The Last of the Arab Jews: Tunisian Jewish Enclave Weathers Revolt, Terror; Can It Survive Girls’ Education?

Feb. 13, 2015

Source: Wall Street Journal


Isolated on a small niche of North Africa’s largest island, the Jews of Djerba have been called the last Arab Jews—and it is hardly an exaggeration. Across the rest of the Middle East, Jewish communities have been vanishing over the past half century, since the creation of Israel. Before then, there were more than 850,000 Jews living in the Arab world. Today, there are between 4,000 to 4,500, according to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a nonprofit advocacy group. Today, Gerba's Jews number roughly 1,000, local leaders estimate.


At the fringes of society and in subtle ways, Djerban women are evolving. Two agents of change are cousins Alite and Hanna Sabban, who have fought to bring greater educational opportunities to the girls of Djerba.


Educating girls hasn’t been a high priority in Djerba’s Jewish community. Historically, in fact, they weren’t educated at all, and most were illiterate until well into the 20th century.


For boys, an education, at least a religious one, has always been a key part of life on Djerba. They study Hebrew and the Torah from morning to night, in classes taught by rabbis. That education was formalized with the establishment in the 1960s of modern-day religious schools known as “Yeshivot.”


But women’s education didn’t exist. In the early 1950s, resident David Kidouchim started a part-time school for girls teaching them to read and write in Hebrew. Though it was only two hours a day, his school was seen as transformational, and he became a local hero.


To the Sabban women, it is no longer enough. “When a girl goes to school for two hours, what can she do?” Alite asks. “We wanted more studies, we wanted for the girls to develop academically.”


Then finally, in 2006, at the time both in their mid-20s, they decided to take the plunge. They began with organizing weekly classes for a few dozen girls, then started a more formal effort with 15 students. But several dropped out and they were left with nine or 10.


The women faced numerous obstacles. Fundraising proved difficult and was halted well short of its goal—a result of red tape that bogged down their plan to buy the house from its French owner.
They also struggled to find competent teachers from within their community.


But the biggest hurdle has been money. Neither of the women had the financial means to open a school. So Hanna and Alite started small, offering classes in a synagogue.


Along the way, the Sabbans picked up a crucial ally. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or “the Joint” as it is commonly known, is an international relief organization that has played a quiet but important role in supporting Djerban Jews for several decades. The enormous New York-based outfit says it spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on needy or endangered Jewish communities.


Over time, Mr. Bar-Chaim arranged for the Sabbans’ makeshift school to obtain textbooks. Then came supplies like Xerox machines, computers, even air conditioners. The women weren’t shy about making demands of the Joint, he says, recalling numerous requests from them for books and other basics.


The Sabban women’s school is housed in three separate locations—including a basement and a large converted garage of a private home. Teachers run through the streets every couple of hours to their different classes. In the garage, some classrooms are windowless and air conditioning is spotty. The computer “lab”—with new Lenovos sent by the Joint—is a small enclave in a hallway.


In recent years, the Joint has spent about $100,000 to $200,000 annually on various projects, and in 2013, it allocated $338,748. Most of the latter sum says Mr. Bar-Chaim, was raised specially for the Sabban women’s school project.


Mr. Bar-Chaim also became an ally in their efforts to overcome Djerba’s resistance to change. Anxious not to step on toes, the women said they worked out a complex plan in which the girls could attend both the new school and the existing, two-hour-a-day school. The girls would go in the mornings to Mr. Kidouchim’s school for the requisite couple of hours then head over to classes at the new school.


Enrollment grew, and in September 2012 Hara residents gathered for a joyful naming ceremony—the Sabbans called their school “Kanfei Yonah”—which means “On the Wings of a Dove” in Hebrew.


Late last year, the Sabban women finally obtained the sales papers they needed for the new full-time school—and the dilapidated house of their dreams is theirs. Once they get a local building permit, they hope to demolish the existing structure and build. They are still short of the €500,000, or nearly $600,000, they have budgeted, so their plan is to construct one floor at a time, and one wing at a time.


Still, there is the question of what Djerba’s young women can ultimately achieve. “I don’t want all our girls to be lawyers,” says a teacher, Geoula Trabelsi, who has been with the school since its inception. “I want them to be happy, to be women of faith.”


Read the entire article at the Wall Street Journal.

Updated: Mar. 04, 2015