Fleeing Bizerte, Leaving Tunisia

The departure of the Jews from Tunisia, generally associated with the consequences of the Six Day War, was in fact rooted in a Tunisian-French conflict known as the Bizerte Crisis, which took place five years earlier. The accusation of treason leveled against the Jews of Bizerte, and their consequent rescue by Israel, marked the beginning of the rapid disappearance of any Jewish presence in Tunisia. Writing for K., Agnès Bensimon, a specialist in the history of the Jews in North Africa, tells us about the last days of the Jewish community of Bizerte.

 

Caserne (Barracks) Japy, Bizerte

 

Most accounts of the departure of the Jews from Tunisia omit an integral episode: the Bizerte crisis. However, this fulminant, four-day conflict between France and Tunisia was the merely beginning of a larger crisis. To fully understand this episode, it is necessary to recall a forgotten fact: When Tunisian independence was proclaimed in March of 1956, it was without Bizerte. France had decided to maintain military forces there and therefore continued to occupy the naval base at Bizerte, which functioned as the keystone of France’s strategic presence in the Mediterranean. Eager to liquidate this last “relic of the colonial era”, the Tunisians, led by President Habib Bourguiba, demanded the total evacuation of French troops. The conflict festered, and soon led to violence: for four days, from July 19 to 23, deadly fighting took place. The Jewish community, which then numbered about 2,000 people, was spared, but the rumor of its betrayal spread. Soon, it was impossible to stay. It was necessary to flee Bizerte, and to leave Tunisia for good. The Mossad (adventurously), and France (diffidently), proceeded with the evacuations.

By crossing-referencing official information, first-hand diplomatic documents and the testimonies of the many actors involved at all levels, we were able to reconstruct the last days of the Jews of Bizerte.

The President and the General, Algeria, Tunisia and France

“I do not admit that France is missing”, wrote General De Gaulle in his Memoirs of Hope, in reference to the Bizerte Crisis. Tunisia, independent since March 20, 1956, had not ceased  demanding the evacuation of French troops still stationed on its soil, focusing especially on Bizerte, where France had developed, at great expense, an atomic weapon defense base of vital strategic importance. Despite repeated promises to negotiate this withdrawal, five years after independence, the conflict was unresolved. The bombing of the Algerian village of Sakiet Sidi Youssef by the French Air Force proved a particular point of contention[1]. President Bourguiba declared the next day that “no French military uniforms were tolerable in Tunisia” and called for the total evacuation of its territory, including Bizerte. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the bombing of Sakiet Sidi Youssef precipitated the fall of the Fourth Republic and the return to politics of General de Gaulle on May 13, 1958. This new situation allowed for a temporization agreement to be signed on June 17th between the two countries: French troops had four months to evacuate Tunisia before negotiations began concerning the naval base, on the understanding that France recognized Tunisian sovereignty over Bizerte.

This umpteenth postponement of the settlement of the Bizerte question placed it in a more personal balance of power. In February 1959, President Bourguiba formulated the astonishing proposal to exchange Bizerte for peace and the independence of Algeria[2]. For Paris, the proposal was absurd: a resounding failure. At the same time, on the Algerian side, the FLN was suspicious of Bourguiba’s role as intermediary in a solution to the conflict. The result was that the Bizerte problem was reactivated and began a new phase of decomposition in Franco-Tunisian relations. In January 1960, President Bourguiba played his trump card by declaring that he would engage in battle if France did not evacuate the base on February 8th–the second anniversary of Sakiet Sidi Youssef. He mobilized the population and troops, but almost immediately gave in to General de Gaulle’s veto, which reminded them France was maintaining itself in Bizerte for its own defense and that of the West, and thus, by the same token, for that of Tunisia, which in its political alignment was included in the Western camp. A year later, a meeting took place in Rambouillet, February 27, 1961, between De Gaulle and Bourguiba from which it emerges that the Tunisian president is “out of the game” for the issue of the settlement of the Algerian conflict and that the issue of Bizerte should not be raised before the end of the Algerian war. This misunderstanding aggravated the situation on both sides.

