Sunday, February 08, 2015

How a Jew's beheading led to equal rights

This interesting article by Viviane Lesselbaum Scemama tells how the  Fundamental Pact of 1857, guaranteeing equal rights  for all the Tunisian Bey's subjects, arose out of the test case of a Jew called Batto Sfez. His beheading symbolised the degraded condition of dhimmis in North Africa before the western powers began to exert their influence. 

Coin issued by Mohammed Bey in 1857, the year of the Fundamental Pact

A Tunisian Jew named Batto Sfez was accused of being drunk insulting a Muslim and cursing the Islamic religion.

He was brought to justice under sharia law and sentenced to death.

Jews and Christians were outraged by the cruelty of this sentence. They appealed to the consular authorities to stop the execution and implore Mohammed Bey to show mercy.

A few days before the arrest of Batto Sfez, it should be recalled that the Bey had executed a Muslim soldier who had murdered a Jew. For good measure, it seems, the Bey ordered to enforce the same sentence on Batto, the slight difference being that Batto Sfez was not a murderer. He was beheaded on June 24, 1857.

This tragedy shook the Jewish community. It suffered its dhimmitude in silence: it had no right to the law. Faced with this travesty of justice the community was all more offended that the body was not restored to it. 

At the beginning of the Hebrew year 5772  (calendar year 2011) I reported to a friend, of Tunisian origin my research on the Batto Sfez case. She reminded me that Sfez was beheaded and his head was picked up by an unscrupulous Arab gang and used as a football.

The Jewish community strove to find a solution to recover the head of the unfortunate Sfez. It met  discreetly and decided to appease the baying crowd, empty its pockets of all hard cash, as well as boxes of "tzedakah" and deliver them to the Council which was planning to give a handful of cash to each of them. The secret was well kept. The headless body was already installed in a cart
converted into a hearse followed by a grieving crowd. This procession headed towards the Arabs who were enjoyed their macabre game. The funeral procession stopped . The coins were thrown at them. They let go of their prey and ran headlong to collect the manna. The stratagem succeeded. The Jews took back the head and buried it with dignity in the Jewish cemetery.

The incident may have been forgotten by the Bey but for the Consuls of France and England it presented an opportunity - a  pretext to pressure the Bey on August 13, 1857 to introduce reforms based on justice, security and the freedoms granted to all subjects. After some hesitation, Bey introduced reforms based on the principles of justice and freedom.

The Fundamental Pact was proclaimed.

Read article in full (French)


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