The Narrative of Libyan Jewish Renaissance Has Hit a Snag

Libya's sole Jew may not be able to restore a synagogue as planned

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As Jews around the world finished celebrating the Jewish New Year this weekend, several news outlets ran stories on a Libyan Jew named David Gerbi--stories that seemed to brim with the promise of a post-Qaddafi Libya. Gerbi had returned to his homeland this summer after 44 years in exile in Italy to provide strategic and psychological support to the rebels and to restore Tripoli's Dar Bishi synagogue, which was left to vandals, litterers, and animals after Muammar Qaddafi expelled the remnants of Libya's ancient Jewish population, which numbered nearly 38,000 at its peak, in 1969. Updates today, however, suggest the feel-good story about Jews returning to a more pluralistic Libya may already be over, or at least on hold.

Over the weekend, Gerbi, who'd persuaded neighborhood sheikhs and other locals to support his synagogue restoration, informed Reuters that he was applying to become a member of Libya's interim government to represent Libya's Jewish population, whose one and only member appears to be Gerbi himself. Stirring photos showed the 56-year-old psychoanalyst (a.k.a the "rebel Jew") praying in the crumbling Dar Bishi synagogue (see picture above), wearing an "I Love Libya" T-shirt in front of an empty ark, breaching the sealed entrance to the synagogue with a sledgehammer, and receiving help down a ladder from an anti-Qaddafi fighter.

But those images may prove fleeting. In a follow-up today, Reuters reports that when Gerbi returned to the synagogue on Monday, he was barred from entering the locked building by four men armed with rifles, who warned him that he might be targeted by violence and should abandon his project. "It needs to be clear if [Libya is] a racist country or a free country," Gerbi told Reuters after the incident. The Wall Street Journal adds that Gerbi's request for formal permission to reopen the synagogue has been ignored and that Libyan officials are urging Gerbi to postpone his synagogue project and other endeavors until a stable government is in place, lest an act of aggression against him now endanger the relationship between Libya's transitional leaders and their Western allies and undermine the notion of a democratic Libya.
In the end, the tension surrounding Gerbi's return isn't all that surprising. As The Journal explains, animosity toward Israel in Libya has bred anti-Semitism, which has only been compounded by rumors that Qaddafi had Jewish grandparents (in fact, it was anti-Jewish violence stemming from the Six Day War that forced Gerbi and his family to flee Libya in 1967). Any attempt by exiled Libyan Jews (who, along with their descendants, are now estimated to number 200,000) to reclaim property in Libya will prove controversial, the paper adds, and even those who support the repatriation of Libyan Jews may oppose extending citizenship to those who have emigrated to Israel.
This isn't the first time that an exiled Libyan Jew has become a kind of bellwether for the future of Libyan Jewry. Back in April, Qaddafi invited Raphael Luzon, the chairman of Jews of Libya UK to participate in a dialogue in Libya, in what the Jerusalem Post characterized as a bid to improve Libya international image as civil war raged. Luzon ultimately rejected the invitation, only to be invited in August by rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to run for office in Libya. At the time, Luzon said that if he decided to run, it would be because Libya had become the first Arab country to propose "that a Jew run in a free election." But as far as we can tell, Luzon has yet to return to Libya or announce his candidacy.
Last year, at Qaddafi's invitation, Luzon visited Libya for the first time in over four decades and dined with the then-Libyan leader, who tentatively agreed to compensate exiled Libyan Jews (nothing ever came of the promise). As Luzon walked through a market in Tripoli (pictured below), an Arab Libyan reportedly stopped him and said, "Because we threw out the Jews, God gave us Qaddafi." A year later, Libyans have all but thrown out Qaddafi. But the fate of Libyan Jews is still in limbo.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.