Next Year in Tripoli

Will my people -- the Jews of Libya -- ever be able to go home? 

KARIM SAHIB/Getty Images
KARIM SAHIB/Getty Images

I am a Jew from Libya.

Although my family and I were forced to flee Libya for Rome after the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I still consider myself to be a proud Jew, a proud Libyan, and a proud Italian. I have been back four times since 1967, but have been forced to leave each time. Although much time has passed, I still feel the freshness of Tripoli’s air and its special light: hot, but not blinding. I want to feel that light again — but in a stable Libya, a country that affirms freedom, justice, and the rule of law, protects freedom of religion for all its people, and honors its Jewish heritage.

Libya’s revolution represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring back the Jewish community into my homeland’s social fabric. As I discovered firsthand, however, when a mob prevented my efforts to rebuild Tripoli’s synagogue by shouting anti-Semitic slogans, the hateful attitudes that Muammar al-Qaddafi was only too happy to encourage will not disappear overnight. In this post-Qaddafi era, I hope that Libya’s new leaders will embrace needed change and that stories like mine will help make that happen.

The history of Libya’s Jews stretches back to the third century B.C., through the 1492 Jewish expulsion from Spain, and up to the 20th century. My community saw Romans, Ottomans, and Italians come and go. For hundreds of years, we coexisted peacefully with Libyan Muslims, despite the tensions wrought by political upheaval. As recently as 1931, Libya’s Jewish community of about 24,500 people represented 4 percent of the country’s population. (By comparison, the U.S. Jewish community, the largest in the Diaspora today, is only 2 percent of the U.S. population.)

But the wars of the 20th century decimated our community. The trouble began in 1938, when a Nazi-inspired racial law against Jews led to heightened persecution, and hundreds of Libyan Jews were killed in riots during that period. By 1949, many Jews had been forced to leave after Libyans rioted again in reaction to the establishment of Israel. By 1969, with Qaddafi in power, only about 100 Jews remained. At that time, Qaddafi confiscated the assets and possessions of all Libyan Jews, including those who had left in 1967 and earlier, and declared that Jews could not return or renew their passports.

My family built a new life in Rome, but I never forgot where I came from nor abandoned my dream to return. In 2002, I was the first Jew to be given permission to return to visit my aunt, Rina Debach. Upon finally being allowed to leave in 2003, she joined our family in Rome, where she died 40 days later. She was the last Jew to leave Libya, and her departure marked the end of more than two millennia of continuous Jewish presence there. While not one Jew lives in Libya today, the original Diaspora population of 38,000 has grown to about 200,000 people who reside largely in Israel and Italy.

In the years since, I have made several trips to Libya as part of reconstruction and reconciliation efforts on behalf of the Libyan Jewish community, acting as a representative for the World Organization of Libyan Jews (WOLJ). In 2007, I was invited back by the Libyan government because of my support for normalized Libyan-U.S. relations. After volunteering at the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, I began trying to restore Tripoli’s Dar Bishi Synagogue, which dates from the late 1920s but has deteriorated badly over time. The Qaddafi regime ultimately made my work impossible: I was abruptly detained, interrogated, and, without any reason or explanation, dispossessed of all my belongings and deported.

I met Qaddafi when he visited Rome in June 2009 and invited the Libyan Jewish community to meet with him on Shabbat, in a large tent he had erected in a city park. Scheduling the meeting for that day signaled to us that his goal was mostly focused on public relations. While most members of the community could not attend because it was the Sabbath, I was there in my traditional Libyan robe with a Jewish star at my neck.

Speaking in Italian, I pressed him on opening the Dar Bishi Synagogue. While I had little to hope for, given his detached manner and empty promises, I was pleased to discover that the meeting somehow helped me start shedding my fears and gain back some of the dignity I had felt I lost as a refugee: Qaddafi could no longer harm me, and my Libyan, Jewish, and Italian identities gave me strength.

During my last trip to Libya in the spring of 2011, I joined the anti-Qaddafi rebels by volunteering again at the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, where I trained the rebels to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was in the mountains north of Tripoli a few months later, working on PTSD with Amazigh Berbers. Like most Libyans, their suffering resulted not only from the current conflict, but also from 42 years of calamities caused by the dictatorship. What they desperately needed was to overcome their fears and find that they could hope again — hope for a better life in freedom.

After Tripoli was liberated, I once again tried cleaning up the Dar Bishi Synagogue. Even though I had received permission from the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the local government to undertake this work, a mob gathered, shouting that "there is no place for Jews in Libya" and carrying signs in both Arabic and Hebrew to make sure, I suppose, that I got the message. Once again, I had to leave. But this time I left with dignity, not fear: I left on the day of my choice and on my own terms. I wanted to signal to the NTC that I would work with it to restore calm and that it needed to work with me. And in so doing, I found more strength.

Despite all these challenges, I still have hope. I will continue to do what I can so that the Jewish presence in Libya is not forgotten and Jews, as well as all minorities, can reclaim their rightful place in Libya. I know that this will take time. Tripoli’s new leadership faces enormous challenges, such as building the essential elements of government and civil life and bridging ethnic and regional divides. But part of this effort must include preserving and protecting Libya’s few remaining Jewish heritage sites. I also urge the NTC and similar bodies to recognize and meet with the WOLJ as the legitimate representative of the Libyan Jewish community.

Hope often needs help. The international community must also act. The United States and its NATO allies played a pivotal role in helping the Libyan people achieve freedom, and now they can help steer the new government toward a path of justice and reconciliation. These countries must send a message to the NTC and other Libyan leaders that they can demonstrate their seriousness about democracy and human rights by breaking with Libya’s past and welcoming back Jews and other minorities. It is a win-win proposition for all interested in Libya’s development and success.

U.S. citizens can also help by urging President Barack Obama’s administration to remain true to its values. The White House must not only focus on economic and political development, but also human rights. As we so often have seen, the way countries treat their minorities signals how they will behave toward their neighbors and the world.

A peaceful, stable Libya is most likely to be realized if it is pluralistic, open, and tolerant. Libya must become a free, just, and democratic country, grounded in the rule of law, in which all of Libya’s minorities — including those Jews forced to flee — are welcomed back into the Libyan family. We can make a difference at this critical juncture, before the cement dries, by making a mark for democracy, human rights, and religious pluralism, so that Libya becomes a model for reconciliation and tolerance.

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