Tripoli's ghosts

Libya was home to one of the most thriving Jewish communities, whose descendants want to visit the graves.

By
September 17, 2005 00:22
libya jews 298

libya jews 298. (photo credit: Beth Hatefusoth)

 
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“There are no more Jews in Libya today, not even one. They are all gone," said the old man, a local municipality council employee who escorted me to the abandoned Jewish cemetery in Homs, a tiny Libyan town 130 kilometers from Tripoli. Homs was once home to a small yet ancient Jewish community, which for centuries buried its dead in this very cemetery. But for the last 38 years, there have been no Jewish visitors to this sad place, where only the whistling of winds and the barking of dogs break the silence. Today, the cemetery is empty, motionless, neglected. The inscriptions on some graves are completely illegible; on others, the names and dates - written in Hebrew - are clearly discernible. Pieces of tombstones with Hebrew letters on them are scattered all over the place, but it does not appear that the cemetery was the victim of ant-Semitic vandalism; the stars of David on the graves are intact and there are no anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli graffiti. "People probably used some of the stones for construction purposes. This is the way of life here," said my escort. Yes, this is the way of life. The Jews have left Libya, but there are hundreds of Jewish houses, synagogues and cemeteries like this one spread all over the country. Slowly, they are disappearing, as there is no one to preserve or take care of them. Libya is a fast-growing country, and now that the sanctions against it have been lifted, the land is needed for other purposes. Today, Libyans are trying hard to make up for the 12 years of stagnation in their economy. Buildings are rapidly going up, businesses are opening and land - especially in the coastal areas - is becoming an expensive commodity. "At least this cemetery still exists, unlike the Grand cemetery in Tripoli," said Pedi Ben-Atiya, the head of Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewry, in Israel. There were all kinds of emotions on Ben-Atiya's face when I showed him pictures of the cemetery. His grandfather, Joseph Boaron, is buried there. He scanned the photos, and saw his grandfather's grave; it was in decent shape and the inscription was readable. His expression evinced the joy of knowing that his ancestor's grave was untouched. But it also belied the anxiety of not knowing how much longer this cemetery will exist and the longing for a country that is so far away. It may be true that there is not a single Jew in Libya today - the last Jew, Rina Dabash, left Tripoli in October, 2003 (see box) - but there are plenty of Jewish holy places that have been left behind, and if they are not taken care of soon, Libya will not only have no Jews, it will have none of its historic Jewish sites. MUAMMAR GADDAFI, 63, has ruled Libya with an absolute, almost god-like authority ever since his coup d' tat in 1969, when he and his group of supporters overthrew the monarchist regime of King Idress. Gaddafi's manifesto, the so-called "Green Book," which outlines his criticism of the modern world - namely, democracy and capitalism - has, essentially, been his blueprint for running the country. Over the years, Gaddafi has supported various militant movements all over the world, including the Irish IRA, the Spanish ETA and the Palestinian Fatah. But it was ultimately the Libyan leader's denial of responsibility in the Lockerbie bombing affair that cost the country 12 years of economic sanctions. It was not until 2003 that, in a dramatic shift of foreign policy, Gaddafi acknowledged Libya's involvement in the bombing, and agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families. He also agreed to get rid of any WMD in his possession. The UN sanctions were lifted, and Libya began aggressively promoting itself as the new North African tourist destination. The role of Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, 32, in these developments has been key. Although he doesn't hold any official position in the government and his only official title is head of the Gaddafi Charitable Organization, his fingerprints are on almost every major international move the country has made since it began its recent rehabilitation. VISITING THE town of Zlitan, home to one of the great Muslim architectural wonders, the magnificent Sidi Abdel Salam Mosque, I discovered the city's ancient Bushaif synagogue had recently been destroyed. "A whole new district is being built in this area," an old man who still remembered the synagogue's glory days explained to me. "On Jewish aayad (holidays), it was crammed with people. It was a beautiful