when a previously banned party, Ennahda, which some pundits characterize as “moderate Islamist party”, won the largest share of seats and effectively became the real power in Tunisia. Since winning the election, Ennahda has given mixed signals to Tunisian Jews. Some members of the party leadership, such as its intellectual leader Rached Ghannouchi, have repeatedly pledged to protect the Jewish community. Yet, in January 2012 Ennahda organized the visit of the Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, which was used as an opportunity for extremist Salafists to chant: “Kill the Jews! It’s our religious duty!”. Radical Islamist groups publicly calling for the killing of Jews has become almost a regular occurrence in Tunisia in recent months. But as David Bitan, a Jewish jeweler from Djerba, wittily remarked:

“We are not afraid of Salafists who talk too much. We’re afraid of those who say nothing, then do something.”

Instances of violence and vandalism against Jews and their property, such as the torching of the synagogue in the city of Ghabes in February 2011, scare potential Jewish visitors. But local Jews are also frightened by anti-Jewish incitement, such as a statement by Basma Jebali—an Ennahda member representing a constituency which includes Djerba—in a parliamentary discussion in May 2012 that “massive purchases of land by Jews in Djerba could turn the island into a second Palestine”. Ennahda officials were also on hand to greet Youssef Qaradawi, the radical Egyptian-born cleric who has a long history of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli statements. His planned visit to Djerba was scheduled for May 5, 2012, just four days before the Jewish Hiloula festivities. Because of protests from the Jewish community, Tunisian authorities relocated his visit to the mainland, averting a potential crisis.

Despite all the problems, the 2012 Hiloula festivities went ahead, but turnout was not as strong as it used to be: according to a JTA report, “some 500 Jews attended celebrations on the island”, a far cry from the peak number of 10,000 visitors in 2000. Most of the foreign attendees came from France and Germany, as holders of Israeli passports are not welcome in Tunisia. The gathering was surrounded at all times by a small army of policemen to ensure that nothing went wrong. But as The Guardian’s Kouichi Shirayanagi remarks, “providing strong security for the one event does not make the new Tunisia of today a tolerant society”. More optimistic voices, such as Jerusalem Post’s Gil Shefler, believe that “Tunisia still has promise”. More recently, a proposal has been put forward by members of the National Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Legislative and Executive Power and the National Council on Tunisia’s Jewish Citizens to designate two seats in the new Tunisian parliament, which is scheduled to be elected next spring, to Jewish members. This proposal has been met with conflicted reactions from Tunisia’s Jewish community. Rabbi Betto Hattab of the Le Grande Synagogue believes that “this proposal would restore a positive image of the country in the international media for both Jews and tourists”, but Roger Bismuth, president of the Tunisian Jewish community, considers it “just one of many of their stupid ideas. Those members won’t be able to do anything significant”.

While the future of Djerba Jewish community remains in question, the island has become a desirable tourist destination for visitors from Russia. Numerous travel agencies and tour operators promote the island as a “romantic paradise” where “endless groves of palm trees and huge olive plantations are surrounded by luxurious beaches with the cleanest, finest sand and warm, transparent sea” (translation mine). The same site says that “this island is a miraculous entwinement and peaceful coexistence of West and East, Christianity and Islam, antiquity and modernity” (curiously, the Jewish community is not mentioned, though elsewhere on the site the El-Ghriba synagogue is mentioned as one of the must-see sights). Visitors to the island are promised to be enchanted by “pink flamingos that are not afraid of people”, “astonishing lotus flowers”, “perfect diving and golfing opportunities”, and “local cuisine suited for the most choosy gourmets”, including exotic seafood and French wines, as well as the local specialty—fig wine.




Hammer, Michael F.; Doron M. Behar, Tatiana M. Karafet, Fernando L. Mendez, Brian Hallmark, Tamar Erez, Lev A. Zhivotovsky, Saharon Rosset, and Karl Skorecki (2009) Extended Y chromosome haplotypes resolve multiple and unique lineages of the Jewish priesthood. Human Genetics 126(5): 707–717.

Manni, P. Leonardi, É. Patin, A. Berrebi, H. Khodjet el Khil, K. Skorecki, D. Rosengarten, H. Rouba, E. Heyer et M. Fellous (2005) A Y-chromosome portrait of the population of Jerba (Tunisia) to elucidate its complex demographic history. Bulletins et mémoires de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris 17 (1-2): 103-114.

Thomas, M.G.; Skorecki Karl, Ben-Ami, H., Parfitt, T., Bradman, N., and Goldstein, D.B. (1998) Origins of Old Testament priests. Nature 394: 138–140.




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