The Amilcar Notes (Part 8): Tunisia’s Jews Then and Now (2 of 2)

"Muslims, Christians, and Jews. We are all Tunisians."

“Muslims, Christians, and Jews. We are all Tunisians.”

Also read:
The Amilcar Notes (Part 1): Zine Ben Ali’s Sorry Legacy
The Amilcar Notes (Part 2): Tunisia — Emerging Democracy or Just a Facade?
The Amilcar Notes (Part 3): Tunisia’s Forgotten Socio-Economic Crisis
The Amilcar Notes (Part 4): Tunisia — Profoundly Islamic
The Amilcar Notes (Part 5): Election Exhilaration in Tunisia
The Amilcar Notes (Part 6): Tunisia — U.S. Recognizes Need to Change Its Mid-East Policy
The Amilcar Notes (Part 7): Tunisia’s Jews Then and Now (1 of 2)

The glory that was: Tunisian Jewry

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind
– Willam Wordsworth

Carthage Dermech — Andre Abitbol

He wore thick glasses.

He was standing in front of me at the Café Uranium where we agreed to meet, but couldn’t see me. His first words, and, as I recall, also his last, were apologies. He told me in French, “I don’t see very well, excuse me.” I was sitting right there but couldn’t hear him because my hearing is going. What a team! But we managed to find each other anyway. Call it fate, but more likely the element of luck entered into it too.

Admittedly, it is the case that Abitbol might not be able to see right in front himself. That is not important; he might not be able to see the present, none of us really can see the future, but when it comes to the past, to Tunisia’s 3,000 year old Jewish history, Abitbol has x-ray vision. It is no small skill these day to see back into history. Might even be worth as much as looking forward and in some ways, less depressing!

Even from our brief encounter of less than an hour, I sensed that his knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic. He knows the details, “the facts” as they say. But facts are of little consequence without context. Abitbol has that too, what I would call a feel for the flow of history, for the richness of it all. He understanding the dialectic of Tunisian Jewish history; he understands it “without blinders” and that is something quite special. So it was a delight to sit with him, was very stimulating and if I never see the man again, he’s touched, or better yet, rekindled something in me. Thanks, Andre Abitbol.

He has his theories too, about how Tunisian Jewry came about, about, the connection of Tunisian Judaism to the Phoenicians, its role influencing the birth and rise of Christianity, its growth and flourishing in its three Tunisian Judeo-Islamic centers of learning: Tunis, Kairouan and the island of Djerba, its contribution to the intellectual explosion that characterized Moorish Spain and its historic “trialogue” between Averroes, Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas, the situation of Tunisia’s Jews under the Ottoman and French colonialism, and a bit about “the unraveling” that took place after the 1956 independence of Tunisia.

And all that in less than an hour!

Jacob Lellouche

Fortunately I had heard the same outline with slightly different emphasis a few days before from Jacob Lellouche who runs “Mama Lilly’s” restaurant in La Goulette. My great hopes of playing the taped interview on KGNU in Boulder, even though it was in French, were dashed by, well let’s just call it “my technical incompetence.” So hearing the rap a second time was not such a bad deal. Besides they have different emphases. Abitbol concentrated on the early history – I can’t emphasize how fascinating I found it. Lellouche on the other hand is more the modernist emphasizing the past 200 years.

I’ll come back to it in a moment.

I knew a little of Abitbol’s hypotheses, particularly the connection between the Phoenicians and ancient Israel at the time of Solomon and their combined role in the founding of Carthage. But I am more familiar with Lellouche’s description of the Jewish Community’s post-1850 history, some of which I have taught, and most specifically the period of “unraveling” (my term) that led to the exodus of the bulk of Tunisia’s Jews to France, Israel, Italy , USA and the community’s rapid decline thereafter.

Therefore it was easier to follow Lellouche as I had more intellectual historical markers with which to gauge his commentary. It appeared that Lellouche does this often, that he has the rap down and it was more or less the same talk he gives to groups of tourists (he told me that). Ok. Still it was stimulating and I learned something…quite a bit actually.

Point one: the general aspect of Tunisian Jewish history

Abitbol produced a short 4- or 5-book bibliography. The books are quite old but I’ll find them. I should have little problem retrieving these books from the University of Denver library or through inter-library loan. I want to read them, to learn more of the 3,000 year history of Tunisian Jewry, because it is fascinating in and of itself, and because its story is much less familiar that that of European Jewry, because North African -Moorish Judaism, Sephardic Judaism, has an older and in some ways more intellectually vibrant character than the Medieval European Judaism, which owes its intellectual origins to it. And because, on some fundamental level, it is my story too!