Habib Bourguiba by Habib Osman – Private collection, Public domain

At the rear of the Bizerte roadstead, the extension of the Sidi Ahmed Air Base, undertaken with a view to building additional runways adapted to new models of aircraft, was the trigger for the showdown to come. The Tunisian National Guard monitored the work from its start in mid-April of 1961, and then intervened by forbidding Tunisian civilian personnel from working on the site, even going so far as trying to interrupt their work. The Tunisians built a concrete wall, dug kilometers of trenches all around the base, and placed seven dams in the area between June and early July 1961. Tensions rose as the Tunisians increased the number of troops in the area. Admiral Maurice Amman, commander-in-chief of the strategic base, summoned the National Guard and ordered them to cease their resistance. President Bourguiba interfered in the crisis, calling for popular demonstrations, generating popular pressure, commissioning propaganda which encouraged confrontation, and organizing the mobilization of the National Guard and the Destourian Youth[3].

Immediately, Admiral Amman decreed a state of total alert. On July 6th, President Bourguiba sent a “last chance” letter to De Gaulle. De Gaulle replied belatedly, flatly refusing receipt of the letter. The affront surprised Tunis, and the same day, on July 17th, Bourguiba announced the launch of combat operations. The deadline for the battle was set for Wednesday, the 19th. On that date, any violation of Tunisian airspace by the French would be considered the signal for the start of the confrontation. But while Tunis expected only sporadic fighting, Paris, anticipating the danger, had already prepared for war.

July 19-23, 1961: A bloody lightning war[4]  

The armed confrontations were continuous from Wednesday, July 19th, around 3 p.m., until the ceasefire on the morning of Sunday July 23rd. Four Tunisian infantry battalions, a group of artillery, about 200 national guards and nearly 6,000 volunteers of the Destourian youth, galvanized but poorly armed, were mobilized. Without a defense plan or operational plans, the Tunisians were not given the mission of entering the base. It was the combined effect of the French reaction and the uncontrolled agitation of the civilian volunteers that led to the real start of hostilities. On the French side, the military resources were far superior: Mistral, Mystère IV and Corsair aircraft, helicopters, and four air and naval defense companies, quickly backed up by two Marine Infantry Parachute Regiments (2nd and 3rd RPIMA) and the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment, based in Blida, Algeria. Not forgetting the Colbert, the De Grasse and the aircraft carrier Arromanches, which were cruising near the roadstead.

The first shots were fired on the Sidi-Ahmed side, the scene of the fighting during the first twenty-four hours, at the end of which the 2nd and 3rd RPIMA took the lead, with unprecedented violence. It must be said that the Tunisians fired on the paratroopers sent to reinforce the base. The Tunisian civilian volunteers put forward women and children – a human shield tactic[5] that has since become standard practice – and also fired at the French soldiers, while the fighters shelled them with mortars. The response was merciless, with the French aiming at the crowd of demonstrators from the top of their helicopters. Lucien Bodard, then a correspondent for France-Soir, wrote: “I tell myself that if Bourguiba wanted a new Sakiet, the French gave it to him. Why did they retaliate so vigorously? It was so unnecessary in view of the weakness of the Tunisian assault. By the end of the evening of 20 July, the base was virtually cleared. Admiral Amman, fearing fighting in Bizerte and concerned about civilian casualties, tried in vain to contact the Governor, Mohamed Ben Lamine, on the evening of July 20, to seek an arrangement that would allow him to gain control of the Narrows without fighting, in order to re-establish communication between the port and the Mediterranean. However, the Tunisian troops were ordered to resist at all costs. The fighting continued.

Fighting in Bizerte in 1961

France set up a military and war strategy for July 21. At 10 a.m., the Green Berets were released into the city, as much to regain control of the Narrows as to annihilate the Tunisian rebellion. A real urban war ensued, with a lot of hand-to-hand combat. On the 22nd, the French soldiers set out to clear the last pockets of resistance in the European quarter of Bizerte. Tanks criss-crossed the city. The situation was under control by the end of the day. Admiral Amman negotiated the ceasefire agreement with the Governor of Bizerte by telephone. It came into force on July 23rd at 1:00 am inside the city and at 8:00 am everywhere else.

