History of the Jews in Libya
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|History of Libya|
The history of the Jews in Libya stretches back to the 3rd century BCE, when Cyrenaica was under Greek rule. The Jewish population of Libya, a part of the Maghrebi Jewish community continued to populate the area continuously until the modern times. During World War II, Libya's Jewish population was subjected to antisemitic laws by the Fascist Italian regime and deportations by German troops.
After the war, anti-Jewish violence caused many Jews to leave the country, principally for Israel, though significant numbers remained in Rome and many later emigrated to various communities in North America. Under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled the country from 1969 to 2011, the situation deteriorated further, eventually leading to the emigration of the remaining Jewish population. The last Jew of Libya, 80-year-old Rina Debach, left the country in 2003.
During the Greco-Roman period, Libya corresponded approximately with Cyrene and the territory belonging to it. Jews lived there - including many that moved there from Egypt; Augustus granted Cyrene's Jewish population certain privileges through Flavius, the governor of the province. At the time, they maintained close contact with the Jews in Jerusalem. In 73 CE, during the First Jewish–Roman War in Judea, there was also a revolt by the Jewish community in Cyrene led by Jonathan the Weaver, which was quickly suppressed by the governor Catullus. Jonathan was denounced to the governor of Pentapolis.
In vengeance, the Romans then killed him and many wealthy Jews in Cyrene. In 115 CE, another Jewish revolt, known as Kitos War, broke out not only in Cyrene, but also in Egypt and Cyprus. Several Libyan Jews from this period are known today, such as Jason of Cyrene, whose work is the source of the Second Book of Maccabees, and Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus as Jesus was taken to his crucifixion.
Italian colonization and World War II
In 1911, Libya was colonized by Italy. By 1931, there were 21,000 Jews living in the country (4% of the total population of 550,000), mostly in Tripoli. The situation for the Jews was generally good. But, in the late 1930s, the Fascist Italian regime began passing anti-Semitic laws. As a result of these laws, Jews were fired from government jobs, some were dismissed from government schools, and their citizenship papers were stamped with the words "Jewish race."
Despite this repression, 25% of the population of Tripoli was still Jewish in 1941 and 44 synagogues were maintained in the city. In 1942, German troops fighting the Allies in North Africa occupied the Jewish quarter of Benghazi, plundering shops and deporting more than 2,000 Jews across the desert. Sent to work in labor camps, more than one-fifth of this group of Jews perished. Jews were concentrated in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, with small communities in Bayda and Misrata.
After World War II
Some of the worst anti-Jewish violence occurred in the years following the liberation of North Africa by Allied troops. From 5 to 7 November 1945, more than 140 Jews were killed and many more injured in a pogrom in Tripolitania. The rioters looted nearly all of the city's synagogues and destroyed five of them, along with hundreds of homes and businesses. In June 1948, anti-Jewish rioters killed another 12 Jews and destroyed 280 Jewish homes. This time, however, the Libyan Jewish community had prepared to defend itself. Jewish self-defense units fought back against the rioters, preventing more deaths.
In the late 1940s, some 40,000 Jews lived in Libya. The Libyan Jewish community suffered great insecurity during this period. The founding of Israel in 1948, as well as Libya's independence from Italy in 1951 and subsequent admission into the Arab League, led many Jews to emigrate. From 1948 to 1951, and especially after emigration became legal in 1949, 30,972 Jews moved to Israel.
On 31 December 1958, the Jewish Community Council was dissolved by law. In 1961, a new law was passed requiring a special permit to prove true Libyan citizenship, which was, however, denied to all but six Jewish inhabitants of the country. Additional laws were enacted allowing the seizure of property and assets of Libyan Jews who had immigrated to Israel.
By 1967, the Jewish population of Libya had decreased to 7,000. After the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Libyan Jews were once again the target of anti-Jewish riots. During these attacks, rioters killed 18 people and more were injured.
Leaders of the Jewish community then asked King Idris I to allow the entire Jewish population to "temporarily" leave the country; he consented, even urging them to leave. Through an airlift and the aid of several ships, the Italian Navy helped evacuate more than 6,000 Jews to Rome in one month.
The evacuees were forced to leave their homes, their businesses and most of their possessions behind. Of these 6,000, more than 4,000 soon emigrated to Israel or the United States. The ones who remained stayed in Rome. Out of the approximately 15,000 Roman Jews, 4,000 are of Libyan descent, and constitute an influential part of the community.
By the time Colonel Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969, roughly 100 Jews remained in Libya. Under his rule, all Jewish property was confiscated, and all debts to Jews were cancelled. Despite emigration being prohibited, most Jews succeeded in escaping the country and by 1974, only 20 Jews remained in Libya.
In 2002, the last known Jew in Libya, Esmeralda Meghnagi, died. In the same year, however, it was discovered that Rina Debach, a then 80-year old woman, who was born and raised in Tripoli, but thought to be dead by her family in Rome, was still living in a nursing home in the country. With her ensuing departure for Rome, there were no more Jews in the country.
In 2004, Gaddafi indicated that the Libyan government would compensate Jews who were forced to leave the country and stripped of their possessions. In October of that year he met with representatives of Jewish organizations to discuss compensation. He did, however, insist that Jews who moved to Israel would not be compensated. Some suspected these moves were motivated by his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was considered to be the likely successor of his father. In the same year, Saif had invited Libyan Jews living in Israel back to Libya, saying that they are Libyans, and that they should "leave the land they took from the Palestinians."
On 9 December, Gaddafi also extended an invitation to Moshe Kahlon, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and son of Libyan immigrants, to Tripoli, purportedly to discuss Jewish property in Libya. In 2010, it was claimed that Gaddafi had Jewish ancestry. Two Israeli women of Libyan origin claimed to be distant cousins of Gaddafi, and their grandmother's sister was a Jewish woman who converted to Islam and married Gaddafi's grandfather, a Muslim Sheikh. The daughter of this marriage was Gaddafi's mother.
Libyan Civil War
In 2011, elements opposed to Gaddafi demonstrated a distinct divide in their stance toward Libyan Jews. NBC News correspondent Richard Engel, covering the conflict, estimated that as many as one in five of the rebel fighters had taken up arms against Gaddafi out of the belief that the Libyan strongman was secretly Jewish. However, National Transitional Council Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil invited Libyan Jewish representative David Gerbi to meet with him after the World Organization of Libyan Jews designated him the group's official delegate to the governing body. Gerbi was reportedly warmly received by Amazigh rebels in the Nafusa Mountains in August 2011, and an Amazigh NTC official was quoted as saying, "We want to create closer relations between Muslims and Jews. Without Jews we will never be a strong country."
On 1 October 2011, Gerbi returned to Tripoli after 44 years of exile. With the help of a U.S. security contractor and the permission of NTC fighters and three local sheikhs, Gerbi hammered down a brick wall erected to block the entrance to the city's historic Dar Bishi Synagogue. He declared it a "historic day" for Libya and told the crowd gathered there, "This is for all those who suffered under Gaddafi." However, some local residents remained wary of Gerbi's intentions and were quoted by a CNN reporter as expressing distrust for Jews. Gerbi's work on the synagogue ended abruptly after two days when the terms of permission fell into dispute.
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