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Ancient Jewish Community Endures on Tunisian Island

  • Associated Press

A Jewish Tunisian rests inside the Ghriba synagogue, one the oldest Jewish monuments built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, on the resort island of Djerba, south of Tunis, Oct. 28, 2015.

A Jewish Tunisian rests inside the Ghriba synagogue, one the oldest Jewish monuments built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, on the resort island of Djerba, south of Tunis, Oct. 28, 2015.

When school lets out, the streets around the ancient synagogue on this Tunisian island fill with rambunctious boys wearing Jewish kippahs and girls in long skirts, shouting to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and French.

A boy gestures to the camera as he and his relatives leave school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015..

A boy gestures to the camera as he and his relatives leave school at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015..

The Jewish community in the resort island of Djerba traces its roots back to Babylonian exile of 586 B.C. It's one of the few communities of its kind to have survived the turmoil around the creation of Israel, when more than 800,000 Jews across the Arab world either emigrated or were driven from their homes.

Here the faithful pray at the La Ghriba synagogue — widely believed to be Africa's oldest — beneath intricate tile walls bearing blue and yellow geometric shapes that would not seem out of place at a mosque. The synagogue's name can be translated as "strange'' or "miraculous.''

Boys walk past closed shops on the beginning of Shabbath, after sunset, at Hara Kbira, Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

Boys walk past closed shops on the beginning of Shabbath, after sunset, at Hara Kbira, Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

The surrounding streets include a kosher butcher, a bakery that sells a traditional tuna-filled pastry known as brik and schools that teach lessons in Hebrew, French and Arabic.

Jewish holy books are seen at a library at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

Jewish holy books are seen at a library at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

During the annual Lag BaOmer festival, the streets throng with Jewish pilgrims who venerate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century mystic.

"We're almost 1,500 now across the country, maybe fewer than residents of a building in New York,'' said Jacob LaLoush, 55, the owner of Mamie Lily, a popular kosher restaurant in the capital, Tunis. "But we have a perfect Jewish life: schools, synagogues and kosher shops. Even if they are not many.''

Yofel Sabbagh, 46, walks inside a bakery as he prepares Challah, a special Jewish bread, on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

Yofel Sabbagh, 46, walks inside a bakery as he prepares Challah, a special Jewish bread, on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

Tunisia's Jewish population has dwindled from 100,000 in 1956, when the country won independence from France, to fewer than 1,500, mainly as a result of emigration to France and Israel.

Boys walk inside a Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

Boys walk inside a Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015.

But unlike in much of the rest of the Arab world, Tunisian Jews have seen little direct persecution and have only rarely been targeted by extremists.

A man prepares meals for his family on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015..

A man prepares meals for his family on the eve of Shabbath, at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 30, 2015..

LaLoush said their situation is "completely different from other Arab countries, where there were laws and policies that forced the Jewish communities out.'' But he said there have been times when they were "not pushed out of Tunis, but were shown the doors.''

A suicide truck bombing carried out by al-Qaida outside the Djerba synagogue in 2002 killed 19 people, mainly German tourists. To this day, the neighborhood and the synagogue are heavily guarded by police.

We have coexisted with our Muslim friends for a long time. We share food, music and tradition,'' said Ariel Houri, who works in his father's furniture shop in Djerba.

A student covering his head with a Kippah grins for the camera as he leaves the main Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 29, 2015..

A student covering his head with a Kippah grins for the camera as he leaves the main Talmudic school at Hara Kbira, on the island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, Oct. 29, 2015..

As for the occasional friction, "it's mostly the hot-headed youth, they get affected by the news. But the older ones are still sitting in cafes, sharing drinks every day.''

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