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After the war, the plight of Libya’s Jews only got worse. One pogrom alone in 1945 cost 100 Jews their lives in Tripoli and other towns. Five synagogues were also destroyed. And as Israel’s independence neared in 1948, members of Libya’s 36,000-strong Jewish community began to leave the land where they had lived for more than two millennia. Between 1948 and 1951, 30,792 of their number emigrated to Israel. The son of one these immigrants, Moshe Kahlon, later rose to become Israel’s Minister of Communication.
The remaining 6,000-7,000 Libyan Jews were forced out of the country after the 1967 Six Day War, Gerbi being one of them. The war saw more anti-Jewish pogroms, in which 18 Jews were murdered. The Italian Navy evacuated all but 100 Libyan Jews, of whom 4,000 went to Israel or the United States. Two thousand stayed in Italy.
But even being reduced to such a tiny, insignificant and powerless number provided no protection for the remaining 100, when Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969. The Libyan dictator had their property confiscated, causing more Libyan Jews to leave until their number had dwindled to a mere 20. The last Libyan Jew, an 80-year old woman, left the country in 2003, making Libya a “Judenrein” state that would have made Hitler proud.
It was this rich, centuries-old heritage, decimated in such a short time span, that Gerbi wanted to revive with his mission to Libya. A psychoanalyst and member of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, he had visited Libya several times in the past decade before he returned last spring to help the rebels against Gaddafi. He worked at a hospital in Benghazi before travelling to the former internment camp in western Libya where he met anti-Gaddafi Berber rebels. The Berbers, whose members sit on the NTC, were also oppressed under Gaddafi’s dictatorship and want to see a Jewish presence in Libya again.
“Our two people have much in common,” said one Berber representative. “We want to create closer relations between Muslims and Jews. Without Jews, we will never have a strong country.”
But Gerbi’s hope that exiled Libyan Jews could regain their citizenship and return home “for travel, work or residence” appears an unrealizable dream – at least for the foreseeable future. He blames the decades-long, anti-Jewish brainwashing Libyans have received for his mission’s failure.
“However, what happened reveals the extent of Gaddafi’s anti-Semitic conditioning of an entire generation, those in their forties and fifties,” Gerbi said. “Forty-two years of lies, of hate propaganda falsely accusing Jews of having been paid to abandon the country in 1967, of having robbed Palestinians of their homes and of planning to colonize Libya.”
But it is more than that. The Arab Muslim world has become much more religiously radical since 1967. The demonstrators who stopped his synagogue re-opening project proved that. So it is highly doubtful that a “new democratic and pluralistic Libya” that would espouse religious tolerance can even be built. Instead, the Arab world appears to be going in the opposite direction.
The cruel fate that befell Libyan and other Jewish communities in Arab countries is continuing with the murder of Christians in Iraq and Egypt. The danger of Darfur-like massacres of Christians is so acute, the West should currently be preparing to receive five to eight million Egyptian Coptic Christian refugees, like it received Libya’s Jews. The Arab Spring is proving itself to be very hostile to other religions, especially to those regarded as outposts for Israel and the United States. So it is just not the remnant thinking of a dictatorship that is blocking Gerbi’s synagogue project, but rather that of the more powerful and deadly Wahhabi-interpreted Koran.
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