building," added another man in his late forties, who remembered playing outside the synagogue with the Jewish children when he was a kid. Libya is certainly not the only Arab country whose Jewish population fled or were expelled. There are not many Jews left in Egypt or Tunisia, either, but the historic Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Cairo has been maintained, as has the Velichestvennaya Synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, not to mention the well-preserved Jewish sites in Morocco. Aside from being an important part in the historic mosaic of the region, these places are renowned for being tourist magnets. As Libya attempts to reopen itself to the West and shed its old image as a rogue regime, perhaps destroying ancient synagogues and cemeteries is not the smartest move. According to Pedi Ben-Atiya and David Gerbi, an Italian psychologist of Jewish-Libyan descent, a letter has been sent to Gaddafi's son, in which the heads of the Libyan Jewish community offered to pay for the restoration and preservation of Jewish holy sites in the country. "We will gladly pay whatever it takes to avoid the neglect and destruction of our holy sites," said Ben-Atiya, who feels very strongly connected to Libya and dreams of visiting. The letter was sent over a year ago, but as of yet, there has been no answer from Tripoli. Ben-Atiya is frustrated, but he is trying to remain optimistic. "I hope for the best. We try to gather information about different Jewish sites in Libya and feel enormous joy discovering they do not cease to exist. We, Libyan Jews, also hope that we will get the chance to visit our beloveds' graves and contribute to their preservation." Gerbi is more skeptical, regarding both the potential for rapprochement between Libyan Jews and Libya and between Libya and Israel. "We all witnessed the outstanding statements of Muammar Gaddafi about allowing Libyan Jews to visit the country and receive reparation for their lost property. The Israeli delegation was about to visit the country and the future seemed very rosy. Unfortunately, today, a year and a half later, it seems these were all empty gestures." Gerbi believes that rapprochement with Israel and with Libyan Jews was never really Libya's intention, that it was just a means of flirting with the West. Right now, Libya-Italy relations are cool and there is definitely no progress in Libya-Jewish relations, he added. Gerbi himself undertook a historic visit to Libya in 2002. "The visit was wonderful and very emotional," he said. "My hosts were generous and welcoming people, but when I mentioned the possible reconstruction and maintenance of Jewish holy sites, they immediately turned cold towards me." CONGRESSMAN TOM LANTOS, who was the first member of US Congress to visit Libya, and who has contributed a great deal to the rebuilding of US-Libya relations, believes that Libya is genuine about changing its policies towards the West. As for normalizing relations with Israel, that will come too, Lantos said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "We have to understand that there are historical processes that have to take place. In addition, they take time. Not all can happen in one second. I personally believe this is not merely a face-lift, but a true change in attitudes and acts. Today, Libya is disarmed completely. Its foreign policies are changing. The opening of an American embassy in Tripoli is a matter of months, and I invited Mr. Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi to visit the US in the near future. "Of course, we would love to see much more rapid progress in other spheres as well, such as the human rights issue... But I'm sure that the final change will come eventually with the new generation of Libyan leaders." Israeli MK Moshe Kahlon also believes that change in Libya will take time. Descended from Libyan Jews, Kahlon was invited to Tripoli in 2004, but at the last minute, the visit was called off. "I warned the media not to publish the details of this visit before it began, as Libyans prefer to be very discreet on such matters. I knew that confidentiality should be maintained. Unfortunately, someone leaked the information to Maariv, and in the end, the visit was cancelled." When it comes to promises made by Libya, Kahlon said he is not involved, nor does he particularly care about the much-discussed reparations to Libyan Jews. He believes the issue of the abandoned and neglected Jewish holy sites is much more important. "After seeing the pictures of Homs cemetery - Homs is my mother's hometown - I'm considering writing a petition to the Libyan leader, as something needs to be done about these holy places as soon as possible," he said. But while the politicians engage in slow-moving diplomatic games, the Jewish sites in Libya