The human toll of this lightning war varies according to the source. On the French side, it is known with certainty that 27 people were killed and 128 wounded. On the Tunisian side, meanwhile, between 600 and 700 people were killed–half of them soldiers and national guards– and 1,555 were wounded. But the official figures (the monument in the Bizerte martyrs’ cemetery honors the memory of 630 victims,) are questionable, and are considered to have been deliberately minimized in order to conceal the extent of the rout resulting from the government’s lack of foresight. In a speech delivered on August 24th, 1961, the Tunisian government’s Minister of Information, Mr. Masmoudi, announced 1,300 deaths. The Tunisian Red Crescent estimated that the three days of fighting had caused the death of 5,000 people; the historian Mohamed Lazhar Gharbi, for his part, suggests the figure of 4,000 victims as the most plausible. A study by the University of Sherbrooke puts the death toll at 1,300[6]

Aerial view of Bizerte by Jacques Hoden, Public Domain, Commons Licence

If the military balance sheet allows us to conclude the victory of the French army, the diplomatic balance sheet is more ambigous. In August, Tunisia obtained the support of the UN on the vote of a resolution condemning France. French civilians left Bizerte between July 23rd and September 30th, 1961. The evacuation opened the doors to an Arab world that was once hostile to President Bourguiba. In fact, the military base was not definitively evacuated until March 15th, 1963, seven years after the proclamation of independence and well after the end of the Algerian War.

The Jewish community of Bizerte faces rumors of treason

The consequences of the war in Bizerte are measured in a very different way when one considers the fate of Tunisian Jewry. In Bizerte there lived a community of about two thousand Jews, very well assimilated, with a high standard of living, who prospered as a result of the French presence there–as did all 50,000 inhabitants of the city. For Bizerte’s Jews, the dark days of the German occupation, when the entire community (as well as all Bizertins), had been ordered to evacuate the city, were forgotten. Eighteen years later, the Jewish community was far from imagining the brutal fate that awaited it.

“Indeed,” recalls Maud Adda, a member of the Association of Jews from Bizerte, created in Paris in the early 1990s to maintain the Jewish cemetery, “we were very attached to French culture and lifestyle. The community was not particularly religious, except for the holidays. We went to French schools and spoke French to each other. There were many mixed marriages, more than elsewhere. Some young men had done their military service in the French army. Many workers were employed at the Arsenal, in Ferry Ville. The train that took them there every day was nicknamed ‘the Arsenal train.’ The Jews were mainly jewelers, cloth merchants, there were small family businesses. Thanks to the French presence, we lived very well.”

The Jews of Bizerte did not suffer during the fighting, even though their cemetery was bombed and a perilous rescue operation was improvised in a hurry to allow the repatriation to Tunis of 130 teenagers who had gone to summer camp in a forest near Bizerte. They found themselves caught in the crossfire [7].

But here’s the thing: several sources claimed that the Jewish population gave unwavering support to the French army and collaborated with it during the crisis–something that did not escape the attention of the Tunisian authorities. In a note sent to President Bourguiba concerning the fighting on Friday the 21st and Saturday the 22nd, the governor of Bizerte went so far as to reproach the “Israelites” of the district known as “Rue de Tunis” for having helped the French military by shooting at Tunisian soldiers.

This rumor cannot be confirmed. It cannot be denied that Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs did good business with the French, and had an interest in maintaining the French base at Bizerte. But couldn’t the same be said of Tunisian Muslim merchants? There were also Jewish soldiers in the French troops’ ranks, and even among the paratroopers sent as reinforcements. A synagogue had been set up for them in the base for the holidays of Tichri. These different elements served as a breeding ground for rumors of treason or spying by Jews on the enemy’s behalf.

Photograph taken at R’mel camp, Hashomer Hatzair group. Credit: Armand Meyer Bokobza

After the cease-fire, mosques and churches resumed their services, while synagogues remained closed. The market that was held on Wednesdays was now held on Saturdays. In the days following the end of the showdown, dozens of Jews were arrested. One of them, Octave Haccoun, spent several years in prison. He was accused of spying for the French Army and of the murder of a commander of the Tunisian army – Commander Bijaoui, a 35 year-old, officer of Bourguiba’s order. [8]

There was talk of capital punishment for Haccoun. Despite the unfounded nature of the accusations against him, it took a much time and effort to secure the prisoner’s release. In France, a press campaign was orchestrated and finally, thanks to the intercession of Jean-Paul Sartre and Pierre Mendès-France–both of whom met with President Bourguiba in person–that Haccoun was released.

