-- Some call this "the miracle island."

The painted signs above the shop doors reveal the unusual fact of life here: Hebrew on one sign, Arabic on the next, one after another, long after today's Middle East rendered that a relic from a more peaceful age.

About 1,000 Jews remain on this dot of lush green land off the Tunisian coast, living among nearly 70,000 Muslims. They live side by side, as they have for centuries.

"Sometimes we talk about the situation between the Israelis and the Arabs," said jeweler Hai Haddad as he burnished a piece of silver at his tiny shop deep in the market. "But we don't let it affect us here. We know the situation in the Middle East, and we know the situation here."

No one here claimed there hadn't been problems, but Jerbans have weathered them. The resulting coexistence is all but unique in the Arab world.

"It is a total community -- total Jewish and total Arab," said Abraham Udovitch, a Princeton University professor of Near Eastern studies whose curiosity about the unusual island has lured him there many times. "Very few of the communities in the Arab world were able to do that. They are the last ones that remain in any number."

At the end of World War II, sizable Jewish communities -- some numbering in the hundreds of thousands -- existed in the Muslim nations of the Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq. Many Jews left with the establishment of Israel in 1948, and many more moved to Europe and the United States as Israeli-Arab conflicts stirred tensions across the region.

Most Jewish-Arab communities ended up like those of Egypt and Yemen, with only a few dozen remaining widows and retirees.

Jerba is different.

There, Jewish families are young and growing, as are the Muslim households next door. The Jewish temples are busy and in good repair.

When an outsider, later linked to al Qaeda, drove a gas truck into the historic Ghriba synagogue in April 2002, killing at least 19 people, Muslims joined Jews in a defiant march of solidarity.

"It was an attack against all the people of Jerba, not just the Jews," said Ferhat Maanid, an Arab carpenter in a Jewish-owned workshop just off Palestine Street, a short walk from the temple.

Two years after the attack, the caretaker of the synagogue said the island has gone back to its carefully guarded seclusion.

"The problems in Palestine are far away," he said, sitting in the hushed temple, collecting small donations from elderly French tourists. "They are other people's problems."

The synagogue, among the oldest in North Africa, sits like a monument to mixed heritage.

Its cantilevered walls are adorned with bright, hand-painted Tunisian tiles. The old man swaying forward and back as he prays in the dim light wears not a yarmulke but a crimson Tunisian chechia, which looks like a crushed fez.

Every year, thousands of people come from abroad to visit the ancient temple during the springtime holiday Lag B'Omer. Some come seeking cures or miracles. Others come with grants and dissertation proposals, searching for clues to the most vexing question of the modern Middle East: Can Jews and Muslims ever rediscover common ground?

Jerban Jews trace their ancestors' arrival to 586 B.C., the time of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem.

Over the centuries, waves of others arrived, expelled from Spain, Italy and elsewhere. At their peak in the mid-1940s, 5,000 Jews lived on the island, concentrated in two neighborhoods known as the Large Quarter and the Small Quarter.

In time, Jews and Muslims moved in among each other, cultivating a careful coexistence rooted in a shared history that remained embedded in their business, educational and religious life.

Muslim families frequently kept a small room in their homes where Jewish farmers could stop work at sundown and prepare a Sabbath meal when away from home.

"We were all farmers, no different. If sunset came, we lived together," said Sadok ben Khamis, an 80-year-old Muslim resident.

In town, roles were clearly defined: The Jews ran small gold and silver shops, while Muslims handled the pottery, carpet and spice trades.

After centuries, that social and economic architecture was strong enough to defy the outside pressures of politics and hatred.

As the minority, the Jews honed "an ability to be integrated, to be part of their cultural environment, but to manage the boundaries well," Udovitch, the professor, said. "In certain domains, they didn't mind the interaction -- economics, for instance. But in others, it was very limited and controlled."

Those limits remain today.

"We respect that we don't marry the Jews and the Jews don't marry us," said Mohammed Assas, 53, a Muslim member of the local business council.

In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the Arab-Israeli wars stirred tensions and thousands of Jews sold their shops and moved to Europe and Israel. In 1985, a police officer guarding the Ghriba synagogue opened fire on the worshipers, killing three of them.

Despite that, today the population is stable. Some young Jewish couples have returned recently, after their families left a generation ago.

At al Souani grammar school, 130 of the 512 students are Jewish.

"We don't talk to them as Muslims or Jews, we talk to them as Tunisians," said Principal Amor Bouzelma, whose cluttered office is plastered with posters of Mecca. "In the Koran, it said we and the Jews are cousins. . . . If we are cousins, why are we fighting? Violence only creates violence."

But in today's world, where satellite dishes bring a stream of distant disputes, many parents in Jerba worry that their children will have a harder time defying the political pressures from the outside world.

"Of course the younger generation, they think differently. On both sides, Jews are wanting to be with the Jews, and the Muslims are wanting to be with the Palestinians," said Kriouane Abdelfettah, an antiques dealer who recently returned from the pilgrimage to Mecca.

So far, though, the region's angers have been kept at bay. When Jerban schoolboys play soccer in the afternoons, they divide into Jews versus Muslims, but that is flexible.

"If the Jewish team is not powerful, then we will get a good Muslim player to join us," said Eliran, a bushy-haired 13-year-old.

To Haddad, the jeweler, the responsibility lies with the men and women of his generation to inoculate their children with the belief that "you can live with any person, if you don't deprive him of his life or his opinion."

After all, he said, the world can't afford to lose Jerba.

"To find a community like this, when things are so difficult in the Middle East," he said, working a hunk of silver with gnarled hands, "it means things are not impossible."