The Jews Of Libya. Their Story Is My Story
I left Libya over 42 years ago when the mobs were roaming the streets. They were not chanting for democracy or yearning for freedom they were looking for Jews. I am a Libyan Jew. I have now lived in the Bay Area for forty years. The upheavals sweeping Libya open old wounds. Violent political culture has often been part of Libyan society, especially towards its Jews.
There was a Jewish presence in the region since the 3rd century BCE – one millennium prior to the advent of Islam. We were "tolerated" to varying degrees by successive rulers and continued to be part of a rich and ongoing thread in the fabric of Libyan society.
During WWII, when the Germans invaded North Africa, there were 36,000 Jews living in Libya, mostly residing in Tripoli and Benghazi.
In 1942, over 2,000 Jews were deported to Nazi labor camps. More than 500 perished. Members of my family died in the Giado Labor Camp in Libya.
After WWII, Arab nationalism spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, leading to riots which often turned into violence directed at the Jewish communities. In 1945, over 140 Jews were killed and many injured in a pogrom in Tripoli called the “Mora’ot”. The film “The Forgotten Refugees highlights these events”.
My mother Laura escaped by jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she was rescued by a Christian woman. After the riots my father helped bury the severed bodies of his friends; an experience which traumatized him for the rest of his life.
When Israel became a state in 1948, anti-Jewish riots escalated, synagogues were torched, and Jewish homes were destroyed. This resulted in the mass emigration of 30,000 Jews to Israel. By 1950, only 6,000 Jews were left from what was once a thriving Jewish community. I was one of those Jews.
We were not allowed to leave the country, have citizenship, travel, hold government jobs or attend government schools. We were tripped of our basic human rights and treated as “Dhimmi” subjugated second class citizens. Although I was raised in an orthodox Jewish home, I had no other choice but to attend Catholic school. I could recite prayers in Latin, but I was not allowed to learn Hebrew.
In 1967 during the six-day-war between Israel and its five Arab neighbors, mob took to the streets burning Jewish homes. I became separated from my family and was hidden in the home of a Christian family.
By order of the Libyan Government, we were expelled; all of our assets were confiscated. We were allowed one suitcase and the equivalent of $20. Fleeing the country, we narrowly escaped death when the bus driver attempted to burn the bus taking us to the airport. We were rescued by Christians.
Today, there are no Jews left in Libya. Their story is my story. Some went back to try to retrieve lost assets and were thrown in jail for several years by Muammar Khaddafi.
Forty years later, “el-rais" – “the leader” Khaddafi promised the Libyan Jewish community in Rome to discuss compensation of their lost property, but he never did. Recently, he invited a few exiled Jews to return. He played host, exploiting the opportunity for his own political reasons.
On the basis of race and religion, Arab regimes subjected Jews to arbitrary arrests, confiscation of property and expulsion. Almost all Arab countries and especially Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya have consistently discriminated against their Jewish populations. As a result nearly one million Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were forced to flee since 1948.
The Jews of Libya were victimized as the Libyan people today are victims of their regime. Both should seek justice.
Today also, the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya are struggling to change the regimes which oppressed them and stripped them of their dignity. Hopefully, Libya will establish a new government, and when they do, an opportunity will present itself to acknowledge the historical injustice which forced their Jewish communities to flee. As in South Africa, only the acknowledgment of the inconvenient truth will lead to reconciliation, because without the truth, there can be no reconciliation. This is the first step in healing a damaged society.
Gina Bublil Waldman was born in Tripoli, Libya. She is the President of JIMENA - Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa