David Gerbi 311 R.
(photo credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
David Gerbi recalled on Thursday his first and last face-to-face encounter with
Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator killed earlier in the day by rebel forces
in his hometown of Sirte.
In 2009, Gerbi, a Libyan-born Jew, accepted an
invitation to meet Gaddafi in Rome to speak about improving relations between
the regime and Libya’s Jewish Diaspora.
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“I can see his face in front of
me now,” Gerbi related in an interview conducted via Skype from Rome. “He had
the eyes of a Beduin, someone who could find water in the desert, but he could
not connect with our reality.”
Gerbi was one of the few members of the
Jewish Libyan community in Rome who came to the meeting. The rest had boycotted
the gathering because it was provocatively held on a Saturday, the Jewish day of
rest. During the meeting, Gerbi said he pressed the autocrat to restore the
rights of Jews and permit the reopening of the country’s synagogues, which lay
“He said, ‘Yes, yes, there would be no problem,’” Gerbi
recalled, “but nothing happened.”
The killing of the Libyan leader on
Thursday marked the final chapter in the troubled history between Gaddafi and
When the young colonel came to power in 1969 the Jewish
community of Libya, which traced its history back to antiquity, had already been
decimated by pogroms carried out by Muslims angered over the Israeli-Arab
conflict. From a peak of around 30,000 during the 1930s, only a few hundred
remained, but it was Gaddafi’s policies that brought about the community’s
elimination. He confiscated private and communal Jewish property, withheld civil
rights for Jews and forbade those who had taken refuge abroad from
“The damage he did in 1969 was that he did not allow Jewish
people to come back; he did not allow them to renew the passports,” said
“He destroyed the Jewish cemeteries in Tripoli and Benghazi. He
converted synagogues into mosques. He wanted to eliminate our memory of 2,000
years of Jewish people in Libya.”
The few Jews who were still in Libya
fled. By 2002, none remained.
In recent years Gaddafi held irregular
talks with Libyan Jews in the Diaspora, preferring to deal with those in Italy
over their brethren in Israel, the “Zionist entity” he would often vilify in his
lengthy tirades. The self-styled “Brother Leader” and “King of Kings” would
sometimes promise to consider returning their rights and property, and allowed a
few individuals to visit, but nothing ever came to fruition.
By the time
the revolution against his regime came late last year there was talk of
progress, but it was too little, too late.
Raphael Luzon, a leader of the
Libyan Jewish community in the UK, preferred to look forward on Thursday, saying
it was an excellent opportunity to open a new page in relations between Jews and
the new Libyan government.
“Of course, we are happy and giving our
solidarity to the Libyan people for this day that hopefully will end the war and
start a reconstruction of a new and democratic Libya open to all,” he wrote in
“We understand that now the Libyan leaders have to form a new
government that creates a commission to write down a new constitution and fix a
date for general elections.”
Gerbi said he preferred to be
He recently spent several months in Libya, where he went to
show support for the rebels. However, he was forced to leave after a
muchpublicized attempt to restore a synagogue in Tripoli causing a furor among
locals. He said that post- Gaddafi Libya must reverse the slain dictator’s
policies toward non-Muslims.
“This day [has] arrived and now is the time
to reorganize, but they have to decide which way to go: either to become a
democracy with a Jewish minority or go with the Islamists,” he said. “It’s an
important day and we’re going to see what will come next.”
Both Luzon and
Gerbi hope to be invited by the National Transitional Council governing the
country to take part in the democratic process.
Gerbi, a Jungian
psychologist by profession, offered a psychological interpretation of the
challenges that now face Libya after the killing of its autocratic
“It’s easy to get rid of Gaddafi the person,” he said, “but much
more difficult to get rid of the Gaddafi within.”