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August 10, 2022 12:24 pm
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Restoring Libya’s Ancient Jewish Community

avatar by Samuel Zarrugh

Opinion

People walk at Martyrs’ Square in the early hours of Friday afternoon in Tripoli, Libya, February 5, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed

The Libyan Jewish community was one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, with some historians tracing the Jewish settlement there as far back as the 4th century BCE, and the earliest synagogue in Sirte having been built in 10 BCE. In 1911, there were approximately 21,000 Jews in the country, largely based in Tripoli, in the northwest, and a smaller number in Benghazi, in the northeast. By 1941, 25% of Tripoli’s population remained Jewish, and there were 44 synagogues in the city. By the end of World War II, Libyan Jews numbered more than 30,000.

Yet, by 2002, when the last surviving Jew in Libya was reported to have died, the community had seemed to vanish.

During World War II and later under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who seized power in a coup and ruled Libya from 1969 until his death in 2011, the Jewish community suffered heinously.

During the World War II era, Libyan Jews were punished by the Italians for their alleged “collaboration” with the British, and by 1942, they had deported 2,584 Jews to Jado, a camp 235 kilometers south of Tripoli. At least 560 of those deported died of various ailments, largely hunger and typhoid fever.

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The interlude period, between the end of Italian occupation and the 1969 coup, brought respite for Libya’s Jews. Tripoli and Jado were liberated by the British in January 1943, and the last group of prisoners left the camp later that year. Following the liberation, racial laws targeting Jews were repealed.

The 1951 constitution, under which Libya was run on the basis of a constitutional monarchy with a representative system of government, offered expansive political and social freedoms to its people. Article 11 guaranteed equality before the law without distinction on the basis of religion; Article 12 guaranteed personal liberty and equal protection of the law; and Article 21 guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion, despite Islam being the official state religion. The monarchy acted as a symbol of unity, bolstered by the popular King Idris.

Being grateful plays a significant role in the Jewish faith, and Jews have not forgotten the respect that King Idris displayed towards all faiths, assuring them of their full freedom in his independent Libya.

It is thus little wonder that there is clear support for the restoration of the 1951 constitution, as evidenced by the legitimately grassroots movements springing up in favor of it in Libya. There is also ample support for the resurrection of the constitution among minorities in exile, including the Libyan Jewish community.

Unfortunately, the 1951 constitution was done away with when Gaddafi took power in 1969. Personal liberties and property rights were cast aside as his government confiscated all Jewish property and prohibited emigration for Jews. Despite pledges that Jews would be given government bonds, no compensation was ever forthcoming. In 2004, a case was brought by the Organisation for Libyan Jews seeking compensation for the property seized under Gaddafi. The estimated value of the stolen property totaled more than £100m.

As well as robbing the community of their livelihoods, Gaddafi promulgated vehement antisemitism, encouraging Libyans to view Jews as being responsible for wrongdoing in the world.

It is little wonder then that, after more than 40 years of Gaddafi’s pernicious conditioning of Libyans, when David Gerbi, a member of the Libyan Jewish community who had been forced to leave, returned to his homeland in 2011, he was forced out of a synagogue in Tripoli and greeted with protesters holding signs stating, “There is no place for the Jews in Libya.”

As Gerbi explained, “What Gaddafi tried to do is to eliminate our memory. To eliminate our amazing language. To remove all trace of the Jewish people.”

In that, he largely succeeded, as a once sizeable Jewish minority dwindled to zero in the space of less than a century.

While Gaddafi pretended that Libya was a homogenous Arab Muslim state, to the detriment of all, the 1951 constitution and the hereditary monarchy it provided for enjoyed broad support, and continues to do so to this day. Its restoration would provide guarantees for the minorities who suffered under Gaddafi, none more than so the Jews of Libya.

Libyan politicians have also voiced their support for the idea. Mohamed Abdelaziz, who served as foreign minister for a brief stint from 2013 to 2014, has previously called for the return of the rule of a symbolic monarch, vowing to “take it upon himself” to campaign for it. As he rightly argued, that would be the best solution for the restoration of security and stability in Libya.

Not only would the restoration of the 1951 constitution improve Libya’s internal stability, but it would aid its foreign relations, too, particularly with Israel.

Israel has demonstrated an impressive diplomatic nous in cooperating with regional monarchies, as demonstrated by normalization efforts with the UAE and others over the past two years.

After the aberration of Gaddafi’s rule and the upheaval following his overthrow, the international community continues to search for democratic solutions to the Libya quagmire.

But the reimposition of the 1951 constitution in Libya would, it is clear, have a transformative effect on the country and the wider region.

It would not only help a troubled and divided nation move forward as one, but also allow members of Libya’s ancient and storied Jewish community to return to their rightful homeland.

Samuel Zarrugh is originally from Benghazi, Libya, and served as President of the Jewish Community in Livorno, Italy, for 13 years.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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