The Jews of Libya
by Rachel Soussan
Following his recent trip to Libya, psychoanalyst and former Libyan refugee David Gerbi met with members of the World Organization of Libyan Jews in Jerusalem and was appointed their official representative in public affairs. The Organization which was established in 1982 aims to provide a platform for Libyan Jews who were exiled from their native country following pogroms and political and religious oppression which culminated following the Six Day War of 1967. Furthermore, the Organization advocates for Libyan Jews to have the possibility of revisiting their homeland to rebuild and restore desecrated Jewish holy sites such as cemeteries and synagogues. Gerbi hopes to play an active role in facilitating dialogue between the World Organization of Libyan Jews and other parties who share their values.
In an article published earlier this year in The Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, Gerbi discussed his struggle to regain and redefine his cultural identity after his family was exiled to Italy following the mass expulsion of Libyan Jews in 1967. After a curfew was imposed on the Jews, similar to the beginning of the Holocaust, Gerbi recalls his mother sending him out to collect food for him and his five siblings. “From one day to the next we lost our societal status.” Gerbi’s family was forced to hide in their apartment for weeks, surviving on minimal rations supplied by kind neigbours and Gerbi’s own nightly feats.
His more permanent trauma however, was caused following his abrupt relocation to Italy. He describes his paradoxical identity crisis; while he felt hated and repelled by the Arab World, he still felt inherently connected to his Mediterranean roots. The phenomenon of being stateless affected thousands as they struggled to reestablish their identities on foreign soil.
Gerbi speaks of the ‘collective trauma’ caused by the fear of retaliation. “If people are afraid to speak out against injustice, they strengthen the oppressor. It is a vicious cycle that becomes harder and harder to break out of. It took me years to finally address what had happened to me and my family.” He describes himself as a part of the generation of the Children of Silence.
In 2002, while helping his mother to renew her passport, Gerbi discovered that his aunt was still living in a nursing home in Tripoli. She was at the time, the last Jew known to reside in Libya. He immediately decided to take action in trying to reunite her with her family. Through what he describes as a meaningful coincidence, the Libyan Ambassador to Italy was a regular customer in his sister’s store and was able to help Gerbi in his endeavor to return home for the purpose of bringing his aunt to Italy. Gerbi was the first Jew granted a visa to return to Libya in thirty six years.
His first return to his home country was both cathartic and sparked Gerbi to take an active role in preserving the Libyan Jewish legacy and taking the platform geo-politcally. He returned to the USA with messages of peace from Qaddafi. “I felt I had established a basis for a future development of cordial relations and I felt grateful to the Italian Consulate as well as the Libyan government, ” Gerbi writes. In 2007 Gerbi returned to Libya and was invited by Qaddafi on the premise of helping to normalize the relationship with the Western World, however upon arriving in Tripoli, Gerbi was arrested and searched, and all of his belongings, including his religious items were confiscated. Gerbi was escorted to an airplane of which he had no idea as to the destination. He was flown to Malta from where he returned home to Italy. Feeling disappointed and traumatized yet again by his country, Gerbi spent many months in silence and finally spoke out in an interview with the Jerusalem Report.
Despite these set backs, Gerbi says he believes in “the theory of small footsteps.” Together with the World Organization of Libyan Jews, Gerbi hopes to work towards an open free Libya, where Jews have the oppertunity to return to visit and reconnect with their Middle Eastern heritage. David Gerbi has worked hard to reconcile his identy and now says “I know how important it is not to live in conflict, but in harmony, which for me is the Mediterranean identity of Jewish-Italian-Libyan.”
The World Organization of Libyan Jews holds its base in, Israel. The reason for this says Gerbi, is that Israel is not only the center of monotheistic religions but also a democratic state, and in this respect a paragon for what the people of Libya are now demanding from their own country. While there are no Jews living in Libya today, the Organization has clearly expressed its solidarity with the Libyan people who are fighting for freedom from Qaddafi’s four decade long rule.
Gerbi now visits Libya regularly to train mental health professionals to address and treat Libyan civilians who are, now forty years later, suffering from the same phenomenon of the fear of retaliation. Gerbi hopes to help to strengthen the people, help them overcome their fears and work together with them to build an open country through justice and peace.