The Tunisian official helping to rescue Jewish homes
“This has taken me years.” the assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia says, pushing a bundle of documents across his cluttered desk. “But finally the family has legal ownership of what is rightfully theirs.”
Moché Uzan has just established property rights for a family of Tunisian Jews who abandoned their home when they fled the country in the mid-1960s. This is his most recent case from a personal project to restore the property of Jews who hurriedly left Tunisia at various difficult times over the last century. Many left with nothing to start their lives again.
Alongside his main role as assistant to Rabbi Haim Bittan, this project has been taking up more and more of Mr Uzan’s spare time. The work can be laborious, painstaking, and sometimes fruitless.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a career path,” he smiles wryly. He earns a small fee for his time but only if he successfully manages to prove ownership for the families abroad.
“One case can mean years of effort — with sometimes nothing to show for it at the end.”
But when all his research and evidence-gathering comes to fruition, it can be very rewarding.
Mr Uzan furrows his brow as he digs out a couple of stapled documents from under a mound of paperwork.
“Take this case,” he tells me with a certain quiet pride. “I’ve been working on this one continually since 2017. And at the beginning of this year I finally secured the title deeds for the family.”
He tells me that anyone attempting this work before the 2010-11 revolution often came up against documents falsified by those close enough to the autocratic regime to be untouchable.
Even in today’s democratic context, the authorities can be uncooperative. In one recent case, it took two years to officially register the death of a former property owner — a process that normally takes less than a fortnight.
“They don’t exactly block my efforts, but they’re hardly keen on having the property restored, either,” he says. “When I make enquiries, I’m usually told that extra anti-fraud measures are required because of the ‘non-Tunisian’ names on the documents.”
Like many young Jews who grew up in the capital, Mr Uzan received part of his education in France. After a short spell in the US, he was part of a small number of Tunisian Jews who came back to the country after the revolution. Initially he only planned to stay for a few months.
“But I ended up so involved in all of this,” he says, gesturing across his desk. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
The Tunisian Jewish community numbered around 120,000 in the mid-20th century, but today fewer than 2,000 remain, the vast majority on the southern island of Djerba. Abandoned synagogues across the country are testimony to the country’s long and rich Jewish past.
Many of the dates of widespread Jewish emigration are common to other countries in the Maghreb and beyond: the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973 which saw outbreaks of local antisemitic violence.
Other incidents were specific to Tunisia: the period of instability around independence in 1956; the military conflict with France in the “Bizerte crisis” of 1961; the 1982 arson attack on a synagogue in Zarzis; and attacks on Djerba’s ancient synagogue in 1985 and 2002.
Almost half the émigrés went to France and almost half to Israel, with small numbers in other countries such as the UK. Mr Uzan works principally with those now in France; it is not feasible to help those with only Israeli passports, given the lack of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
He cautions against generalising the political and social circumstances surrounding the emigration — “It was happening at various stages, under greater or lesser degrees of duress at different moments” — but the large number of properties abandoned over the decades leaves an impression.
“If you consider that many were leaving behind property of not insignificant value, then you can imagine what people’s mental states must so often have been,” he says.
“These were people in a hurry.”
From the 1950s, a black market sprang up in the property of hastily departed Jewish families. The houses would be occupied and sold on at significantly below-market rates.
“People knew the risk they were taking when they made this sort of unofficial purchase,” Mr Uzan says.
“Without the title deeds, there can be no legal sale.”
His work is still possible decades later because in Tunisia, the occupier of a property cannot in any circumstances acquire ownership without the legal title, if such a deed has previously existed.
This is true even after an extended period of the occupier living unchallenged in the property.
Today, if the original owners or their heirs are abroad, they are entitled to recover the house. If they intend to sell on, they are required to give the current occupier priority to buy it at a fair price.
I hand back the documents Mr Uzan passed me at the beginning of our interview. As in the vast majority of cases, the owners plan to sell.
“In general, people aren’t interested in coming back to retrace their roots, especially where there are bitter memories,” he tells me.
“But there’s a real dignity in restoring this property to its rightful owners, even after all this time.”