An island off the southeast coast of Tunisia, near the Libyan border.
The island of Djerba (Jarba) is 198 square miles (514 sq km), shaped like a molar tooth, and connected to the mainland of Tunisia on the southeast by a ferry at Adjim and on the southwest by a bridge that dates from the Roman Empire. Between Djerba and the mainland is the shallow inland sea of Bou Grara. The island's elevation is low—barely 188 feet (54 m) above sea level at its highest point—and is surrounded by shallow beaches of fine sand and palm trees, especially in the northeast. The principal population center is Houmt-Souk, a market and fishing port on the north coast. Since Tunisian independence in 1956, dozens of tourist hotels and an airport have been built on Djerba.
Djerba is reputed to be the island of the lotus eaters in Homer's Odyssey. Djerba's early history is one of contact with many peoples—Berbers, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and others. Companions of the prophet Muhammad brought the Arabic language and religion of Islam to Djerba in 665 c.e. Berber Kharijites, considered heretics by many orthodox Muslims, took refuge in southern Djerba after the Almohads expelled them from western Algeria. Since then the southern part of the island has tended to be Berber and Kharijite, the northeast Arab and Malekite, and the center mixed in population.
During the Middle Ages, Djerba was the scene of continuous persecutions, conquests, revolts, recon-quests, civil wars, and plagues. Spaniards, Sicilians, Hafsids, Corsairs, and Ottoman Turks controlled the island at various times. In the eighteenth century, Tunis eventually won the contest with Tripoli for jurisdiction under the Ottoman Empire over Djerba. During the French protectorate, Djerba was under military administration from 1881 to 1890, then French civil administration until independence in 1956. The island is today part of the Tunisian Governorship of Medenine, and its population is a mix of Arab and Berber, plus elements of black African, Turkish, and Maltese origin.
The center and southeast of Djerba and portions of the nearby mainland are among the rare areas of Tunisia where a Berber language is spoken, although it is highly mixed with Arabic vocabulary. According to Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) "Djerba" originally referred to a branch of the Lemata Berbers.
Djerba is home to one of the few remaining Jewish communities in North Africa, the towns of Hara Sghira and Hara Kebira. According to local tradition, the Jewish community of Djerba dates from after the Babylonian captivity in 586 b .c.e.; others claim that Judeo-Berbers migrated to the island in the late eighth century c.e., following the Arab conquest of North Africa. The town of Hara Sghira is the site of the Ghriba—a Jewish synagogue, shrine, and site of a popular annual pilgrimage.
Djerba has low and irregular rainfall—averaging 8 inches (21 cm) per year—and high humidity. The only freshwater sources on the island are a few wells in the northeast and rainwater captured by cisterns. This limits local agriculture to date palms of mediocre quality, olive trees, fruit trees, and some grains and legumes.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the pressures of increasing population on this ecologically marginal island have gradually forced people out of the traditional occupations of agriculture, fishing, weaving, and pottery-marking. As the island's population increased from 31,800 in 1906 to 62,445 in 1956 to more than 82,000 in 1991, Djerbians began to rotate between the island and the mainland as shopkeepers. In reaction to anti-commercial policies of the Ben Salah government of the 1960s, Djerbians increasingly turned to international migration, and many of them have become successful shopkeepers and businessmen in the Paris area. The 2002 population of Djerba was estimated to have decreased to 60,300.
See also Arabic; Ben Salah, Ahmed; Berber; Islam; Ottoman Empire; Tunisia.
