Libya Fighting Stirs Memories of Country's Jewish Past

In ravaged Libya, ghosts of the country's Jewish history echo in the hearts of Libyan Jews and their descendants living abroad.

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What was once the most beautiful synagogue in Libya's capital city can now be entered only by sneaking through a hole smashed in a back wall, climbing over dusty trash and crossing a stairwell strewn with abandoned shoes to a space occupied by cooing pigeons.

The synagogue, Dar al-Bishi, was once the center of a prosperous Jewish community, one whose last remnants were expelled decades ago in the early days of Muammar Gadhafi's regime.

A Libyan waves a Kingdom of Libya flag during Friday prayers near the courthouse in Benghazi, June 17, 2011.Credit: Reuters

Inside Libya, little trace of them remains. Abroad, however, surviving members and descendants of the community are very much alive, watching with fascination from afar as Gadhafi's forces and a NATO-backed rebel insurgency battle for control of a country some of them still see as home.

"I have somewhat mixed feelings. I am sympathetic to people who want him out," said Libya-born Gina Bublil-Waldman, referring to the embattled dictator.

But Bublil-Waldman, who heads an organization of Jews from Arab countries in San Francisco, said she was still angry and hurt by the memory of her family's expulsion from Libya. Those feelings remained strong, she said, and at this point she would be afraid to go.

Navit Barel, a 34-year-old Israeli of Libyan descent, said the upheaval made her want to visit the country where her parents were born. Her mother and father, now deceased, both grew up near the Dar al-Bishi synagogue.

"I feel like it brought back my yearning to talk to my father," she said.

Libyan Jews seem proud of their heritage and even nostalgic for their ancestral home. But they are also bitter at the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of Libyan Muslims and at the eventual elimination of an ancient native community in a wave of anti-Jewish violence linked to the rise of the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel.

Today, most of the community's few crumbling remains lie in Hara Kabira, a sandy slum that was once Tripoli's Jewish quarter.

Inside the Dar al-Bishi synagogue, faded Hebrew above an empty ark where Torah scrolls were once kept reads Shema Israel 'Hear, O Israel' - the beginning of a Jewish prayer. The floor is strewn with decades of garbage.

What was once a ritual bath next to the synagogue now houses impoverished Libyan families. In a nearby alley, three arched doorways in a yellow facade are decorated with Jewish stars of David. The building was once the Ben Yehuda Jewish youth club, said Maurice Roumani, a Libyan-born Israeli and Libyan Jewry expert. Barel's father, Eliyahu, taught Hebrew there.

The government now owns it.

Jews first arrived in what is now Libya some 2,300 years ago. They settled mostly in coastal towns like Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks, Italians and ultimately the independent Arab state that has now descended into civil war.

Some prospered as merchants, physicians and jewelers. Under Muslim rule, they saw periods of relative tolerance and bursts of hostility. Italy took over in 1911, and eventually the fascist government of Benito Mussolini issued discriminatory laws against Jews, dismissing some from government jobs and ordering them to work on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.

In the 1940s, thousands were sent to concentration camps in North Africa where hundreds died. Some were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Austria.

Their troubles didn't end with the war. Across the Arab world, anger about the Zionist project in Palestine turned Jewish neighbors into perceived enemies. In November 1945, mobs throughout Libya went on a three-day rampage, burning down Jewish shops and homes and killing at least 130 Jews, among them three dozen children.

After Israel was founded in 1948, it became a refuge for Jews of ancient Middle Eastern communities, including those of Libya. Barel's father fled in 1949, and her mother soon after.

Today, Libyan Jews and their descendants number around 110,000. Most live in Israel, with others in Italy and elsewhere. None, if any, have any desire to return as residents, but Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the embattled Gadhafi government, said they would be allowed back - if they first disavowed their Israeli citizenship. "They cannot have both," Ibrahim said.

The Benghazi-based rebel government would not comment on whether it had any intention of mending relations with the country's old Jewish community. Spokesman Jalal al-Gallal would say only that there would be freedom of religion in a future Libya.

Roumani, the Libyan Jewry expert, said he has a yearning to return, but knows that the places he knew are long gone.

Roumani described a memory of himself as a child in Benghazi: He is walking to synagogue with his father, listening to a chanted recitation of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, coming from a radio in a nearby cafe.

The synagogue is now a Coptic Christian church. His father's grave was lost when Gadhafi's regime built over the cemetery.

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