A Neglected Anniversary
Libya is once again in the news.
It’s been a while, since the media largely lost interest following Muammar el-Qaddafi’s ouster and assassination.
The North African nation just held its first election. What emerges will doubtless have regional consequences.
But there’s another reason Libya should be in the public eye now, though don’t hold your breath it will make the news anytime soon.
Forty-five years ago this month, the last Jews of Libya were forced to flee the country. They included my wife, then 16 years old, her seven siblings, and her parents.
In the end, they were among the lucky ones.
Some would call them, and the few thousand other Jews who remained in the country after 1951, naÃ¯ve. That’s when Libya gained its independence from the British. There had already been pogroms in 1945 and 1948. The vast majority of Jews had no confidence that a newly sovereign Libya, whatever its constitutional guarantees might promise, would emerge democratic and law-abiding, and they left.
The remaining Libyan Jews were targeted following the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, a thousand miles away, for no other reason than that they were Jews.
My wife’s family found a raging mob in front of their Tripoli home, and calls rang out to burn the house down. The ten occupants trembled in fear inside.
Miraculously, they were saved. One man courageously addressed the mob and told them to leave the family alone. He knew them, he said, and they were good people.
The crowd dispersed to look for other Jews, while this lone individual arranged for the family to be shuttled to a safe house for a couple of weeks until they could manage to go abroad.
They left on July 14, never to return.
The link with the country today known as Libya – believed to date back to the tragic 15th century exodus of Jews from Spain, in the case of my wife’s maternal lineage, and 2,000 years to the involuntary Roman transport of Jews from Palestine in the case of her paternal lineage – was severed.
Italy, which had once been the colonial power in Libya, gave the family refuge.
With nothing other than a few suitcases and barely a couple hundred dollars, they started new lives.
But rather than wallow in victimization, they put one foot in front of the other and moved forward. It wasn’t easy, especially for such a large family, but they did what they had to do.
Meanwhile, dozens of other Libyan Jews weren’t as fortunate.
With no one to stand up for them, and the government of Libyan King Idris quite impotent, they were hunted down and killed.
What happened to the brave soul who saved my wife’s family?
He survived, but begged the family never to disclose his name. He feared retribution from fellow Libyans who might do him harm for the “crime” of saving ten Jews.
And what of the Jewish legacy in Libya?
Here was a community that had lived on the soil for more than two millennia, long predating the occupation by invading armies from the Arabian Peninsula. And Jews, numbering nearly 50,000 at their peak, had contributed in every way imaginable to the area’s development.
Libya went to work to erase every trace of Jewish existence.
What lessons can we take from this neglected anniversary?
First, if a new regime in Tripoli wants to distinguish itself from its predecessors, one way would be to acknowledge that Jews once lived in the country, that they were forcibly expelled and their synagogues and cemeteries destroyed, and that a process of honest reckoning with these crimes is warranted.
Second, the international community should at long last acknowledge these Jewish refugees from Arab lands and the injustices they endured.
When people meet my wife and hear her story, many ask why they didn’t know what befell the Jews of Libya.
The answer begins with the fact that no UN body, neither at the time nor since, has ever taken action in response to what happened.
Nor did the international media focus on what took place. To the contrary, the tragic events hardly merited any space in the world’s leading print and broadcast outlets.
And last, but by no means least, there’s the inevitable contrast with the Palestinians.
Libyan Jews, like the hundreds of thousands of other Jews from Arab countries uprooted and sent packing simply because they were Jews, found new homes primarily in Israel, but also in Western Europe and North and South America.
Were many bitter about their forced exodus? No doubt. But they impressively started over and quickly began playing a part in their new countries.
In the case of the Palestinians—some of whom were encouraged to leave their homes by Arab leaders who promised a quick return, and some of whom became refugees in a war their Arab brethren began against Israel—the story has been entirely different. They always seem to be in the news.
They have a special agency, UNRWA, devoted entirely to them, with no mandate for resettlement in other countries and an unprecedented, open-ended definition of “refugee,” which is transferred from one generation to the next. With support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, to his great credit, has begun to shine the spotlight on this ongoing travesty.
Moreover, Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan, cry crocodile tears for the Palestinians, but largely refuse to give them citizenship and, in places like Lebanon, even restrict their participation in the economy.
So while the world watches post-election Libya to see what unfolds, I’ll be watching, too.
And I shall also be waiting to see if, after 45 years, Libya is ready to confront its past.
Yes, this is about Jews, but not only.
For the Arab upheaval to have a chance to turn into an Arab spring, newly emerging regimes need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the protection of minorities – and, yes, to confront the consequences of that lack of protection in the past.
It’s high time, I’d say.