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(photo credit: AP)
Before leaving Rome on Saturday, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi met with about 300 Italian expatriots expelled from his country in 1970, and an unofficial group of five Jews of Libyan origin.
The official Libyan Jewish representatives had turned down Gaddafi's invitation for a Saturday meeting because "we cannot bow our heads and desecrate the Sabbath," Shalom Teshuba, vice president of the Rome Jewish community, stated in a note delivered to Gaddafi.
Teshuba's letter reviewed a century of Libyan Jewish history and included a request for talks aimed at restitution and restoration of family and religious heirlooms confiscated after the massacres and expulsions in 1967.
The five unofficial Jewish representatives who walked to the meeting included distinguished peace activist and Jungian psychoanalyst David Gerbi. Clothed in the traditional white cassock, cap and pin-striped gilet typical in pre-'67 Libyan Jewry and wearing a Magen David around his neck, Gerbi asked Gaddafi to permit the restoration of the Sia Dar Bisni Synagogue in Tripoli, for which he had personally gathered funds. The community left behind over 47 synagogues, several of great historic and religious significance.
He also asked that six mezuzot he had brought to Libya for this purpose in 2007, when he was arrested and bereft of his belongings, be returned to him.
Both the Italian Catholic and Jewish guests were invited to speak publicly, and were greeted individually by Gaddafi.
The Libyan leader recalled the late Raffaele Fellah, a former president of the World Organization of Libya Jews. When told of his death, Gaddafi said, "Mercy to his soul," and praised Fellah's attempts at mediation. He added, however, that these attempts had brought no results because "he tied the Jewish question to that of Israel."
A silver sculpture of two hands clasping in front of a mountain was presented to Gaddafi by the Italian Libyan refugees, who were mostly dressed in the green of the Libyan revolution. A gift from Libyan Jewish refugees was also given.
Gaddafi reiterated his invitation to all to come back to Libya, and again stressed that priority would be given to Italian enterprises over other nationalities.
The issue of restitution for Jews who fled from Arab lands will be discussed in Rome this week during a meeting of the Justice for Jews from Arab Countries organization. The main speakers are former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler and Prof. David Meghnagi, former vice president of the Italian Jewish community and chairman of Rome University's Holocaust education master's program.