Yesterday, Libya failed a critical litmus test on freedom when it blocked exiled Libyan Jew David Gerbi in his attempt to reopen Tripoli’s synagogue and forced him to flee the country. This ugly episode sheds light on an uncomfortable reality: Libya, for millennia the home of a large Jewish population, is a country now completely devoid of its ancient Jewish population, and, despite the democracy revolution, it appears determined to keep things that way.
Gerbi, whose family fled to Rome in 1967, is a 56-year-old psychologist who has spent a lifetime working to preserve Libyan Jewish identity in the diaspora. Last summer, Gerbi traveled to Libya to help treat rebels with post-traumatic stress disorder. His efforts were welcomed by the National Transitional Council. In early October, he returned to Libya to reopen the Dar Bishi synagogue — one of the few not demolished or put to other use. Gerbi believed the time was right for reconciliation between Libya and its Jewish diaspora and that, having earned the trust of the revolutionaries, he was the right man to take the first step.
He was mistaken. Threatened as soon as he attempted to clean out the synagogue, Gerbi quickly became the object of mass protests. On the eve of Yom Kippur, demonstrations broke out in Tripoli, as well as the former revolutionary stronghold of Benghazi. Over the weekend, an angry mob stormed Gerbi’s hotel, demanding his immediate deportation. Despite assurances that it would resolve the situation, the National Transitional Council stepped aside. On Monday, Gerbi gave up and left.
Libya’s quest for freedom this Arab Spring does not apparently extend to religious freedom or even mere tolerance of Jews. The reason lies in the state-supported anti-Semitism that became a dominant national ideology in post-independence Libya and was institutionalized under Qaddafi. At its base is the pernicious conflation of the actions of the state of Israel with Libya’s Jews, a people with roots in that area stretching back long before the arrival of Islam and Arabic culture. Despite coexisting peacefully with the non-Jewish population for over two thousand years, Libyan Jews have come to be viewed by their former fellow countrymen as necessarily Zionist and thus inherently subversive.
Historian Robert Satloff noted in his Among the Righteous that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as Mussolini’s government began deporting Jews to concentration camps in Libya, the majority of Arabs were disinterested, with some even seeking to protect them. Despite deportations and internments in concentration camps, most Libyan Jews survived the Holocaust and numbered over 36,000 when British rule was introduced in 1943.
Relations drastically deteriorated afterwards. A dire economic situation that was blamed on the local Jewish population, combined with rising Libyan nationalism and nascent pan-Arabism, opened floodgates of anti-Semitism. Pogroms against the Jews occurred in 1945 and 1948. These events coincided with the 1945 establishment of the Arab League and the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel, followed shortly thereafter by the Arab League’s attack on Israel. For Libyan Arabs, Jews — not just Israelis — became their principal enemy.
Libya’s first prime minister after independence declared he “could see no future for [Jews] in Libya.” The new government had priorities other than defending an unpopular minority. More than 30,000 Jews — over 90 percent of that population — fled or were deported from Libya between 1949 and 1952. In 1964, Libyan anti-Semitism had become so pronounced that Jewish-American airmen stationed near Tripoli were advised by their superiors to disguise themselves as Christians by prominently displaying Christmas trees in their homes
By 1967, the government had deprived Jews of nearly all rights and stripped them of citizenship. That June, the state sponsored “Palestinian Week,” which capitalized on fervent regional anti-Zionism in response to the Six Day War. Rallies and mosque sermons whipped up anger toward Israel and Jews. After mob attacks swept Tripoli and Benghazi, Jews hid at home or were locked down in government-protected camps for days. In less than two weeks, after agreeing to allow the Jewish community to “temporarily” relocate, the government organized charter flights for what turned out to be the permanent evacuation of over 5,000 Jews.
When Qaddafi seized power in 1969, Libya’s Jews numbered just 80 people. From the start, Qaddafi espoused a conflated anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist ideology and within months of his coup, imposed laws confiscating all Jewish property, cancelling all debts to Jews, and making emigration illegal. Qaddafi’s iron-fisted rule stifled Libyan progress and prevented the open flow of information, allowing anti-Semitic rhetoric — and the policies it informed — to infect Libyan society for the next forty years. In recent years, Qaddafi’s anti-Semitism showed scant signs of mellowing. In a 2008 Wikileaked diplomatic cable, American diplomats wrote that the Qaddafi government had adopted “repugnant anti-Semitic tactics” in attempting to close down Tripoli’s British department store Marks & Spencer, which it linked to Jews. U.S. officials were apprised of a lethal plot by an informant who “noted darkly” that if the store did not shut down, government agents “would see to it that [a businessman involved whose name was redacted] was involved in a fatal car accident.”
Virulent anti-Semitism may be the one constant in revolutionary Libya. It remains deeply entrenched even within the rebel forces. (According to reports, in an attempt to recruit support, the rebels spread rumors that Qaddafi himself was secretly a Jew.) David Gerbi’s story is a reminder of the deep challenges that remain in the new Libya. A state’s ability to negotiate pluralism and create an environment in which minorities can peacefully coexist with the majority is the measure of any democracy. For now, Libya’s Jewish minority remains in exile.
— Sarah Schlesinger is a research fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.