Even after Gaddafi, no hope of a Jewish future

By Lyn Julius, October 28, 2011
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Two days after Yom Kippur, a man called David Gerbi was bundled out of Tripoli in a military plane. Was any hope that post-Gaddafi Libya could become a tolerant and pluralistic society flown out with him?

Gerbi, a 56-year old Jewish psychiatrist, had returned to his native Libya after 44 years of exile in Rome to assist the anti-Gaddafi rebels. His dream was to spend the high holidays praying in Tripoli's Dar al-Bishi synagogue.

With the blessing of a local sheikh, Gerbi took a sledgehammer to the sealed entrance. The building had stood derelict since the remaining Jews were expelled in 1967, his family among them. The international news media captured the incongruous sight of Gerbi, wrapped in his tallit, praying amid the rubble.

Gerbi's hurried exit had to be arranged by the Italian government after he received death threats. Hundreds of angry protesters gathered in Tripoli and Benghazi to call for his deportation. Crowds tried to storm his hotel. His crime? He had broken into an "archaelogical site" without permission.

Call him a hero or a madman, Gerbi showed that the Libyan National Transitional Council may not be ready to "walk the walk" of democracy, pluralism and human rights. To Gerbi, the international community's huge investment in Libyan regime change had been repaid with duplicity.

What is shocking is that those calling for his deportation did not pretend to be only against Zionists. They shamelessly advertised their bigotry, holding signs that said: "There is no place for the Jews in Libya." One Jew is one too many in a country that has done everything possible to be rid of them.

The Jews had a place in Libya long before the Arabs. The community goes back 2,300 years, predating Islam by a millenium. But, after hundreds died during the Second World War and in a devastating pogrom in 1945, more than 90 per cent of the 38,000-strong community fled to Israel. The remaining 6,000 Jews were driven out in 1967, their property confiscated by Gaddafi.

From almost one million Jews in Arab lands in 1948, only 4,000 remain. Antisemitism has reached fever pitch. Arabs are so unlikely to meet a Jew that satanic conspiracy theories flourish. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, this year has seen attacks on two synagogues and a raid on a wedding party on the island of Djerba, still home to 1,500 Jews. After this week's election the Islamist Ennahda party is the largest single political group in Tunisia; a new constitution may well criminalise
normalisation with Israel.

The 2,500-member Jewish community in Morocco is a useful showcase for interfaith coexistence. But as in Bahrain, where King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa protects his country's 36 Jews, the Jews stand or fall with the monarchy. In Yemen, the 250-member remnant is dwindling fast, its future tied to the precarious rule of President Saleh.

Those who had high hopes that the Arab Spring would usher in an era of freedom and tolerance for minorities should have learned from post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Iraqi Jews living in Israel and the West wished for nothing more than to be compensated for their lost property and a chance to visit.

One did visit Baghdad in 2004. Marina Benjamin observed in her book The Last Jews of Babylon: "In the postwar atmosphere of hatred and suspicion Jews were once again the bogeyman. Variously portrayed as friends of the foreign occupier, Zionist spies, or simply as individuals returning under cover of false identities to reclaim property stolen from them in 1951, the Jews were not to be trusted." The antisemitism she witnessed in Iraq is now so virulent that there are desperate efforts to get the seven remaining Iraqi Jews out to safety after their names were revealed by Wikileaks.

In Egypt, where the "Jewish community" is now just a handful of old ladies, "Jew" is a term of abuse employed to smear political opponents or foreigners. In February, it was enough for the CBS reporter Lara Logan to be mistaken for a Jew: 200 men assaulted her, chanting "Jew, Jew" in Tahrir Square.

What begins with the Jews never ends with them. Middle East Christians are being targeted as never before - with or without the connivance of the authorities. In the latest violence in Cairo, 26 were massacred, mainly Coptic Christians. Joining the conspiracy theorists, Egypt's Prime Minister said, " There are hidden hands involved." Translation: the Jews were behind it.

As far as the safeguarding of human and minority rights is concerned, the Arab Spring has been a bitter disappointment.The Gerbi case offered the interim Libyan government the chance to break with the Jew-hating past and reset Libya's relationship with its Jews. So far, it has failed the test.

Last updated: 12:44pm, October 28 2011