Introduction / History The Tunisian Jews of Israel are a strong people who are unafraid to practice their religion in the face of terrorism. Many Tunisian Jews who live in Israel make a yearly pilgrimage to one of the world's oldest synagogues, El Ghriba, in Djerba, Tunisia. This synagogue is the site of a terrorist bombing where 21 people were killed in 2002. They refuse to be intimidated into stopping this pilgrimage.
Before WWII, Tunisia was a French colony. The French stood in the way of Tunisian Arabs who would have oppressed the Jewish minority. When the Nazis occupied Tunisia during the war, they enforced anti-Jewish policies and confiscated Jewish lands until the allied forces drove them out. In 1956 Tunisia was freed from French rule, but their new leadership changed into an oppressive dictatorship. It was then that Tunisian Jews began immigrating to the new Jewish homeland.
In Israel today, the Tunisian Jewish community has its own feasts and celebrations. According to the Stanford University publication, "Homelands and Diasporas," one of their popular practices today is the Feast of Jethro. They gather together for food in the synagogues to celebrate the end of a plague in their community 2,000 years ago.
Until 1948, Jews formed the largest non-Muslim minority in Iraq and Iran. The Jewish communities fared well over the centuries until Islam was declared the official religion. Since that time, they have been isolated and have experienced much discrimination and persecution. Sometimes they were forced to convert to Islam. With the formation of the Israeli nation in 1948 and the Iranian Revolution in 1979, large numbers of Jews have left Iraq and Iran. The few who remain continue to suffer from an anti-Semitic atmosphere.
When considering the Jewish lifestyle, many see Israel as the sparkling jewel on the ring of nations in the Middle East. Having been a minority for almost 2,000 years, the present population of Israel is now mostly Jewish. The stream of immigrants into Israel began in the 1880s with the national and cultural revival known as "Zionism." The trickle of immigrants became a flood when the nation of Israel was established in 1948. Since its formation, Israel has received over several million Jews. In the next decade it will probably overtake the USA as the world's largest Jewish community.
What are their lives like? Language is one of the distinguishing features among Jews of this region. While Hebrew and Aramaic are the common languages of prayer, sacred, and legal matters, the Jews are quite at home with local languages and dialects. Farsi (the Iranian language) and Arabic are the everyday languages of most of the Jews outside Israel. Within Israel, Jews may speak fluent Yiddish (a German dialect with Hebrew elements), Russian, Yudi, Ladino, or any number of other languages learned in their countries of origin or from their immigrant parents.
Most of Israeli Jews live in cities. Attempts to start new towns and populate rural areas have been difficult. In fact, such attempts have often become scenes of ethnic unrest between Jews and Palestinians. Most of the Jews who live in rural areas are part of the well-known kibbutzim (collective farms or settlements in Israel).
Israeli leaders wanted to see all immigrants fuse into one Jewish people. However, the different immigrant groups of the past have now become the ethnic groups of today. Along with the ethnicity, a class society has developed. One's ethnic background may shape one's occupation and standard of living. Oriental Jews, those of African-Asian descent, are concentrated in the lower strata of society.
Unlike many Jewish communities outside Israel, extended families do not play an important part in the lives of Israeli Jews. Rather, the nuclear family is the most important unit. Because education is highly valued in Israeli society, schools are free and compulsory through the tenth grade. Most Jews view mandatory service in the Israeli army as a crucial part of the transition into adulthood.
The decline in Judaic studies in school seems to be a result of the crisis in Israel's Jewish identity. Many religious laws written into social law are no longer being enforced, such as businesses observing the Sabbath or the prohibitions against selling pork. Although all of the holidays on the Jewish religious calendar are celebrated, they have a greater social than religious value to most Israelis. On the other hand, there has been a cultural renaissance of Hebrew and Jewish studies and arts, particularly in dance, literature, music, and theater.
What are their beliefs? Rabbinical Judaism is the dominant religion of Jews in this region, and the officially recognized institutions are Orthodox. Rabbinical Judaism replaced the temple with the synagogue, the priesthood with the rabbi, and the sacrificial ceremony with the prayer service. Emphasis was placed on study of the Torah (Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible), the growing need for national restoration in the Promised land, and the function of this world as preparatory for the world to come. However, approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of the Israeli Jews are non-observant. Jews who consider themselves to be religious can be simply divided into the Orthodox (traditionalists) who adhere to the traditional beliefs and practices, and the Moderns, who may hold to traditional beliefs, but no longer strictly observe the practices. The holy places are maintained by the state and the religious councils and rabbis are state employees.
What are their needs? The Jews have a wonderful understanding of their connection with the Abrahamic covenant. However, they also have a history of rejection of Jesus Christ as Messiah, the one who has fulfilled that covenant.
Throughout their history, the Jews have been discriminated against and persecuted. They need to experience emotional healing and forgiveness. Pray that as the Gospel is shared with them, it will not be viewed as anti-Semitic, but rather as the fulfillment of what God promised humanity through Abraham centuries ago. Also pray for a spiritual hunger among the Jews who view their Jewishness as an ethnic identity and have no religious affiliation.
Prayer Points * Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth loving Christians to work among the Jews of Israel.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom and favor to missions agencies focusing on the Middle Eastern Jews.
* Pray that the Jewish people will understand that Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah.
* Ask the Lord to soften the hearts of the Jews towards Christians so that they might hear and receive the message of salvation.
* Pray that God will grant Jewish believers favor as they share their faith in Christ with their own people.
* Pray that strong local churches will be raised up among Middle Eastern Jews. * Pray for the availability of the Jesus Film in the primary language of this people.