Libyan Jews recall a tyrant who forced them into exile

“He wanted to eliminate the memory of 2,000 years of Jewish history in Libya," David Gerbi says of Muammar Gaddafi.

David Gerbi 311 R (photo credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
David Gerbi 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
David Gerbi recalled on Thursday his first and last face-to-face encounter with Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator killed earlier in the day by rebel forces in his hometown of Sirte.
In 2009, Gerbi, a Libyan-born Jew, accepted an invitation to meet Gaddafi in Rome to speak about improving relations between the regime and Libya’s Jewish Diaspora.
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“I can see his face in front of me now,” Gerbi related in an interview conducted via Skype from Rome. “He had the eyes of a Beduin, someone who could find water in the desert, but he could not connect with our reality.”
Gerbi was one of the few members of the Jewish Libyan community in Rome who came to the meeting. The rest had boycotted the gathering because it was provocatively held on a Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. During the meeting, Gerbi said he pressed the autocrat to restore the rights of Jews and permit the reopening of the country’s synagogues, which lay in waste.
“He said, ‘Yes, yes, there would be no problem,’” Gerbi recalled, “but nothing happened.”
The killing of the Libyan leader on Thursday marked the final chapter in the troubled history between Gaddafi and Libyan Jewry.
When the young colonel came to power in 1969 the Jewish community of Libya, which traced its history back to antiquity, had already been decimated by pogroms carried out by Muslims angered over the Israeli-Arab conflict. From a peak of around 30,000 during the 1930s, only a few hundred remained, but it was Gaddafi’s policies that brought about the community’s elimination. He confiscated private and communal Jewish property, withheld civil rights for Jews and forbade those who had taken refuge abroad from returning.
“The damage he did in 1969 was that he did not allow Jewish people to come back; he did not allow them to renew the passports,” said Gerbi.
“He destroyed the Jewish cemeteries in Tripoli and Benghazi. He converted synagogues into mosques. He wanted to eliminate our memory of 2,000 years of Jewish people in Libya.”
The few Jews who were still in Libya fled. By 2002, none remained.
In recent years Gaddafi held irregular talks with Libyan Jews in the Diaspora, preferring to deal with those in Italy over their brethren in Israel, the “Zionist entity” he would often vilify in his lengthy tirades. The self-styled “Brother Leader” and “King of Kings” would sometimes promise to consider returning their rights and property, and allowed a few individuals to visit, but nothing ever came to fruition.
By the time the revolution against his regime came late last year there was talk of progress, but it was too little, too late.
Raphael Luzon, a leader of the Libyan Jewish community in the UK, preferred to look forward on Thursday, saying it was an excellent opportunity to open a new page in relations between Jews and the new Libyan government.
“Of course, we are happy and giving our solidarity to the Libyan people for this day that hopefully will end the war and start a reconstruction of a new and democratic Libya open to all,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“We understand that now the Libyan leaders have to form a new government that creates a commission to write down a new constitution and fix a date for general elections.”
Gerbi said he preferred to be cautious.
He recently spent several months in Libya, where he went to show support for the rebels. However, he was forced to leave after a muchpublicized attempt to restore a synagogue in Tripoli causing a furor among locals. He said that post- Gaddafi Libya must reverse the slain dictator’s policies toward non-Muslims.
“This day [has] arrived and now is the time to reorganize, but they have to decide which way to go: either to become a democracy with a Jewish minority or go with the Islamists,” he said. “It’s an important day and we’re going to see what will come next.”
Both Luzon and Gerbi hope to be invited by the National Transitional Council governing the country to take part in the democratic process.
Gerbi, a Jungian psychologist by profession, offered a psychological interpretation of the challenges that now face Libya after the killing of its autocratic leader.
“It’s easy to get rid of Gaddafi the person,” he said, “but much more difficult to get rid of the Gaddafi within.”