Libyan Jews divided over bid to restore Tripoli temple

Libyan Jewish leader: Failed attempt to reopen synagogue was hasty, done without consultation.

David Gerbi with Berber friends 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Gerbi with Berber friends 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
David Gerbi grabbed headlines around the world over the weekend when he ceremoniously knocked down a wall sealing the Dir Bashi synagogue in Tripoli with a sledgehammer, telling reporters he planned to fix up the dilapidated Jewish place of worship.
“I plan to restore the synagogue,” the Jewish psychologist, who fled Libya with his parents to Italy when he was 12, declared. “I plan to get the passport back, I plan to resolve the problem of the confiscated property, individual and collective. I plan to help rebuild Libya, to do my part.”
But Gerbi’s efforts, undertaken at great personal risk, were not universally welcomed.
Not only was he barred by local gunmen from returning to the site the following day but he was also admonished by several prominent members of the Libyan Jewish Diaspora who said he had acted hastily and without prior consultation.
“This is not a one-man show,” said Raphael Luzon, a Libyan Jew living in the UK who had negotiated with longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and is involved in talks with the National Transitional Council (NTC).
“You have to be part of a framework, part of an organization. I have received many calls from [Libyan Jews in] Rome because he is not talking about the community but about himself as a new messiah. We have to move very carefully.”
In Rome, a leader of the local Libyan Jewish community, the second largest after Israel, was also critical of Gerbi’s tactics.
“I personally believe that such personal initiatives, without any coordination with the Jewish community, is not in its interests,” said Elio Raccah over the phone. “We believe such talks should be done on a collective basis. The rebuilding of a synagogue by itself is an isolated concession because what we want is restitution of our rights and certainly not of a single building.”
But Meir Kahlon, the head of the Israeli-based World Organization of Libyan Jewry, rejected those arguments, saying Gerbi acted responsibly and with authority.
“I sent Gerbi,” said Kahlon. “We speak for all the Libyan Jews in Israel and many outside the country. I don’t need permission from the Libyan Jews in Italy or the UK.”
Kahlon defended Gerbi, saying he did not plan to renovate the building, only to clean it from debris so that Jews could pray there. “The problem is that everybody thinks they can do better,” he added.
Talks between representatives of the roughly 200,000 Jews of Libyan descent in the Diaspora and the Libyan government over restoring their civil rights and restitution of Jewish property have been going on for years without real progress.
Jews had lived on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Libya since antiquity. During World War Two they were interned by the Italians, and some were sent to concentration camps in Europe.
After the war, most made aliya, while those who stayed behind came under increasing pressure from authorities angered over the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Most of the remaining Jewish community fled the country in the 1960s and 1970s after a series of pogroms and the passage of anti-Semitic legislation. Many of those who left during this period settled in Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler. The last Jew in Libya died in 2002.
The World Organization of Libyan Jewry, based in the Tel Aviv suburb of Or Yehuda, said it had recently opened a channel of communication with the NTC.
“We sent them letter with our seal in English, Italian and Hebrew,” Kahlon said. “We’ve received a letter from them saying they cannot give us a reply yet.”
But Raccah said over the phone from Rome that despite its name, the World Organization of Libyan Jewry represented only part of the Libyan Jewish community in Israel and had acted irresponsibly in the past.
He said that in 2010 it secretly sent Israeli-Tunisian photographer Rafael Haddad to document Jewish buildings and cemeteries in the North African country. Haddad was apprehended shortly after arrival by security forces and held several months in prison before being released.
“It was we in Rome who quietly set in motion our best endeavors and local direct contacts to co-ordinate and negotiate to obtain his release,” Raccah said. “He was safely returned to his family in Austria... We would like it for similar incidents, not to occur in the future.”
He advised caution and urged the Jewish Diaspora to wait for the political situation in Libya to stabilize before engaging in talks with the new government.
“At the moment, it’s just talk,” he said. “The country is still at war.”
Luzon, the Libyan Jewish leader residing in London, also called for calm. He said he was awaiting further developments to deliver his reply to an offer extended to him by the NTC to take part in future general elections held in the country.
Meanwhile, in Tripoli, a tearful Gerbi on Monday vowed to continue to press Jewish claims and work with authorities to rebuild the country despite resistance.
“I am sorry for the people who love me,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters. “But I will not give up.”
While there may be disagreements within the community over leadership and tactics, all parties agree that the end goal of talks with the NTC should be the return of civil rights to Jews and the restitution of confiscated property.
Kahlon told The Jerusalem Post he and many other Jews of Libyan descent living in Israel dreamed of one day visiting their country of birth.
“We get phone calls all the time from members of the community asking when they can travel to Libya,” he said.” I speak as someone who grew up in Libya and left at the age of 11. I remember well what it was like. Like Moroccan Jews who can visit Morocco, what I really want is to visit and see my grandparents’ grave.”