DJERBA (Jerba ), island off the coast of Tunisia. In ancient times it was an important Phoenician trading center. According to the local tradition, the Jewish settlement there is very old. It maintains that the Jews came there during the reign of *Solomon and founded the present al-Ḥāra al-Kabīra (the "Big Quarter"). A family of priests fleeing Jerusalem in the year 70 c.e. is said to have transported one of the Temple gates to Djerba. It is believed to be enclosed in the Bezalel synagogue, known as al-Gharība (the "extraordinary") of the Ḥāra al-Ṣaghīra (the "Small Quarter"), which is situated in the center of the island. The Gharība was a much frequented place of pilgrimage. The Jewish population consisted mainly of kohanim (priests) with a small sprinkling of others, although there were no levites among the residents. According to tradition, the absence of levites on the island is the result of a curse against them by *Ezra because they refused to answer his request to send levites to Ereẓ Israel (cf. Ezra 8:15), and they all died. The history of the Jews of Djerba includes three serious persecutions: in the 12th century under the *Almohads; in 1519 under the Spanish; and in 1943 under the Nazis. In 1239 a colony of Jews from Djerba settled in *Sicily, where they obtained concessions to cultivate henna, indigo, and the royal palm groves. It was common for the male Jewish population of Djerba to look for livelihood abroad, but they kept returning to the island, where their families had remained. Exchange of goods with *Malta and *Italy was in the hands of the Jews, who grew the products and processed the commodities for export themselves. *Maimonides, in a letter to his son, expressed a low opinion of their superstitions and spiritual capacity, but praised them for their faith. In the 19th and 20th centuries the yeshivot of Djerba produced many rabbis and writers and they provided rabbis for the communities of North Africa. In 1976, some 300 youngsters received Jewish education. In the early 1990s, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided funding for Jewish education (including a girls' school) with a combined enrollment of 245. David Idan established a Hebrew printing press in Djerba in 1903, and many books, mainly Passover *Hagaddot and liturgical items, were printed there. In 1946 there were some 4,900 Jews in Djerba, settled in al-Ḥara al-Ṣaghīra, al-Ḥāra al-Kabīra, and Houmt-Souk, the principal town of the island. Their number dwindled to about 1,500 by the late 1960s, about 1,000 in 1976, 800 in 1984, and 670 in 1993, the majority immigrating to Israel and settling in moshavim (many of them on moshav Eitan) or reaching France. Those remaining dealt in jewelry and commerce, but the Jewish neighborhoods lost their purely Jewish character as Muslims moved in and the community was the victim of several anti-Jewish incidents. In October 1980 a Jewish boy was sentenced to five years in prison (but released two months later) for destroying an Islamic religious manual during a 1978 schoolyard scuffle. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Jewish homes and shops in Djerba were ransacked and set on fire on Yom Kippur and several Jews were injured. The Tunisian government encourages the annual Lag ba-Omer pilgrimage to al-Gharība as a tourist attraction, even inviting Tunisian Jews from Israel to participate in May 1993. But al-Gharība suffered several attacks, with the pilgrimage temporarily decreasing. On May 9, 1979, a fire (labeled by the government an "accident") broke out, destroying seven Torah scrolls, the ark, and prayer books. During the Simḥat Torah prayers in October 1985, a Tunisian guard, posted by the government for protection, shot at the congregation, killing five (including a policeman) and wounding eleven. He was convicted and sentenced to a mental institution. On April 11, 2002, a natural gas truck exploded at the outer wall of al-Gharība, killing 21, mostly German tourists, with a group linked to al-Qaeda claiming responsibility.
N. Slouschz, Travels in North Africa (1927), 251–68; R. Lachmann, Jewish Cantillation and Song in the Isle of Djerba (1940); R. Brunschwig, La Berbérie orientale sous les Hafṣides, 1 (1940), 399; Pinkerfeld, in: Cahiers de Byrsa, 7 (1957), 127–88; A.N. Chouraqui, Between East and West (1968), index s.v.Djerba.add. bibliography: American Jewish Year Book, 1972, 1978, 1985, 1994; H.Z. Hirschberg, A History of the Jews in North Africa, 2 vols. (1974–81), index; A.L. Udovitch and L. Valensi, The Last Arab Jews: The Communities of Jerba, Tunisia (1983); B. Haddad, Sefer Jerbah Yehudit (1978); Y. Mazouz, Yahadut Jerbah (1979); R. Attal, "Djerba, centre de diffusion du livre hébraïque," in: M. Abitbol (ed.), Communautés juives des marges sahariennes du Maghreb (1982), 469–78; G. Memmi, Une île en Méditerranée (1992); Les Juifs de Jerba: 25 siècles d'histoire (1990).
[David Corcos /
Rachel Simon (2nd ed.)]