In the heart of the summer of 1961, reports converged on the threat of pogroms against the Jews of Bizerte. They came from French diplomats posted at the consulate in the city, from representatives of the Jewish Agency in Tunis and Bizerte, and also from members of the “misgeret”, the Tunisian branch of the secret network set up in North Africa in the mid-1950s by Isser Harel, the “boss” of Mossad. During the few weeks that separated the cease-fire from the Franco-Tunisian agreements of September 30 ratifying the departure of the French, all solutions were considered for the evacuation of the Jews of Bizerte.

Evacuation, to and through France–or Israel

The Consul General of France in Bizerte, Mr. Xavier Jeannot, was the first to alert the French authorities. In a telegram dated August 3rd, 1961, he reported: “The Jewish colony of Bizerte, which probably includes several thousand people, the vast majority of whom are Tunisian, is in the grip of the greatest anxiety. [They are] wrongly accused, it seems, of having directly or indirectly helped the French troops and participated in the battle, [and] extremely apprehensive about the departure of our soldiers and the reprisals that would follow. The confidences that some of our compatriots have received in recent days from Tunisian Muslims, though moderate, tend to prove that these fears are not vain. Since it is impossible to ensure the departure of these families at the present time without risking the most serious difficulties on the part of the Tunisian authorities, I am trying to reassure them, but I believe it is my duty to suggest to the Department that it call the attention of all organizations, governmental or otherwise, that might be able to offer the Israelites of Bizerte some protection. On the other hand, I would attach value to receiving instructions from the Department concerning the attitude I should adopt in various eventualities if my help were requested again in the next few days, as is very likely, by Tunisian Israelites, generally attached to our country and who would wish to find refuge there.”

Three days later, Consul General Jeannot returned to these analyses in a new telegram, explaining that the estimate of the size of the Jewish community in Bizerte had been overestimated and that in reality it was a matter of organizing the departure of several hundred people whose papers were not in order. On August 9th, the Consul General, referring to these previous telegrams, reiterated his fears about the precariousness of the situation of the Jews of Bizerte: “From several sides, I have heard of arrests or harassment to which the Tunisian Israelites are subjected by the authorities, even from the little people. Approaches to the Consulate General to find ways to allow the local Israelite community to leave the country are becoming more and more urgent and the tone is becoming more anguished. Unfortunately, the Israelites whose Tunisian passports are in order or valid are few, and in many cases, they are Franco-Tunisian families whose children have the nationality of one of the parents, and the other of the other. I will try to get some of these families with French ties on board the VILLE D’ORAN on August 11, but the problem will remain practically unresolved. The head of the Israelite community of Bizerte, who went to Tunis where he made contacts, informed me that the Jewish Agency would be willing to cover the cost of transport and stay for four days in Marseille for the Jewish families of Bizerte who would then go to Israel (…)”

A handwritten note on the telegram, received in Paris on August 10, indicates: “Wait.” Other elements confirm that at the Quai d’Orsay, the concerns of Mr. Jeannot as well as his desire to help the Jews, were not perceived with benevolence.

The liner Ville d’Oran. Creative Commons license

The director of the Jewish Agency mentioned was named David Isboutsky. His offices, located on rue d’Elbe in Tunis, were advertised under the sign L’Agence, association suisse à buts humanitaires. He went to Bizerte in August to help with the departure of Jews who could not leave the city. In a report, he confirmed in his own way the observations of the Consul General: 

“The city of Bizerte is being emptied of Europeans, the Italians are emigrating to Italy, the French to the mainland and the Tunisian Jews are in a catastrophic situation, their houses and stores are being looted and stolen from both sides. The Jews who lived in the Medina did not have access to their homes because barbed wire separated the European city. Some of them were arrested and imprisoned; we do not know what happened to them, despite the intervention of the international and local Red Cross. The undocumented Jews (700 people) were in a desperate situation because the government mail between Bizerte and Tunis was cut off. They had no possibility of escaping to Tunis, as the Tunisian gendarmes made a selection between Muslims and Israelites. Nearly 250 people wanted to go to Israel, but the Jews of French nationality did not want to lose their advantages and preferred to be repatriated at the expense of the French government and then continue, eventually, to Israel.”

