Detail of the exterior of the main synagogue in Tripoli, Libya. Abdel Magid al-Fergany / AP

Forgotten Memories of Libya's Vibrant Jewish Community

The Jewish community in Libya was cosmopolitan, prosperous and educated. The death of the author’s Tripolitanian grandmother brought back memories of a fascinating society gone forever



My grandmother died a little more than three weeks ago. Grandmother Eness, for whom I’m named, was born in Tripoli, Libya, and lived there until age 13, when she immigrated with her family to Israel. Here she met my grandfather, Tzion Hasson, who was born and raised in Benghazi.

My grandmother’s house was filled with laughter, people and joy, and we all waited for Nonna, as we called her, to put on her show. Sometimes she emerged from the hallway dressed up like a gorilla and scared us to death. She had all kinds of masks in her closet, and we waited in suspense for the next thing. She told us stories, impersonated family members, stung us with loving sarcasm and was always there for the big family that she had brought into the world.

Life in Tripoli wasn’t harder for Nonna than life in Israel. She was an educated girl who possessed joie de vivre, knew four languages even before she learned Hebrew (Arabic, Italian, English and Ladino), loved to sing the songs of the Egyptian artists Farid el-Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez, was an avid dancer and later did all she could not to let the difficult life in Israel break her. The story of my grandfather and grandmother is the story of an ancient community that disappeared from Libya but found itself in Israel, where it carries on the customs that sustained it for thousands of years.

How little I know about her, about the life that led her to become my grandmother. How little I know about the culture she came from, though it dictates so much of the person I am today.

From a family album

My grandmother’s life was full and rich, and despite the blows – most poignantly the loss of an infant daughter and later of a son at age 21 – she remained proud and beautiful and was always laughing. Humor was integral to her life, and without it things would surely have been much harder. After her death, I discovered that this lighthearted temperament, which blends life’s ingredients into something digestible, is characteristic of the place where she grew up.

An ‘Italicization’ process

Libyan society was divided and polarized, mainly between the urban population in the province of Tripolitania and the more rural Benghazi region (known as Cyrenaica). The people of Tripoli are known for their warm temperament – they love life’s pleasures; they like to talk, celebrate and amuse one another. My grandfather was the exact opposite. The people of Benghazi, where he spent his childhood, are considered more introverted, insular, even stern. He was like that, too, accepting everything with tranquility and sangfroid but without much verbalizing.

The Jews of Libya settled in the Tripoli and Benghazi regions following the expulsion from Spain at the end of the 15th century and the start of the 16th. They came from Spain, Portugal and Italy, and lived without much fanfare in Libya until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1904, according to “The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement” by Ben-Gurion University’s Maurice Roumani, Libya’s Jewish community numbered 18,000. The great majority, 12,000, lived in and around Tripoli, the country’s largest city (a third of whose population was Jewish), and 2,000 lived in Benghazi, the second largest. By 1939, Libya’s Jewish population stood at 30,000, increasing to 32,670 by 1948.

The Jews lived mostly in their own neighborhoods, particularly in Tripoli, where they resided in the Jewish Quarter (Haret el-Yahud). They were for the most part from the lower middle class, and traditional in their behavior, not embracing the changes wrought by the start of modernization in Libya at the end of the 19th century. At the same time, a minority of Libyan Jews were more affluent and were influenced by European culture. Tension developed between the two groups and was worsened by the Italian occupation, which extended between 1911 and 1943.

At the same time, the 32-year occupation generated many positive changes for the Jewish community, including improved civil rights, a better economy and a higher rate of education. The Jews entered the colonial bureaucracy, became active in trade with Europe, and took up the liberal professions. The sociologist Shlomo Swirski, in his book “Seeds of Inequality” (Hebrew, 1995), notes that this process often included a narrowing of class differences and the political and cultural identification of some of the Jewish elite with the Europeans. This was the case with the elite in Tripoli, who adopted Italian culture.

The colonial authorities in Libya had the Jews learning Italian in the schools, expanded trade between Libya and Italy, introduced modern economic methods, and cultivated Western culture and its values. Roumani notes that during the Italian occupation, 43.8 percent of the Jewish men and 29.7 percent of the Jewish women in Tripoli spoke Italian. The phenomenon was even more widespread in Benghazi, where Italian was spoken by 67.1 percent of Jewish men and 40.8 percent of the Jewish women. The Italians also invested in improving life in the Haret el-Yahud, many of whose residents were poor and where there was a high birth rate and low education level.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Jews extended their businesses into new markets, and in the ‘30s many Jewish-owned companies that offered shares and incorporated partnerships were established. But the Italians reduced the autonomy of the Jewish community; its leaders, members of the local social elite, were permitted to engage only in social, cultural and welfare matters.

Zionism without Zion

My grandmother was born in 1935 to Nissim and Miriam Ben Lulu. Her mother was a member of the prosperous and prominent Farid family of Tripoli. From her stories, I could picture the house she lived in – spacious and high-ceilinged – where at 5 P.M. everyone would gather in the central courtyard for coffee and traditional sweet biscuits. The family owned farms, buildings and herds of cattle, and employed a laundrywoman, a cleaner and a baker. They spoke Italian, and Italian culture was an essential part of their life.

My grandmother attended a non-Jewish school, because Tripoli’s Jewish schools were for boys only. Her speech fused Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Ladino and occasionally a bit of English, from a stretch she lived in the United States with two of her children. The mix of languages was part of her world. But this cultural diversity was diminished in the generations that followed. From that rich world – Arab, Italian, Jewish, extraordinarily cosmopolitan – the children of my grandparents inherited just one language. The worldview was reduced to just one culture that in itself isn’t whole but consists of patches of cultures and worlds remote from us.

