On November 5, 1945, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Tripoli, Libya, with more than 140 Jews killed in and around the city over the course of three days. The pogrom can be seen as a harbinger of the end of the Jewish community of Libya.
The history of Libya’s modern Jewish community - there was a Jewish presence there in antiquity too - goes back to 1911, when the country became an Italian colony. Until Italy’s Fascist regime introduced its anti-Jewish laws, the Jewish community thrived. By 1931, the country had an estimated Jewish population of 21,000 (Libya’s total population was 550,000), a number that had risen to more than 30,000 by 1939. The majority lived in Tripoli, constituting as much as one-quarter of its population even as late as 1941.
With the introduction of the Jewish laws – enacted in 1938, but only implemented for real two years later -- Jews who worked in the civil service lost their jobs. Jewish children were no longer welcome in Italian schools, and marriages between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans” were outlawed. Jews were compelled to carry identity papers indicating their membership in the “Jewish race.”
Between 1940 and 1943, the British fought the Italians and Germans bitterly over Libya. Control of the country passed back and forth between Axis and Allies several times.
In 1942, German troops fighting in North Africa took over the Jewish quarter of Benghazi, and the Italians set up anti-aircraft guns there. Depending on what section of the country they lived in, and what citizenship they held, Jews were sent to labor camps and to concentration camps, whether in the Libyan desert or even to Bergen-Belsen in Europe.
According to historian Harvey Goldberg, author of “Jewish Life in Muslim Libya,” the war was actually a time of cooperation and mutual trust between Jews and Muslims. And liberation of the country by the British, on January 23, was accompanied by an initial optimism among all.
This was quickly replaced, however, by uncertainty regarding the country’s political future.
Timed attacks: Hardly a coincidence
There are various explanations for the start of the rioting in Tripoli on November 5, but reporting from within the Jewish community suggests that violence began in several different parts of the city simultaneously, which would give support to the theory that the attacks were planned, rather than spontaneous. Several days earlier, on November 2, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, there had been anti-Jewish rioting in both Cairo and Aleppo, but there doesn’t seem to have been a direct connection between these and the violence in Tripoli and environs.
Some historians suspect that the British instigated the violence, for their own political reasons. What is known is that British forces confiscated the weapons held by Jewish defense groups in Tripoli a few days before the riots, and that during the attacks they basically ignored requests from Jewish leaders for intervention.
In fact, other than imposing a curfew, the British did nothing to curtail the violence until the evening of November 6.
There were cases of Muslim offering help and shelter to Jews, but there were also reports of Jews finding their own neighbors among those who were attacking them. Many of the rioters were heard to shout the phrase “jihad fil-kuffar” – “war against the infidels."
The rioting spread to other towns in the Tripolitania province. Nine synagogues - four of them in Tripoli - were burned to the ground, and 35 Torah scrolls were destroyed.
The exodus of Jews from Libya began a short time later.
Three years later, after the establishment of the State of Israel, another series of riots broke out against Jews, with 12 killed. From then until 1951, nearly 31,000 Libyan Jews emigrated to Israel. Another 7,000 departed (for Italy) after the Six-Day War. The last known Jew in Libya, the 80-year-old Rina Debach, left the country in 2003.