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Land of the Lost

February 24, 2011 | By

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Djerba is an island off the coast of Tunisia. For the past 2,500 years, a small but tightly-knit Jewish community there has lived in relative quiet, practicing virtually the same rituals and traditions that their ancestors did.

What makes the Djerba community so unique, and so fascinating, is that they’ve more or less lived in stasis, with little to no interaction with the broader Jewish world. During World War II, Tunisia was the only African country occupied by Germany, and its population was subjected to forced labor, deportations, and executions. However, the full force of the Final Solution was not implemented, and even after the war, there were 105,000 Jews in Djerba. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the majority of the population emigrated there.

Today, the community numbers only 1,300 people in two towns, Hara Kebira (Arabic for “large town”) and Hara Seghira (“small town”). The El Ghriba Synagogue claims to possess the oldest Torah scroll in the world, and continues to hold daily services. In 2002, al Qaeda staged an attack on the community, killing 21 people and injuring dozens more.

Still, Djerban Jews cling to their traditions, practice their religion freely, and have six Jewish schools. Recent unrest has left its native Jews uneasy–previous to the government’s collapse, Jews were a protected minority. The rabbi of the El Ghriba Synagogue, while worried about discord between the Jewish and Muslim communities, notes that “the two communities have long lived in symbiosis,” and he hopes this will continue.

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