A Tragic Anniversary: The End of Jewish Life in Libya
by David Harris
Fifty-one years ago this month, the world was transfixed by the Six Day War raging between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The war was triggered by genocidal threats from Cairo and Damascus to annihilate the Jewish state, troop mobilization toward Israel’s borders, and Arab calls to remove UN peacekeeping troops in the Sinai that were acting as a buffer against conflict.
Within days, fighting erupted nearly 1,500 miles away as well, beyond the gaze of the international news media, as another campaign was ruthlessly being waged: to drive an already diminished Jewish community from its historic home in Libya.
For Libya’s 4,000 Jews, the remnants of a community that had numbered nearly 40,000, it was the third and final pogrom since 1945, and the end of a rich, complicated, and little-heralded history.
Jews lived continuously in Libya for more than two millennia. Settled in Cyrene — eastern Libya today — by the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I in the third century BCE, they predated the Muslim conquest and occupation in 642 CE by more than 900 years. Over time, the community was augmented by Berbers who converted to Judaism, Jews fleeing the 15th- and 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, and, from the 17th century, Jews resettling from Italy. By 1911, the year Ottoman rule over Libya ended and Italian control began, the Jewish population numbered 20,000. It nearly doubled by 1945.
The end of World War II saw Libya under British rule. The vast majority of Libya’s Jews had survived, despite the conscription of several thousand into Italian Fascist labor camps and the deportation of a much smaller number to Nazi concentration camps. Until this point, it should be noted, Muslim-Jewish relations in Libya were, generally, quite cordial.
Beginning in 1945, however, three years before Israel’s rebirth, the Arab League’s pan-Islamic and anti-Zionist propaganda fanned the flames of hatred in Libya, resulting in extended rioting against Jewish neighbors. The toll included 130 dead and nine synagogues destroyed.
A second pogrom followed three years later, sparked by Libyan nationalists eager for independence from the British. A quick British response and Jewish self-defense limited the damage. Still, 15 Jews were killed and hundreds were left homeless.
The new atmosphere of fear and insecurity, coupled with the powerful attraction of the rebirth of Israel for this deeply religious community, led to the emigration of all but 6,000 Jews by 1951, the year Libya gained independence.
Notwithstanding constitutional guarantees provided by the new Libyan nation, restrictions on Jews were gradually imposed. By 1961, Jews could not vote, hold public office, serve in the army, get passports, purchase new property, acquire majority ownership in any new business, or supervise their own communal affairs. Yet some Jews remained, umbilically linked to their ancestral land and hoping against hope, despite all the evidence to the contrary, for positive change.
Then, in June 1967, war broke out in the Middle East. Inspired by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab appeals, Libyans took to the streets and attacked the remaining Jewish community.
By the time calm was restored, 18 Jews in Tripoli, the country’s capital, were dead. The toll might have been even higher had it not been for the courage of Cesare Pasquinelli, Italy’s ambassador to Libya. He ordered all Italian diplomatic missions in the country to extend their protection to the Jews. A very few Muslims helped as well, including one who, at personal risk, hid the teenager who was to become my wife, along with her parents and seven siblings, for two weeks until they were able to leave the country. Tellingly, however, this righteous Libyan refused any public recognition, lest his life be put in danger for saving Jews.
Within a matter of weeks, all the remaining Jews of Libya fled abroad, urged to do so “temporarily” by the government. Each was permitted one suitcase and the equivalent of 50 dollars. Most headed for Israel; 2,000 went to Italy. In many respects, the tragic fate of Libya’s Jews was no different from that of hundreds of thousands of Jews in other Arab countries.
To no one’s surprise, this temporary exodus became permanent. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969 and the following year announced a series of laws to confiscate the assets of Libya’s Jews, issuing bonds providing for “fair compensation” within 15 years. But 1985 came and went with no compensation paid.
And so, with only a few scattered international protests, scant press attention, and deafening silence from the United Nations, another once-thriving Jewish community in the Arab world came to an end — and the once-rich tapestry of the region’s diversity took yet another irretrievable hit.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee.