Haddad story highlights efforts to recover Libyan assets

Or Shalom head Pedazur Benattia: Many people came to me and said, ‘We didn’t know you [Libyan Jews] had such a history, it’s a very moving story.’

311_Libyan Jews (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Libyan Jews
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pedazur Benattia is a man in much demand these days.
Since his organization Or Shalom made front-page news earlier this week, he has been busy giving interviews to media outlets, explaining how the group he founded 15 years ago with the aim of strengthening the Libyan Jewish Diaspora in Israel became involved in a diplomatic imbroglio over the incarceration of an Israeli- Tunisian photographer in Libya.
“Hold on, Army Radio is on the phone,” Benattia politely interrupted an interview conducted at his offices – located in the basement of a dilapidated residential building in Bat Yam – on Thursday. After a five-minute break, the soft-spoken father of five returned to his desk, picking up the conversation from where he left off.
“There are assets worth billions of dollars belonging to Jews in Libya,” he said. “[Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi nationalized all of them and burnt the archives, which is a good way of getting rid of the ownership – no one can prove anything. Some Libyan Jews, particularly those who fled to Italy, are trying to get some of it back, just like Italy recently gave [$4.5 billion] to Libya as compensation for colonization. But if you ask me, I’d rather they not pay. If the Libyans gave money, then the Jews would start fighting over who gets what. I’d rather that not happen. Better they not give anything.”
The affair has put a spotlight on Or Shalom and the Libyan Jewish Diaspora. Jews have lived in Libya for thousands of years. During the 1930s, there were some 21,000 Jews spread throughout the country, but persecution by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, followed by a series of homegrown pogroms, resulted in mass emigration abroad, mostly to Israel. In 1967, the remainder of Libya’s Jews were forcibly driven out of the country.
Benattia reckons there are about 100,000 Libyan Jews and their descendants living in Israel, and many thousands more abroad, mainly in Italy, Libya’s former colonial master. As a second-generation Israeli, born in Bat Yam to parents who came from Khoms in Western Libya, it was important to him to get in touch with his roots – which is why he founded Or Shalom.
“We work on all the different levels,” he said. “We hold gatherings, lectures, and digitize documents and articles. We produce a newspaper once every two months, which we distribute to the community’s synagogues and [that] has a reach of about 20,000. Gathering information on the state of the community’s material assets in Libya is just another aspect of what we do.”
Last March, Israeli-Tunisian photographer Rafael Haddad was jailed by Libya after taking photos of the crumbling synagogues and cemeteries on behalf of Or Shalom. He was released after five months following an agreement between Tripoli and Jerusalem mediated by Austrian Jewish businessman Martin Schlaff.
Haddad was one of five people who have gathered information for Or Shalom in Libya over the past decade and a half.
Two of the other four emissaries were also jailed, Benattia said.
One of them, a Belgian-born Jew who entered the country in 2002 as a tourist, was kept in jail for a week, and most of his photographs were confiscated.
“They released him from jail the night before his flight departed, and he went straight back to the Jewish neighborhood in Tripoli and started taking pictures again,” Benattia recalled. “Then, when he arrived at the airport, the authorities were waiting for him and confiscated his pictures a second time. Still, he managed to smuggle some films out.”
But not all Jews who visit Libya are thrown in jail.
Raphael Luzon, whose family was forced to leave in 1967 and lost all of their assets, just returned last week from a visit to his country of birth, where he and his 87-year-old mother were official guests of the authorities.
“It was the first time a Jew from Libya officially returned, and I was personally invited by Gaddafi,” Luzon said. “For the past 35 years I’ve been involved in the Libyan Diaspora, and I’ve been engaged in dialogue with the government for the past 10 years.”
During his stay, Luzon visited the former grand synagogue of his native city of Benghazi, which is now a Coptic church, and visited his father’s former properties, which have been taken over by locals.
“Authorities there say, we haven’t got a problem with Jews, only with Zionists,” he said. “But they only give visas to people they want to come visit.”
He said the highlight of his trip came when he took a dip in the Mediterranean Sea on the beaches of Benghazi, fulfilling a dream of his for the past 40 years.
Back in his office in Bat Yam, Benattia said he was glad the affair had managed to raise the profile of the Libyan Diaspora in Israel, which he said was often confused with Tunisian or Moroccan Jewry.
“After the story broke, many people came to me and said, ‘We didn’t know you had such a history, it’s a very moving story,’” he said. “Our motto has always been to raise awareness to what was a 2,500-year-old community.