It is just another sign that the Arab Spring is turning into an autumn of Muslim religious persecution. While the world media is currently focused on the latest Christian murders at a demonstration in Cairo, a much smaller, but equally telling, incident of religious intolerance played itself out in Libya today.
David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who fled his country for Italy in 1967 to escape the recently deposed Muammar Gaddafi’s persecution, was forced to leave Libya again Tuesday after unsuccessfully attempting to reopen the Dar Bishi Synagogue in Tripoli. Dar Bishi, closed 41 years ago, was to be Libya’s first functioning synagogue in decades. In an indication of the devastation visited on Libya’s Jewish community, in 1941 there were 44 synagogues in Tripoli alone and Jews formed 25 percent of the city’s population.
Gerbi’s desire to re-establish the more than 2,000-year-old Jewish presence in his native land ended in failure when several hundred angry protesters showed up last Thursday to oppose his initial efforts to clean out the abandoned building for prayer. Granted official permission, he broke down the synagogue’s bricked-up entrance.
But a peaceful protest wasn’t sufficient for the citizens of the “new” Libya. Holding signs that read, “There is no place for Jews in Libya” and “We don’t have a place for Zionism,” the demonstrators also demanded Gerbi’s expulsion from the country and tried to storm his Tripoli hotel. After speaking with Libyan and Italian authorities, Gerbi agreed to leave the country “to ease the tensions.”
“This incident has served to expose the dangerous reality simmering beneath the surface,” Gerbi noted. “I want to contribute to, not obstruct, the building of a new, democratic and pluralistic Libya. It is sad and absurd that my mere presence in Libya should set off so much hostility and I regret this.”
The fact some of the protesters’ signs were in Hebrew, and a demonstration against the synagogue re-opening also took place in Benghazi indicates the hostility Gerbi “set off” was not necessarily spontaneous or entirely local. Most likely the product of Islamist forces with international connections, the anti-Semitic protesters may also have wanted Gerbi expelled from the country because he is seeking the position as the rebel National Transition Council’s (NTC) representative for Libyan Jewry.
There had been a thriving Jewish presence in Libya for 2,300 years. When Libya became an Italian colony in 1911, Jews lived mostly in Tripoli and Benghazi. Italian occupation was a fairly positive experience for Libya’s Jews until Italy’s fascist regime grew more anti-Semitic in the 1930s. And as the anti-Semitism intensified, “anti-Jewish incidents increased in Libya” and Rome “privileged Libya’s Arabs over its Jews.” Worse, however, was yet to come.
“As the Axis solidified in the late 1930s, Rome imposed anti-Semitic race laws on both Italy and Libya,” writes Michael Rubin in a review of Maurice Roumani’s book, The Jews of Libya. “Libyan Jews were interned in local labor camps, deported, and, in some cases, transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.”
During the war, German troops also plundered the Jewish quarter in Benghazi and deported more than 2,000 Jews, including women and children, across the desert to an Italian work camp in western Libya that Gerbi visited. Gerbi “sat shiva” for the 600 prisoners who died there during a typhoid epidemic and visited the cemetery where they are now buried.
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