Libyan Jews abroad deeply ambivalent about uprising

Leader of diaspora group suspects alternative to Gaddafi may be worse.

Libya protests 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Libya protests 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The leader of a Jewish Libyan Diaspora group warned on Monday that the death toll in the North African country may be much higher than reported.
“I’m in touch with people in Benghazi especially, and the situation is worse than appears in the press and on TV,” Raphael Luzon, the chairman of the Jewish Libyan Diaspora in the UK, told The Jerusalem Post. “This is a big massacre and it’s even affected people who stayed home, who are now being hurt by use of heavy weapons.”
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Luzon, who was born in Libya and fled with his family in 1967 after a pogrom, said a source at Benghazi’s hospital counted about 160 dead bodies over the past 24 hours. He said those were in addition to the 223 fatalities reported by Human Rights Watch between Friday, when riots broke out, and Sunday.
“I feel we are going toward a civil war with a lot of bloodshed,” Luzon said.
Members of the Jewish Libyan Diaspora around the world have been following news of the anti-government protests in Libya with rapt attention and mixed emotions.
During the 1930s, about 25,000 Jews lived in Libya, but their numbers dwindled dramatically due to persecution by Italy and Germany during World War II and a series of state-sponsored pogroms after Libya became independent in 1951. The last Jew immigrated to Italy several years ago.
Luzon, who has met with Libya’s flamboyant dictator Muammar Gaddafi twice, most recently in September, said the uprising came at a time when the Libyan government seemed willing to address some of the Jewish community’s grievances.
“They agreed to give a proper burial to my family members who are buried in common graves,” Luzon said. “Also, we came closer in the direction of a settlement over a lot of money that my father left there. I proposed to organize a convention between Jews and Muslims in Tripoli, and this was personally accepted by Gaddafi. They wanted to prove they were open toward the Jews, but now who knows what will happen?” In Israel, where there are an estimated 100,000 Jews of Libyan descent, news of the uprising caught many off guard.
“I’m not an analyst, but I must say I am surprised,” said Pedazur Bennatia, who is the head of Or Shalom, a Jewish Libyan cultural center in Bat Yam. “I thought he’d hold on to power longer. He might still emerge from the chaos. He’s ruthless enough to reverse the situation.”
Or Shalom was in the headlines last year when an Israeli- Belgian photographer it sent to document the crumbling synagogues and cemeteries in Libya was arrested and held in prison for several months, until the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem secured his release via mediators.
Bennatia said he wasn’t necessarily encouraged by the prospects that Gaddafi’s long reign may be coming to an end.
“Political Islam, which is even more extreme, will enter the vacuum created,” Bennatia predicted. “So as far as we’re concerned, I don’t see how we can go back and visit there soon. Currently, the Jewish community in Rome has ties to Gaddafi. Some say they even received reparations and a few community leaders visited Libya.”
Retired Israeli journalist Chaim Arbiv was born in Benghazi in 1934 and lived there until 1949, when he made aliya. He said anti-government protests in that city may have been fueled by its long-standing rivalry with Tripoli, the capital.
“Even in Israel there’s a basic enmity between Jews who lived in Tripoli and Benghazi,” he said. “Benghazi was the capital of Libya until Gaddafi came to power [in 1969]. These are two separate centers of power, and Cyrenaica sees itself as being of a higher class. The outcome depends on the balance of power.”
Arbiv has fond childhood memories of Benghazi and said his efforts to visit his city of birth had failed in the past.
“I’d love to visit Benghazi, see the street where I lived and the neighbors we had and were on good terms with; see the Hebrew school I attended,” he said. “I’d love to visit, but I’m not sure that a change in Gaddafi’s regime is a good thing.”