Letter From Rome

One more snub to our refugees, from Ghaddafi

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, June 18, 2009

After President Barak Obama's speech to the Muslim world, the Egyptian-born writer Andre Aciman scolded him for a sin of omission.

“Neither he nor anyone around him, and certainly no one in the audience, bothered to notice one small detail missing from the speech: he forgot me,” he wrote in the New York Times.

By “me”, Aciman was referring to the 800,000 Jews who “were born in the Middle East, who fled the Arab and Muslim world or who were summarily expelled for being Jewish in the 20th century” — almost all after the birth of Israel.

In recent days, two events in Rome brought the plight of these often forgotten refugees into sharper focus.

One was an official visit by Libyan leader Col Muammar Ghaddafi to his former colonial power. He invited Jews to meet with him as part of a group of Libyan exiles, but he held the meeting on Shabbat.

The other event was a two-day meeting of Jews displaced from Arab lands, pressing for official recognition of their rights as refugees.
Representatives from Israel, the US, Canada and six European countries, including the UK, took part in the conference, which was organised by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. Its centerpiece was a meeting with the Italian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission.

“It’s the first formal government hearing on this subject,” said the group’s executive vice president, Stanley Urman. “We’re discussing ways to bring the matter to the EU.”

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler said a “revisionist” narrative of Middle East history asserts that only one people, the Palestinians, were “victims” of the birth of Israel.

“The result is that the suffering of 850,000 Jews forced out of Arab countries has been overlooked and cancelled out both in the peace plans relative to the Middle East and in the narrative of the last 60 years.”

This, he said, “is prejudicial to an authentic reconciliation between the two peoples.”

Ghaddafi’s visit shone the spotlight on the plight of Libyan Jews in particular. About 36,000 Jews lived in Libya in 1945. The majority moved to Israel after the birth of the Jewish state.

The 6,000 still in Libya in 1967 were forced out by antisemitic violence in the wake of the Six-Day War, and transferred to Rome in an airlift, leaving behind most of their possessions. Most went on to Israel and the US. But about 2,000 remained in Italy.

Three years later, Ghaddafi expelled 20,000 Italian citizens living in the country.

In Rome, Ghaddafi invited Jews to join a meeting he scheduled with about 200 non-Jewish former Libyans. But the meeting took place on Shabbat, and Jewish officialdom boycotted the gathering.

Holding the meeting on Saturday was “a slap in the face”, said Rome Jewish community president Riccardo Pacifici. Ghaddafi’s action was “a reflection of the attitude many Arab leaders show to their former [Jewish] citizens,” said Urban. “He missed an opportunity to set a standard in the Arab world to address the issue in an open and courageous manner.”

Jews, perhaps, could take some comfort in the fact that they were not the only people that Ghaddafi snubbed. On Friday, he failed to show up for a conference with members of Parliament. After waiting for two hours, the president of the Chamber of Deputies angrily cancelled the meeting.

    Last updated: 3:35pm, September 23 2009