Campaigners Implore US State Department to Stand Firm Against Libyan Attempt to Confiscate Property of Jewish Heritage
Campaigners representing Jewish communities expelled from Arab countries reacted furiously on Tuesday to an effort by the current Libyan government to win legal recognition for its claims to property of Jewish heritage.
In addition, under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which the Libyans have submitted to the US State Department, the historic properties of the Jewish community in Libya — including archives, holy books and objects used in synagogue worship — would be barred from entry into the United States.
“I ask the Libyan government: ‘Where are the bones of my ancestors? Give them to me, I want to give them a proper burial,'” Libyan-born Gina Bublil-Waldman — co-founder and president of advocacy group JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) — told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.
Bublil-Waldman’s family were among the 4,000 Jews driven from Libya in 1967, following the antisemitic pogroms in the country sparked by Israel’s victory in the June war. Ordered by the government to leave the country “temporarily” with the equivalent of $50 each, none of Libya’s Jews ever returned. Following Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s successful coup in 1969, all property and assets belong to the community were seized, while promised “compensation” never arrived.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee is meeting in Washington, DC to discuss the Libyan demand. Bublil-Waldman said that she was appealing “to our State Department not to approve this MOU, because the Libyan government is laying claim to our Jewish patrimony and barring its entry into the USA under the guise of ‘protecting it.'”
“It’s a tactic to deny Libyan Jews our stolen heritage,” she continued.
“If the Libyan government was so concerned about the pillage and destruction and smuggling of Jewish Antiquities, they should have protected our cemeteries, our synagogues and our communal and private property,” Bublil-Waldman asserted. “Instead, they expelled the entire Jewish community and destroyed all our synagogues and encouraged their citizens to ransack and take our patrimony. They built high rises on top of the Tripoli cemetery.”
The current Libyan controversy comes as a similar conflict over a precious archive of documents belonging to the Iraqi Jewish community remains in play. The Iraqi government claims ownership of the archive — which was shipped to the US after it was rescued from a flooded basement by American troops in Baghdad — and the State Department has said the entire collection will eventually be sent to the National Archive in the Iraqi capital. Libyan Jews now fear this decision could hamper their own efforts to counter the Libyan government’s move.
The MoU submitted by the Libyans — a copy of which was shared with The Algemeiner — urges the US to impose import restrictions on all cultural artifacts dating to 1911. The document stated as the reason for its request that “Libya’s patrimony is now under severe and continuing threat of pillage due to ongoing conflict and the rise of violent extremist groups.”
While much of the document is concerned with the illicit import of ancient items dating back to the Greek and Roman periods, it contains several mentions of Jewish property which the Libyans say is being “looted.” Israel is listed as one of the “markets” where artifacts taken from cemeteries and abandoned Jewish buildings are sold.
The Committee for Cultural Policy — an advocacy organization focused on preserving the various cultural heritages of American citizens — slammed the Libyan proposal as “a slap in the face to Jewish citizens whose families were forced to leave Libya, abandoning all they had.”
“The shameful history of the Libyan government’s treatment of Libya’s indigenous Jewish population should be well known,” the committee said in a statement. “Many in the US public would find returning of objects related to the former Jewish communities to the government of Libya offensive, and wish to return them to Jewish communities, wherever they are now located, instead.”
Attempts by Libyan Jews to restore their cultural heritage in the country following Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 have typically been met with hostile responses. In 2011, an effort by Tripoli-born Jew David Gerbi to restore the city’s synagogue was abruptly ended when he was driven from the site by a group of armed men.