There are reasons for Jews to view the fall of Muammar Gaddafi with satisfaction: A bizarre and dangerous enemy of the West and Israel is on the verge of defeat, and the Libyan people may be on the threshold of freedom. But, as in Egypt, the second Arab Spring in Libya looks like a mixed blessing. One test will be the manner in which the new government treats the Jews and Israel.
Libya is, historically, a place of conquest and revolt.
Jews arrived there long before the Arabs, much less Islam: Ptolemy I is reported to have settled Jews in Libya in 312 B.C.E., and more Jews arrived 150 years later. The Libyan Jews of Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east became rural farmers and craftsmen and urban aristocrats.
As Romans, Christians, Arabs and Islam swept over Libya and North Africa, the Jews remained. With the coming of Islam, it appears that the Jews of the coast were dispersed to the interior. Their numbers were increased by refugees from Spain and Italy, and they suffered or prospered under various Muslim rulers.
The Italian conquest of Libya in 1911 initially brought the Libyan Jews
equal rights, but those rights were eroded by Italy’s subsequent
alliance with Germany and the imposition of the Racial Laws of 1938.
During World War II, control of North Africa shifted back and forth
between Italy and Britain. With every British reverse, the Jews’
situation deteriorated. Thousands were deported to brutal labor and
internment camps in the desert.
The British liberated the country in late 1942, but the result was a new
phase of persecution that led to the Jewish community’s demise. In
1945, Muslim pogroms killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed their homes,
shops and synagogues; British occupation forces stood by. On the verge
of Libyan independence in 1951, Prime Minister Mahmud Muntasser was
frank: He could see “no future” for Jews in Libya. Between 1949 and
1951, some 30,000 Libyan Jews left their ancient home for Israel.
With the rise of Arab nationalism and the permanent state of war against
Israel, the remaining 8,000 Libyan Jews were systematically stripped of
their rights as Libyan citizens. They were barred from having
passports, visiting Israel, and serving in public office. Jewish schools
and communal organizations were closed. Jews were banned from obtaining
the nationality certificates required for engagement in commerce, and
in 1961 the government sequestered the property of Jews who emigrated to
After the Six-Day war, a series of pogroms culminated in the outright expulsion of Libya’s remaining Jews.
As it was across the Arab and Muslim world, for Jews, Libya’s first
“Arab Spring” as an independent state was a sad and familiar story.
Initially, the sudden ascent of Muammar Gaddafi seemed familiar as well.
The official story is that Gaddafi, a member of a small, Arabized
Berber tribe, was raised in a tent. As with many lowerclass tribesmen,
he found his path to power in the military.
And, as with other tribesmen like Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, who
seized power across the Middle East in the age of Arab nationalism, he
found Jews and Israel to be a useful obsession.
The strongmen inspired by Gamal Nasser regarded the historic defeats of
1948 and 1967 as epic humiliations. In the name of restoring their
honor, they turned their societies into police states in which their
tribes were pre-eminent.
In this context, the military coup led by Captain Gaddafi in 1969 was routine.
But Gaddafi was different. Unlike his fellow tyrants, he fancied himself
a revolutionary mystic. At first, his “philosophy” was a kind of
Islamic socialism. But it meandered over the decades from Arabism to
Islam to Africanism. His choice of enemies was eclectic. He turned
against Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prince Hassan of Morocco when those
countries made peace with Israel. When the PLO began negotiating with
Israel in 1995, he expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians. But he
also fought border wars with Chad, Tunisia, Algeria and Niger. His
support for terrorism was equally wide-ranging and mercurial. His agents
blew up American military personnel in Germany, supported the IRA,
killed a British policewoman in London, and in 1988 blew up Pan Am
flight 103 over Scotland. Gaddafi feuded with Arafat but supported the
PLO and Black September with millions of dollars annually.
Even Gaddafi’s attitude toward the Arab-Israel conflict appears to have
changed, slightly. In a 2009 editorial, published in The New York Times
he called for a one state solution, but gave it a characteristic twist
with the name “Isratine.” His was the standard formula, complete with
the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians – and thus by definition
announcing his intention for Israel to be destroyed.
Gaddafi was, to the end, the picture of a cartoon villain, with the wild
hair, the flamboyant uniforms, the Amazonian guards and the endless
monologues. The astonishing thing was that this very model of a
megalomaniacal, narcissistic tin-pot dictator was regarded as anything
but. Such are the power of oil, the threat of terrorism, the marvel of
theatricality and the fascination of educated Westerners with the
strange ways of the East.
With his regime all but gone, hopes are running high that the new government will create a democratic Libya.
There have been reports of Libyan Jewish businessmen sounding out the
rebels about recognizing Israel. But the prominent role of Islamists in
the rebellion is not a promising sign, and there is little evidence that
Libya’s new leaders will be any more inclined towards Jews or Israel
than Gaddafi was. One small harbinger is the changing narrative
surrounding the rich crazy uncle of the Arab world: As Gaddafi’s regime
began to falter, stories began to circulate that his grandmother was
And so Libya enters a new era. For months Gaddafi’s weapons and stolen
Libyan cars have filtered into Egypt, Sinai and Gaza. What will become
of his heavy and unconventional weapons is unknown. Other signs portend
ill. The Egyptian military sounds more Islamist by the day. The Muslim
Brotherhood and other groups are growing bolder in their demands.
Islamists are surging in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, and
waiting in the wings in Algeria, Morocco and Jordan. A sad, realpolitik
view is that this second Arab Spring is quickly leading to a cold,
It would be especially bitter if Gaddafi ended by being missed as the devil that we knew.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and
Community Research. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas
Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com), and is reprinted with permission.
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