David Istboutsky in Britain in 1944

In the conclusion of his report, David Isboutsky recommended that the evacuation of the Jewish community be urgently activated through the French authorities. He worked in close cooperation with the local representative of the Jewish Agency in Bizerte, Maurice Mattouk, then 24 years old. Mattouk put him in touch with the Deputy Consul General, Mr. Jean-Jacques Roos, who had been in office since 1960. This French diplomat, who was also Israeli, thought with them about how to organize the departure of the Jews from Bizerte. It is certain that Xavier Jeannot based his reports sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the information given by Jean-Jacques Roos, Maurice Mattouk and David Isboutsky.

In the conclusion of his report, David Isboutsky recommended that the evacuation of the Jewish community be urgently commenced through the French authorities. He worked in close cooperation with the local representative of the Jewish Agency in Bizerte, Maurice Mattouk, then 24 years old. Mattouk put him in touch with the Deputy Consul General, Mr. Jean-Jacques Roos, who had been in office since 1960. This French diplomat, also Israeli, thought with them about how best to organize the departure of the Jews from Bizerte. It is certain Xavier Jeannot based his reports on the information provided by Roos, Mattouk and David Isboutsky.

“In case of clear and imminent danger”

In this case, discussed by the highest authorities of the French state, the Quai d’Orsay does not frankly support the actions of its local diplomats, reflecting the reservations of Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, who disagrees with Prime Minister Michel Debré on this point. Their different approached to the issue are perceptible in the exchanges of diplomatic correspondence between the parties involved and deserves to be examined.

In a telegram dated August 26th, addressed to the Quai d’Orsay and communicated to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Consul General Jeannot relies on the support of the Prime Minister: “I think I should add that during the mission he carried out in Bizerte on August 18 last, General Puget, deputy chief of the Defence Staff, indicated to me that, following the instructions of the Prime Minister, Tunisian nationals, Israelis or Muslims, who so desired, could find with us, in the event of precise and imminent danger, particularly in the hypothesis of a withdrawal of the French troops, not only asylum in our military installations, but also facilities for departure by exceptional means.” This telegram received on August 27th bore a new handwritten note: “The Minister must discuss this with the P.M. Wait two or three days.”

In a note dated August 28, 1961, from the Directorate of Political Affairs for Morocco and Tunisia, the position of the Ministry is very clear: “The attention of the Minister should be drawn to telegram 70 from Bizerte (attached) concerning a possible evacuation of Tunisian Israelites and Muslims through the Bizerte base, if necessary by military means. It is reported that the Prime Minister’s position was favourable, expressed in Bizerte by General Puget when he inspected the base on 18 August. We had taken a substantially different position on 2 August in response to several telegrams from our Consul. The Prime Minister, questioned by Contamine at my request, recognized the danger of making known the position set out by General Puget (influx of candidates, risk of indiscretions and reactions from the Tunisians). But he confirmed it “for the case of precise and imminent danger” and considered that it should be indicated confidentially and in any eventuality to Jeannot and Amman. If the Minister agreed, it would be important to mark to Jeannot that he must until further notice maintain an absolutely negative attitude towards all requests before him.” 

The note further states: “Seen by the Minister – He considers the PM’s position unreasonable – will speak to him about it.”

On the ground, this difference in approach is reflected in the question, crucial for Jews, of obtaining a passport, a visa or a laissez-passer for France. The difference is embodied in two distinct figures of French diplomacy, the Consul General in Bizerte, Xavier Jeannot, whom we have seen at work, and Jean Royère, his counterpart in Tunis. With a constancy attested to by the numerous communications to his superiors, Jean Royère did not fail to denounce the steps taken by Jews to leave the country and to express his disapproval: “The Department is aware that hundreds of Tunisian families of the Jewish faith are trying by all means to settle in France. Some of them are worthy of interest, while others make no contribution to the French community,” he wrote in June 1960. Even at the height of the Bizerte crisis, he continued to express his reservations in the same terms: “The Franco-Tunisian crisis has undoubtedly placed Tunisian Israelites in a very difficult situation, especially those belonging to the intellectual elite who have always been close to the French in their way of life and their customs. I would like to inform you that, under these conditions, I have no objection to the priority and favourable consideration of applications for naturalization which have already been or will be submitted by Tunisian Israelites who meet the conditions required by article 4 of the law of 20 December 1923. In my opinion, only the files on which this Consulate General has given a clearly unfavourable opinion should be reported,” (slip no. 668/669 – 12 August 1961). 

It is a fact that the Consul General in Tunis applied the instructions severely and rejected many visa applications from Jewish families wishing to go to France. And about those who ended up leaving, Jean Royère denigrated them to his interlocutors: “Without ignoring the humanitarian reasons that prompted the prefectural authority to regularize certain particularly interesting cases on the spot, it is no less true that many Israelites – whose contribution to the French community appears to be questionable, to say the least – are trying to stay in France (especially in Paris and Marseille) even though their visas expired several weeks ago.”

In reality, the question of passports proved to be crucial in its importance and delicate in its execution. Jews of French nationality (about a thousand) left for the metropolis without difficulty, like all other nationals. There remained nearly 900 Jews for whom the situation was more complex. Most of them had expired passports. Jean-Jacques Roos used all the resources at his disposal to solve the problems on a case-by-case basis for weeks. In his memoirs, he explains, for example, how he worked with a young Tunisian woman employed in the largest travel agency in Bizerte, whose owner was Jewish. She would go to his office at the Consulate with expired passports, Roos would then grant visas and passes, with the indirect approval of the Quai d’Orsay, so that the passengers could disembark in Marseille. Jean-Jacques Roos was present at each departure of the boats because the Tunisian police controlled the passports and searched people. Before embarking, families handed over their money, gold or jewellery to him. Two or three times during the day, he would board the ship in his capacity as a French diplomat and return their belongings to them – often to their great surprise. Thanks to his action, at the end of August 1961, there were “only” 325 Tunisian Jews who wanted to emigrate, according to the count communicated to Paris by Xavier Jeannot (telegram no. 70 of August 26): “Of this number, about a hundred would probably have travel documents and could leave by normal means. For the others, about 225, it is practically impossible to obtain passports or passes from the Tunisian authorities.

Operation Solange

The September 30 deadline for the departure of the French forces the Israeli leaders of the secret network in North Africa to make the decision to begin preparations for a large-scale clandestine emigration operation to be codenamed “Operation Solange.”

On the ground, Maurice Mattouk, a young recruit of the misgeret, was mainly responsible for the aliya of the local Zionist youth movement. He had already distinguished himself by organizing, under cover of darkness, the repatriation to Tunis of teenagers who had left for a vacation camp in the region at the time of the violent clashes. He became totally involved in the operation to rescue the Jews of his native town, only leaving with the very last of the evacuees, on one of the two barges that linked Bizerte to Bône[9] on October 1st 1961. During the month of September, as the end of the French presence approached, the situation of the last 300 or so Bizertine Jews worsened and threats multiplied from all sides: “Wait a little while until the French are no longer there, and you’ll see how you’ll be taken care of! On September 8, 130 passengers boarded the “Ville d’Oran”, carrying Tunisian passports and escorted by French paratroopers.

No fewer than three operations were mounted by the Misery Corps before the “Solange” operation. Operation “Har Sinai” took place on September 13th: Ten Jews boarded a French military ship bound for Bône, with the Jewish Agency taking them as far as Marseille, thanks to Consul Jeannot, who managed to overcome the captain’s resistance. Two days later, the “Jericho” operation allowed fifteen men to board an army ship with a pass to Bône. There were still 130 names on the list drawn up by Maurice Mattouk. Seven families–21 people in total–left by boat on September 22nd, this time off the coast of Tunis as part of the “Moshe” operation. But eight days before the deadline for the departure of the French, 109 people were still waiting for a solution.

The last Sukkah of the Jews of Bizerte

It was in Paris, at the cost of a real “diplomatic marathon” that the final outcome was worked out. Under the direction of Ephraim Ronel, the head of the North African networks, based in Paris, Israel studied in great detail the possibility of chartering a boat from Haifa to bring the emigrants back to Israel, anchoring a little way from Bizerte, without the knowledge of the Tunisian authorities.

