Interview: David Gerbi

Fighting on, the man who wants the Jews back in Libya


By Jeremy Josephs, December 29, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter
Gerbi received death threats for praying in a Tripoli synagogue.

Gerbi received death threats for praying in a Tripoli synagogue.

It's official - Dr David Gerbi still has his sense of humour. And given what happened to the 56-year-old psychiatrist earlier this year, that is quite surprising.

Two days after Yom Kippur, Gerbi had to leave Libya in a hurry after hundreds of protesters called for his deportation. He even received death threats. His crime? Defiling an "archaeological site". In fact, he was trying to pray in Tripoli's sealed-up Dar al-Bishi Synagogue, where no Jew had worsphipped for decades.

The Libyan-born Gerbi had returned to the country from Italy, where, as a 12-year-old, he went into exile with his family when the last remnants of the community were expelled in 1967. On arriving back in the land of his birth, he had joined up with the revolutionary forces and provided them with specialist psychiatric care. With the fall of Gaddafi he seized the moment to reassert the Jewish presence in Libya.

The angry reaction of some of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms might have shaken his resolve, but far from it. In fact, he can still see the funny side.

Gerbi meeting Gaddafi

Gerbi meeting Gaddafi

"Hey, I've got a joke for you," he announces, before the interview has even got under way.

"Three Jews are going to be executed and are lined up in front of a firing squad. The sergeant in charge asks each Jew whether or not he wants a blindfold. 'Yes,' says the first Jew, in a resigned tone. 'OK,' says the second Jew, bracing himself to his grim fate. 'And what about you?' he enquires of the third Jew. 'No,' says the third Jew, 'no, I don't want your lousy blindfold. You can stick your blindfold.' At this, the second Jew leans over to the third one and says: "Listen, Moshe, take a blindfold. Don't make trouble'."

Gerbi has told this joke not just to make me laugh but because, as he says, "it happens to be pertinent to what I have been going through. The attitudes expressed by many members of my own family echoed the sentiments of this joke. For far too long there has been a culture of silence and suppression within the exiled Libyan Jewish community. We have been invisible and mute. My own family was against me. 'Keep a low profile. Don't make a fuss. Get over it - accept what has happened and move on.' That was the approach. Just like in the joke. But I can't and I won't.

"We have suffered a historic wrong - and one which I have every intention of putting right. The Palestinians are masters of ensuring that their rights are recognised. Everyone, it seems, now dances to their tune. Standing ovations all round at the United Nations. But tell me, why am I not entitled to speak up for the rights of Libyan Jewry? I was exiled at 12 years of age in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. But for some strange reason, when it comes to Jews from Arab lands, people sit around and shrug their shoulders rather than say out loud that there has been a historic injustice which needs to be put right."

The history of Jews in Libya stretches back to the third century BC. They settled mostly in coastal towns such as Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks, and Italians. The majority of the 38,000-strong community fled to Israel in the years following the devastating pogrom of 1945. The remaining 6,000 finally left in 1967, many of them, like Gerbi's family, settling in Rome. Their assets and possessions were confiscated by Gaddafi after he came to power in 1969.

Now, with Gaddafi gone, Gerbi is a man on a mission. And whereas less courageous individuals might have been dissuaded from walking around Tripoli wearing a kippot or by protesters bearing placards announcing that "there is no place for Jews in Libya", he ignores them and ploughs on undeterred.

Why? Because he wants the Dar al-Bishi synagogue to become the symbol of reconciliation between Jewish and Muslim Libyans, despite the discouraging and dangerous nature of his first tentative steps.

Within the walls of Tripoli's Old City the faded, peach-coloured synagogue of Gerbi's childhood is in a sorry state. The Star of David is still visible inside and an empty ark where Torah scrolls were once kept still reads Shemah Israel in faded Hebrew. But all around there is graffiti painted on the walls, empty paint cans are strewn across the floor, next to an unsightly array of plastic water-bottles, clothes, mattresses and the carcasses of dead pigeons. The site of the mikvah, once used for ritual cleansing, is now a rubbish dump where stray cats scour for food. When Gerbi entered the synagogue, having knocked down a concrete wall with a sledgehammer to get in, he said a prayer and cried.

"What Gaddafi tried to do is to eliminate our memory. To eliminate our amazing language. To remove all trace of the Jewish people," he declares. "I want to bring our legacy back. I want to give a chance for the Jews of Libya to return."

Despite the odds being stacked up against him, and a total absence of funding to give momentum to his campaign (Gerbi has been nominated as the executive director of the World Organization of Libyan Jews but pays for everything out of funds generated from his private practice in Rome), it remains his intention to become a member of Libya's new National Transitional Council, either as a parliamentarian in his own right or as the country's official representative for Libyan Jewry. But everything remains in the pending tray.

"I am still waiting for an answer," he complains. "But in my view Mustafa' Jalil, who heads the NTC, is playing a rather duplicitous game by saying that people like me who have other nationalities can't participate in the new Libya. Of course, that is the most ridiculous reasoning I have ever heard. I only have an Italian passport because I was kicked out of Libya in the first place. Sometimes when you hear such distorted thinking, you don't know whether to laugh or cry."

But Gerbi will continue pressing his case. He plans to propose a proper religious burial of the remains of Libyan Jews in the Benghazi cemetery (whose bones are currently stored in trunks), the re-consecration of the Homs and Derna Jewish cemeteries, the reconstruction of the synagogues of Tripoli and Jefren, and renewed negotiations regarding collective and individual property confiscated by the Gaddafi regime - including his late parents' shop and home in Tripoli.

He insists, however, that he has no intention of becoming a martyr to the cause, and after his last experience in Libya, intends to proceed with great caution in terms of his personal safety. He readily admits that he has made mistakes and caused distress both to his family and the exiled Libyan Jewish community.

Which surely leads one to conclude, therefore, that if he could attribute words to his beloved parents and grandparents, they too would have counselled him to leave Libya well alone.

"No, no," he responds. "Despite all I have said, I don't believe that to be the case. Because I feel that they would appreciate that I am at least trying to do something. I like to think that they would acknowledge that I have not remained as a fearful child, permanently embracing the role of the victim, but that I have grown and become a man.

"Whatever the case, I can tell you one thing - that the days of being invisible and mute are over."

    Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011