The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Libya

Chef Dennis Wasko explores how the long history of Libya's Jews influenced the cuisine of this North African country.

libya jews 298 (photo credit: Beth Hatefusoth)
libya jews 298
(photo credit: Beth Hatefusoth)
Jewish settlement in Libya can be traced back to the 3rd century B.C.E.  At that time, and until the twentieth century, the vast area now known as Libya was made up of the provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. 
Jewish life flourished in the region especially in Cyrenaica.  Many of the Jewish settlers came from Egypt. There were great trade routes that stretched across the Maghreb (Northern Africa) and to Jerusalem. The strong trade ties allowed the Jews of North Africa to maintain ties with Jerusalem. 
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Then in 73 C.E. there was a revolt against Roman authority. It was led by Jonathan the Weaver, a zealot who had come from Judea. Jonathan’s revolt was short lived, as the mighty Roman army crushed the revolution and murdered him and many other Jews.  After this cataclysmic event, the history of Jewish Libya becomes quite sparse.
Libya became an Italian colony in 1911, and by the 1930’s there were 21,000 Jews living in the country. Life for Jewish Libyans was generally good until the Fascists came to power in the late 1930’s.
The Fascist government began passing Anti-Semitic legislation which stripped Jews of their professions and education. When North Africa was occupied by Axis forces during World War II, over 2,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps deep in the desert. Many of these Jews perished due to the extreme conditions.
After World War II the situation did not improve for the Jews. In 1945 there was a pogrom in Tripoli. Many Jews were killed and all of the synagogues in Tripoli were either looted or destroyed. Jewish homes and businesses were also attacked. Another pogrom in 1948 resulted in more Jewish deaths and more loss of Jewish property. This time though, the Jews were prepared and fought back against the Anti-Semitic mobs. Many lives were saved by the bravery of the Jewish forces.
The founding of the State of Israel and the general lack of safety prompted 31,000 Jews to make Aliyah between 1948 and 1951. Emigration continued throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. By the time of the 6 Day War, there were only 7,000 Jews remaining in Libya. 
As a result of the war, the remaining Jews once again became the targets for Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel violence. The situation became so desperate that the Jewish community petitioned the king for permission to temporarily leave the country. He gladly consented and in the course of 1 month, 6,000 Jews were relocated to Rome by the Italian Navy.
Of these, 4,000 soon left for Israel and the United States. The rest remained in Rome, never to return home.
By the time Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the Libyan Government in 1969, only about 100 Jews lived in Libya. Under this madman, all Jewish property was seized, all debts owed to Jews were canceled, and it became illegal for Jews to leave the country.
Jews did find ways to leave Libya and by the early 1970’s there were only 20 Jews left in country. By 2002, all of the remaining Jews had either died of old age, or emigrated. Today there are no Jews left in Libya.
The Libyan government has made some feeble attempts to compensate Jews or their descendants whose property was taken, but with many stipulations.  No Jew who resettled in Israel is to be compensated, as Gaddafi is a staunch enemy of the Jewish State. Oddly enough, he has also turned on the Palestinian Arab “refugee” population of Libya. They were expelled when the Palestinians entered into Peace talks with Israel in the 1990’s.  The recent upheaval in Libya may spell the end for Gaddafi and his tacky regime. Many innocent Libyans will lose their lives, but for once the Jews are safe.
Food plays an important role in uniting Libyan Jews to their heritage. Their cuisine is very typically North African with some special twists. Libyan cooking was greatly influenced by Italy during the colonial days. Couscous, a pasta, is the national dish of Libya. 
The use of tomatoes and tomato sauces is also quite prominent, as is the use of hot chilies and lemon. Basil, which is not commonly used in North African cuisine, is a favorite herb. The combination of all of these components results in a pungent and flavorful cuisine.
The following recipe for Kifte bil Haut, Fish Balls in Basil Sauce, deliciously shows the Italian influence on Libyan Jewish cooking with the fish being seasoned with nutmeg and the brightly spiced tomato sauce with fresh basil and crushed chilies. This sprightly flavored fish would make a great first course for Shabbat or any day.
Kifte bil Haut
Serves 4 to 6
For the Kifte:
-1 pound fish fillet, snapper, grouper, or tilapia, chopped fine or pulsed in a food processor
-½ cup bread crumbs
-2 large eggs, beaten
-½ cup chopped onion
-1 garlic clove, chopped
-¼ cup chopped parsley
-Scant ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Flour for dredging
-½ cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
For the Sauce:
-1 15-ounce can whole tomatoes, pureed
-2 tablespoons tomato paste
-½ cup water
-12 fresh basil leaves, sliced thin
-2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, chopped
-¼ - ½ teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
-Juice of ½ a lemon
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Preheat oven to 350.
-Place all of the ingredients for the fish balls, except the ground fish, flour, and oil, into the bowl of a food processor.  Blend until well combined and smooth.  Transfer mix to a clean bowl, add the ground fish, and mix until well combined.
-Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a sauté pan.  Form fish mixture into 12 egg-sized oval balls, dredge in flour, and brown them on all sides in the preheated pan.  Transfer the fish balls to a baking dish.
-Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Pour the hot sauce over the fish balls.
-Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 to 40 minutes.
-Serve hot or warm with couscous or pita.
Dennis Wasko has been a Professional Chef for 12 years and is the author of New Israeli Cuisine,, and Beyond The Kitchen Wall