A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rebel Leaders, Amazigh Explore Contacts with Libyan Jews Abroad

One interesting historical/cultural sidelight of the ongoing and unfinished transition in Libya has been at least a cautious, tentative outreach to the Libyan Jewish diaspora by the rebel forces.  Although early in the fighting there were reports that Islamist elements in the rebel forces were using the rumor that Colonel Qadhafi was Jewish to rally support against him, (Some Libyan Jews in Israel have claimed one of his grandmothers was a Jewish convert to Islam.) Over the past few weeks there have been a number of news reports dealing with reported outreach to the Libyan Jewish diaspora, though Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi a few years ago himself made some gestures to Libyan Jews abroad. A leader of Libyan Jews in the UK has told the Jerusalem Post that he had been approached by members of the National Transitional Council, suggesting he return to Libya and run for political office. An AFP report noted the longtime relationships between Jewish and Amazigh ("Berber") communities in Yafran (Ifren, Ifrane), in the Jebel Nefusa, while The Jerusalem Post, again, has emphasized how David Gerbi, representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, based in Italy, has cultivated good relations with the Amazigh rebels. 

Although as I noted, in the years since his rapprochement with the West Qadhafi himself had opened links with Jewish Libyans in the diaspora, and Saif al-Islam had been more open in urging Libyan Jews to return, possibly due to the overinflated view many Arab leaders have of Jewish influence, combined with a recongition that both Morocco and Tunisia (especially Djerba) have benefited from significant Jewish tourism (even from Israel), Libya itself has no indigenous Jewish population. The last Libyan Jew, an elderly woman in a rest home in Tripoli, emigrated to Italy in 2003.

Her departure marked the end of a long history of Jewish presence in what is now Libya. The Hellenistic city of Cyrene in eastern Libya was a major Jewish center in the last years BC and the first years AD; in the gospels Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus' cross, and the Acts of the Apostles mentions Cyrene frequently. Jewish communities spread to Tripoli and the Jebel Nefusa (hence the Amazigh links).

But the 20th century was not kind to Libya's Jews. Though Benito Mussolini came to Anti-Semitism late, mostly due to his Axis with the Nazis, Italy's Anti-Semitic laws also applied in Libya. Aftar there were two pogroms in Tripoli, and many Libyan Jews fled to Italy or, after the establishment of Israel, to the new Jewish state. Emigration continued throughout the monarchy period and became more extensive once Qadhafi came to power. As noted, the last Jewish Libyan is believed to have left in 2003.

Most of the Libyan Jewish diaspora are in Israel and Italy, though there are also significant numbers in the UK and the US. Whether the flirtations of the new rebel leadership will lead anywhere will doubtless depend on the makeup of the new government, whose formation has been delayed yet again. But it's an interesting sidelight of the Libyan revolution.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

As late as last year, Qadhafi government was still keeping its lines out to the Libyan Jewish community in Italy. Some protection of property by the state in order to lure Jewish diaspora investors back, and there had been visits of Italian resident Libyan Jews. The former Jewish school in the old city was being kept in good shape, possibly with some Jewish diaspora assistance. The very large synagogue in the old city was something of a ruin, but it looked more like the result of neglect than looting, and it seemed to have government protection as a former place of worship. The old US Embassy building (a Libya Jewish property we rented from its absentee owner) was in the same wrecked shape it was when we evacuated after a Libyan mob entered and sacked it in 1979. Our impression was that it was still being treated as an absentee owned property.

Bottom line: There is a lot the new government could do to cultivate relations with the Libyan Jewish diaspora.