Dinner with Gaddafi: a refugee goes home

Detail on the wall of a former synagogue in Hara Kbira, Tripoli

Detail on the wall of a former synagogue in Hara Kbira, Tripoli

A man whose family fled Libya in 1967 amid anti-Jewish violence has returned to his home city and had dinner with Colonel Gaddafi.

Raphael Luzon was 13 when, in the aftermath of Israel’s Six day War, the then 4,000-strong Libyan Jewish population was forced out of the north African country.

Several members of his family, including six cousins, were killed before they could escape.

Mr Luzon’s family found asylum in Italy and he later moved to Hendon, where he now lives with his wife and son. But earlier this year Mr Luzon, who is the chairman of the U nion of Jews from Libya, received an invitation from Colonel Gaddafi’s government to visit his homeland with his 87-year-old mother and his sister.

In July they travelled to their former home of Benghazi and saw what remained of the ir life there , including the family’s house, Mr Luzon’s father’s business and the synagogue they had once attended. They also attended an official dinner with Mr Gaddafi and several Libyan politicians.

The visit marks a shift in relations between Jews and the Libyan government. When Colonel Gaddafi, who has become notorious for his attacks on Israel, seized power in 1969, debts to Jews were cancelled and Jewish property was confiscated. A population that once numbered 20,000 had declined to zero by 2003.

Mr Luzon said: “I was surprised to receive a personal invitation but we were treated very nicely.

“It felt very comfortable, very sure, very safe, and no one spoke about politics.”

Mr Luzon has been back to Libya for a second time and is to visit again in October. He said he hoped that more of Libya’s Jewish diaspora would be able to visit, and that a ban on people with Israeli passports coming to Libya would be overturned.

He is also seeking permission to take the bodies of his murdered family members out of Libya and give them a proper Jewish burial.

He said that coming home after 43 years was an indescribable feeling.

“My mother cried and it was very emotional. A lot of memories came back to me.”

See pictures from Mr Luzon's visit here

Last updated: 2:23pm, February 23 2011