My grandfather, by contrast, came from a lower social class; his father was a fisherman and his mother descended from a family of rabbis. He attended a Jewish school and could read and write Arabic and Hebrew. His mother used to say that he loved learning, and because they had no means she tore up flour bags, smoothed them out and turned them into pages for him to write on.

Roumani relates that Jewish education in Libya, which was considered to be on a low level, was based in synagogues and private homes. From the end of the 19th century, Jewish education was reformed, and began to include the introduction of nonreligious subjects and the Italian language. In 1890, three schools of the Paris-based Alliance network opened in Libya, offering a French-Zionist education.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP

My grandmother didn’t get involved in political issues, but my grandfather was very much attracted to Zionism. As a boy he helped the Zionist movements in Benghazi by delivering packages and letters. The Zionist movement arrived in Italy at the end of the 19th century, but it took off after the start of the Italian occupation, which motivated not only the social-cultural elite, but young Jews as well.

Organized Zionism was established from 1913. In the 1920s and ‘30s, schools that taught Hebrew and a large Hebrew library were established in Tripoli and Benghazi. The Zionists in Tripoli believed that it was essential for Jews to learn Hebrew in order to counteract the influence of the Italians, which rendered them less traditional and estranged them from the community. The Zionist movement in Libya held cultural events, published a weekly newspaper, established sports associations such as Maccabi, and founded youth movements and even a religious kibbutz-oriented group.

The Mussolini effect

In September 1938, as a result of the alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Italy and Libya adopted their first race laws. Jews were forbidden to hold permanent residences in Italy, Libya and other regions, and were banned from public schools. Mixed marriages were outlawed, and business dealings between Jews and non-Jews were prohibited. The Jews were summarily dismissed from employment in government ministries, municipalities, banks and public institutions. Roumani notes that Libya’s Jews suffered additional abuse at the hands of the Italian police and Italian institutions.

Yet the strategic role that the Jews had played in the Libyan economy moderated the fascists’ race policy. Roumani quotes a 1938 report by the Milan police, which reported on the very strong financial status of Libyan Jews, especially when it came to offering discounts. The report also noted Jews’ quick responses, in contrast to the slowness and the reserved character of the Italian banks. But as Italy became more deeply involved in the war, the race laws were implemented with greater stringency and additional laws were promulgated.

Jews who held Libyan citizenship were interned in concentration camps in Tripolitania, notably Jadu, where my grandfather and his family were imprisoned, and in other cities in the Yafran and Gharian region, where my grandmother and her family languished. Those holding British citizenship were sent to camps in Europe, including Innsbruck in Austria and Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

Reproduction by Nir Keidar

The appalling conditions in the camps led to epidemics that claimed many lives. Such conditions were aggravated by brutal acts of humiliation and oppression by the Italian officers; every day the men were forced to do long hours of backbreaking work. Particularly horrific conditions existed in Jadu. My grandfather, who was 9 at the time, says many members of his family were murdered in the camp.

My grandfather’s mother drew picture of dolls and sold them to Arabs through the fence. One day she was caught; an Italian officer hit her with a crowbar and broke her back – she remained hunched over for the rest of her life. My grandfather’s father fled to Egypt with his eldest son before the transport to Jadu. He wasn’t reunited with his family until 1949, in Israel.

The events of the war, the pogroms against the Jews in Libya by the country’s Arabs in 1945 and 1948, and of course Israel’s establishment and the ongoing lobby for immigration – all of these generated aliyah. Between 1949 and 1952, almost all of Libya’s Jews immigrated to Israel, among them my grandfather and grandmother and their families.

The first years in the Jewish state were a trying period for the community. They were housed in transit camps, maltreated by the authorities, and were the victims of discrimination, racism and poverty. From the capacious house in Tripoli, my grandparents came to a transit camp in Mikve Yisrael near Tel Aviv. Roumani describes the dramatic worsening in living conditions that afflicted most of Tripoli’s Jews in Israel, even those from Benghazi. Nonetheless, community life was rich and full.

In any event, the transplanted Libyans didn’t completely come to terms with their fate; they often demanded from the Jewish Agency employment, housing and an end to the neglect. Many of them were farmers, and they asked the Jewish Agency for plots of land to settle and work, requests that were generally granted. In the first three years after their arrival they established 12 moshavim – cooperative farming communities – throughout Israel, from the north to the south. By the end of 2000, there were 25 moshavim founded by Jews of Libyan origin. According to the World Organization of Libyan Jews, as of 2008 about 130,000 Jews of Libyan descent were living in Israel.

My grandfather and grandmother met at the wedding of a relative. My grandfather managed a farm, raised cattle and opened a butcher shop in Ramat Gan, which he ran with my grandmother. There they also learned how to speak Yiddish. She gave birth to eight children, the first of which, a daughter, died in infancy.

Gradually they sank their roots, until the tragedy that shook their lives – their son, Uzi Hasson, was murdered in a terror attack. For a long time they kept to themselves and lost many of their sources of livelihood, but they didn’t give up and were able to maintain the family honorably.

Other members of the family, notably my grandmother’s mother’s affluent family, bypassed Israel in favor of Italy, where Libyan Jews became part of the upper class and did well economically, often as goldsmiths. My grandparents wouldn’t have forgone Israel for any price – but I can’t shake off the thought: What would have happened if we had gone to Italy instead?

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