The boat was already in Naples, awaiting instructions, when the operation was cancelled after two Israeli navy experts sent to the scene declared it impossible. The risks were too great and the memory still too painful of the sinking of the raft Egoz, which sank in January of the same year off the coast of Morocco[10], urges Israel to be cautious. In his telegram n°70 of August 26, 1961, already cited, Consul General Jeannot relates in detail the terms of this operation and further specifies, “Consulted in this respect, the Admiral (Amman) considered that such an operation was not practically unfeasible, but that on the one hand it presented a random character, according to the atmospheric conditions, and that on the other hand it could not be carried out without formal authorization from the French Ministry of National Defense.”

David Ben-Gurion and Isser Harel, 1969. (Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel, Uzi Keren)

For the head of the Mossad, Isser Harel, and his right-hand man, the only solution was to obtain the help of the French government to organize the rescue of the last Jews of Bizerte. Ephraim Ronel addressed himself to Uzi Narkiss, military attaché of the Israeli Embassy in France, so that he could use his contacts for this purpose. But without an order from his direct hierarchy, the latter refused to take action. The head of the Mossad then referred the matter to the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who decided the issue. In his diary for the year 1961, Uzi Narkiss details the steps he took with his relations. Here are the main steps he took:

– September 21: Today I met with Admiral O’Neill, Vice Commander of the armed forces. We discussed the problem of the Jews that we want to get out of Bizerte, following the request of the Israeli Embassy in France, transmitted by its Advisor, Yael Vered. He told me that he will do everything possible as soon as he receives the order from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry’s position is as follows: Jews with French passports will be evacuated with the French if they want to, but Jews who do not have French passports will not be evacuated.

– So there was no help to be expected from this side. On the night of September 21, I met with Colonel Maton, head of Michel Debré’s military cabinet, and another friend, General Dodelier, head of the military staff in General De Gaulle’s cabinet.

– September 22: Admiral O’Neill informed me that despite the position of the Quai d’Orsay, the Prime Minister had decided to remove the Jews from Bizerte. The order was transmitted to Admiral Amman, in charge of the Bizerte base, to evacuate all the Jews, with the French families, in the greatest secrecy, without the knowledge of the Tunisian authorities.

– September 27: A note from the Élysée confirms that the French are preparing to remove the Jewish community from Bizerte.

– October 1: I telegraphed to Israel: “The 109 Jews of Bizerte arrived this morning at Bône at 9:00 am. It rained all night but their morale was very high. The plane rented by the Jewish Agency took off at 10:30 a.m. and arrived at 3:00 p.m. in Marseille. The French authorities in Bône welcomed them warmly but were very surprised because they had not been informed of the operation.

For her part, Yael Vered, Counselor of the Israeli Embassy in France testifies that, “this negotiation with the French government was without a doubt the most difficult of her entire mission in France. We were pressed for time. The date of October 1 was approaching, General De Gaulle had to go to Poland, he was not aware of the affair. Everything came to a head in Kippur when Walter Eytan (the Israeli Ambassador to France) succeeded, after many detours and much pressure, in obtaining a direct telephone conversation with the General, who was in fact the only one who could decide. Even the intervention of Prime Minister Michel Debré was insufficient. On the day of Yom Kippur, the general gave his approval and his operational agreement.”

On the morning of the Sabbath of September 30th, 1961, the date of expiration of the deadline granted to the French, the word of order was passed to everyone: “Prepare your suitcases, this evening we will come to get you. Pack lightly.” And at nightfall, in private cars belonging to Jewish families that will be abandoned on the spot, the last illegal immigrants head for the naval base. They had no passports. They boarded two comfortless tank landing craft. Tarps were set up to shelter the fugitives from the gusts of wind and heavy rain. Frightened children cried. Men prayed under the makeshift shelter. It is the first night of the festival of Sukkot. They had left behind their country, their home, as the song says.

The synagogue of Bizerte, inaugurated in 1954, is today a public library

The rescue of the Jews of Bizerte, forgotten by all, inaugurates the departure of the great Jewish community of Tunisia. Between August 1st and October 1st, 1961, 4,200 of them obtained short-stay visas to leave the Tunisian capital in a hurry to take refuge in France. At the same time, 500 others obtained similar visas for Israel.