are on the verge of extinction. The majority of Jewish businesses in Tripoli's medina, the old city, have been destroyed; so has the city's Jewish cemetery. Officially, Tripoli claims to have taken responsibility and to have repaired several Jewish sites, but according to Ben-Atiya, this is too little, too late. "We don't want anything from the Libyan government," he said. "Just let us come, see and take care of our holy sites. This is not political, but merely a religious and cultural issue." LIBYA HAS had a Jewish presence since the third century BCE. Most Jews lived very comfortably under Roman rule until 70 CE, when the poorer members of the community staged a revolt. The Romans retaliated indiscriminately, killing the revolters as well as other members of the Jewish community. By the 18th century, there were over 20,000 Jews in Libya, most of them in the city of Tripoli. Fascist laws discriminating against Jews began to be passed in the late 1930s. Nevertheless, Jewish life in Libya continued to thrive and even as late as 1941, Jews accounted for a quarter of Tripoli's population, and there were nearly 50 synagogues in that city alone. In 1942, the Germans occupied the city's Jewish quarter, terrorizing the population, looting shops and ultimately deporting over 2,000 Jews to Europe. But many Jews were still left in Libya; throughout the 1940s, while the country was under British occupation, there was a series of pogroms. In 1945, a particularly violent pogrom left over 100 Jews dead and five synagogues destroyed, and Jewish life in Libya became untenable. Although emigration was technically illegal, Jews began leaving the country in droves in 1948, many for the newly created State of Israel. More than 30,000 Jews fled Libya the following year, when the British finally legalized emigration. By the time Gaddafi came to power, in 1969, only 500 Jews remained. Amid Gaddafi's many new "policies," all Jewish property was confiscated by the government and any debts owed to Jews were declared null and void. By the mid-Seventies, only 20 or so Jews were left in Libya. As part of his efforts to end Libya's international isolation, Gaddafi has begun exploring "normalization" with Israel. In August 2003, Labor MK Ephraim Sneh and Shinui MK Ilan Shalgi met with Seif al-Islam in Europe. Several months later, Foreign Ministry Director-General Ron Prosor met with a high-ranking Libyan official in Paris. When news of the meeting hit the media, Libyan officials denied the meeting had ever taken place. And MK Moshe Kahlon's 2004 invitation to Tripoli, as well as plans for the Israeli chess team to participate in the International Chess Olympics in the Libyan capital, never materialized, following leaks to the press. Gaddafi and his son have both mentioned the possibility of reparations to former Libyan Jews on more than one occasion. Speaking to Libya's Popular Committee for Public Security and Justice, Gaddafi said that Libya was willing to compensate its former Jewish citizens. In March 2004, Seif al-Islam told al-Jazeera that Libya "will open the file of compensation for Jews who lost their property and money." In August 2004, Gaddafi made a public statement indicating his willingness to pay reparations. Since then, however, no steps have been taken to live up to his promise. The last Libyan Jew A chance encounter in 2002 between David Gerbi, an Italian psychologist of Jewish-Libyan descent, and an employee of the Italian embassy in Tripoli, revealed that David's aunt, Rina Dabash (his mother's sister), was still alive, and living in the Gaddafi Home for the Elderly in Tripoli. Gerbi had contacted the embassy to recover some missing paperwork for his elderly mother, who had left Libya in 1967. When the employee heard the name of Gerbi's mother, he suddenly recalled a women with a similar name living in the old age home. After asking his mother and other relatives, Gerbi understood that Rina Dabash is indeed his long lost aunt. A few months and hundreds of letters and petitions later, Gerbi was on a plane to Tripoli. Still not fully believing that his Aunt Rina was alive, Gerbi entered the hospice where Rina had lived for the past decade. The attending nurse told him that Dabash was not responsive and that she didn't recognize anybody. "It was Rosh Hashana eve, so I brought her gifts and tried to speak with her," Gerbi recalled. "She initially replied in Arabic, but then switched to Hebrew, a forgotten language she probably hadn't spoken in dozens of years. "She told me she wanted to come with me and celebrate Succot and then Simhat Torah," Gerbi said. It took Gerbi almost a year to arrange all the necessary paper work to bring Dabash to Italy. The old woman died a month later and was buried in Israel.

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