Although reduced to little more than a rump community today, Tunisian – more generally North African – Jewry encompasses to my mind one of the great human cultural traditions anywhere, anytime. It has produced great intellectual works, philosophy, history, medicine as well as a whole magnificent body of music, art and poetry. The complete cultural package. It kept renewing itself, in different ways, again and again and again and was able to do so in large measure because of its own great emphasis on education, a bedrock of Jewish culture throughout the ages, on the one hand. On the other, throughout this long period, it was not an isolated culture but one that was in every way connected to the broader world around, so much so that I think it something of a misnomer even to speak of “Tunisian-Jewish” culture.

For here in the Mediterranean, a kind of “fused cultural model” exists, where different streams are in constant interaction with one another – giving and taking at will. Judaism in Tunisia has given so much to Tunisian Islamic culture – and Islamic culture to Tunisian Judaism that it is impossible to separate the two historically. It is not, for example that the traditions merge into one, although I do think the generic term of “Mediterranean culture” has some merit, but that they feed off of each other in so many ways that it is virtually impossible to cull out one tradition from another.

Maimonides.

Maimonides.

Take for example the way that Averroes, Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides all took from each other, from the Greeks, from wherever, synthesizing the traditions into a kind of philosophical and sociological intellectual couscous (not an original analogy by the way in any sense). Jews, Arabs, Christians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, French, Italian, Byzantine all draw from one another and give back as well. It’s quite an extraordinarily rich integrated heritage. In the same manner, the notion that “European culture” – that which is often dated from the medieval period and the Renaissance – can somehow be separated from the Islamic/Ottoman tradition is an equally false assumption.

Over the past half century an intellectual acknowledgement of the interplay between cultures of the Mediterranean and beyond have appeared. I only mention a few of the better known works which have enriched my thinking: William McNeil’s The Rise of the West , Braudel’s The Mediterranean World of the Sixteenth Century (in two volumes, although I should add here anything by Braudel), Janet Abu Lughod’s Before European Hegemony. There are many others. Why these particular more global works? Because it is within the great traditions and historical shifts that these books detail and analyze where “Jewish history” becomes alive, where Judaism becomes alive as an integral creative element of a broader cultural/historical tradition.

My father had a particular affection for Italians. He loved them. As a boy of 12 or so, I would ask him why but he couldn’t explain. He tried once by telling me that in so many ways, Italians are like Jews, which made no sense to me at the time because if they were like “us,” then why did they have names like Macaluso, Corraggio, Fabrizzi and Napolitano (names of childhood friends)? My entire life I’ve lived in proximity with them, from when I was a child to today. Then one day, not long before my father died when I was visiting him, I looked up on his shelf and there was…Braudel, the great three-volume history of 16th century capitalism (different from the books cited above). My father had read Braudel and not only that, he understood it, had absorbed it, not so surprising because, as a Jew, even one who had changed the family name from Prensky to the amorphous “Prince,” he’d lived it.

In the end Italians, Jews, Tunisian Arabs, Lebanese, Greeks, those Catalans who think they are not in part Spanish, the Armenians, the Turks, the Slavs, the Turks, the Egyptians, the Syrians and others I have left out, shared a common world, and in some broad ways common values. They still do. The Odyssey, in a sense is not simply a Greek story. It is a Mediterranean story and it is no accident that in the telling a good part of the Mediterranean is touched.

One last point on this first point. All of these people have a rich experience in long distance trade. High risk, high gain stuff certainly in the past. But also something else, it is the trading peoples I am convinced that more likely to produce the sciences, social or hard. This is so not because trading peoples possess more intelligence or any other stupid racist explanation for their insights.

It is because they have travelled.

Traveling people can make comparisons; have the ability to understand that there is a life, a way of doing things beyond their own culture because they have seen it with their own eyes. Explaining the differences between peoples, the comparisons between people – whether it’s Ibn Khaldun or Montaigne or Franz Boaz doing it – that gives rise to technical innovation, to art, philosophy and the world’s great religions.

And who has traveled more in this world than “the wandering Jew”…and for most of history we have not traveled “first class.” The history of Tunisian Jewry is a part of this great historic movement through time. Not even the community’s continued dismemberment will ever be able to undo that.

To be continued…