Fleeing Bizerte, leaving Tunisia … There are still a few thousand Jews in the country today, mainly in Djerba and Tunis, determined to stay at any cost … The rich history of Jewish life in Tunisia can not be reduced to a few figures. It still beats in the heart of its diaspora.


Agnès Bensimon
Agnès Bensimon has been a journalist in France and Israel. After having directed the Institute of Jewish Audiovisual Memory (IMAJ) in Brussels, she is in charge of the cultural service of the Israeli Embassy in Belgium. She is the author of an essay on the clandestine emigration of Jews from Morocco: “Hassan II et les Juifs, histoire d’une émigration secrète” (Le Seuil, 1991, translated into Hebrew by Yediot Aharonot, 1993).

Notes

1 The village was three-quarters destroyed, a school razed to the ground, and 74 dead and 102 wounded were deplored.
2 This is what President Bourguiba proposed on 17 February 1959: “For the abandonment of Bizerte, the only counterpart would be peace and a negotiated settlement of the Algerian problem […] We are ready to make this sacrifice, if we can, with Bizerte, thanks to Bizerte, help our Algerian brothers, and by the same token France, to put an end to the conflict […] I believe that a French base can be accepted if this opportunity can hasten peace, facilitate concord, and open up economic and political possibilities that would represent for France in North Africa a solid peace…” (in Archives ANOM, Bob. A84, carton 26H25 (2), d 3, f 185, Bourguiba press conference of 17 February 1959) https://www.cairn.info/revue-confluences-mediterranee-2008-4-page-129.htm#no56
3 The youth wing of the nationalist New Constitutional Liberal Party, which was then known as Neo Destour.
4 The term in French is “guerre éclair,” and refers to a quick and often quite violent conflict–not unlike the German blitzkrieg.
5 In La guerre de Bizerte: le choc de deux Stratégies by Noureddine DOUGUI, we read: “[…] at the moment when the planes strafed the troop concentrations, orders were given to large crowds of teenagers, women, children and party cadres to march on the French installations in Bizerte and Menzel Bourguiba. But the human shield tactic failed miserably. The French retaliation will not distinguish between civilians and soldiers. See also a telegram from the Minister of Defence to Admiral Amman: “The Tunisians’ method of systematically mixing women and children with the combatants poses a problem. Whenever possible, you will try to solve it by demanding the withdrawal of non-combatants, by means of formal notices addressed to the civilian authorities and military leaders. But whatever the result of these steps, it is in the final analysis the execution of your mission that takes precedence over all other considerations.
6 Mohamed Lazhar Gharbi. Les Cahiers de Tunisie – Vol LXI, n° 189-190. 2004 The Bizerte crisis. Perspective Monde. University of Sherbrooke. February 2011
7 On the site Harissa.com dated 18/08/2015, Armand Meyer Bokobza evokes the memory of his friend Henri Bellicha. Both were members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair in Tunis and had participated in the mahane (camp) organized in the forest of Bizerte in that month of July 1961. “This stay had almost ended tragically for several of us because we had been caught in the violent fighting between the Tunisian forces and the French army”
8 In the Tunisian magazine Leaders, in July 2014, General Said Elkateb returns to the events of Bizerte and pays tribute to the commander of the Artillery Regiment Bijaoui, who fell in battle on July 21. He wonders: “Why was it necessary to send this regiment to the scrapyard in the city of Bizerte? Nothing can justify this thoughtless, absurd decision (…). Of this unnecessary sacrifice, it was necessary to designate a culprit: the Jew Octave Haccoun served as, following the ancient tradition of the scapegoat.
9 Annaba, “Bouna”, formerly Bône during the French colonisation, is the fourth most populous city in Algeria
10 On the night of January 11, 1961, 42 people perished in the final crossing of the Egoz between Al Hoceima, in northern Morocco, and Gibraltar. They were Moroccan Jews leaving the country clandestinely under the responsibility of the Moroccan government. See “Hassan II et les Juifs, histoire d’une émigration secrète”, A. Bensimon. Le Seuil. 1991.

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