I'll put shuls back in Libya (with a little rebel help)

By Nathan Jeffay, June 16, 2011
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David Gerbi with some of the rebels, whose leaders, he hopes, will allow Jews to freely visit the country

David Gerbi with some of the rebels, whose leaders, he hopes, will allow Jews to freely visit the country

The Libyan rebels have a new recruit: a softly-spoken, Kabbalah-studying, Orthodox Jewish psychoanalyst.

Rome-based David Gerbi has been making regular visits to Libya, where he meets rebel leaders to help them plan strategies for instituting democracy and gaining international recognition.

Mr Gerbi hopes that Libyan Jews, many of whom would be living there were it not for the events of 1967, may once again become part of their nation.

His hope is that the interim government will consolidate its power and then go about reinstating the right of exiled Libyan Jews to freely visit and live in the country, and seek compensation for confiscated property.

Failed talks: Gerbi meeting Gaddafi in 2009

Failed talks: Gerbi meeting Gaddafi in 2009

While Mr Gerbi does not believe that many Jews will choose to return permanently, he wants them to have the right to do so, like
expatriates of other countries. He also wants to restore synagogues and cemeteries.

He has started to discuss his hopes with rebel leaders, and thinks they are realistic. "If we will see an opposition of fanatics, it will not happen, but if we will see an opposition of real change this can happen," he says. "And I think that people are sick enough of living in fear that it can."

Mr Gerbi, who works in Italy and Israel, is also advising the rebels' interim government on boosting health provision.

In response to increased incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the civil war, he is teaching staff at a psychiatric hospital in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi methods for treating the condition.

Mr Gerbi was born in Libya, but his family - and more-or-less the entire Jewish community - was forced to leave in the after the Six-Day Way in 1967, when he was 12, amid anti-Jewish violence. His family went to Rome - temporarily, or so they hoped. "We were waiting for things to become calm and go back," he recalled during a visit to Tel Aviv this week. "But then came Gaddafi." When Muammar Gaddafi took power in 1969, he confiscated the property that Jews had left behind and cancelled all debts owed to them.

Mr Gerbi's association with the rebels is not his first venture into Libyan politics. In 2002 he became the first exiled Jew to return to Libya, having forged good connections with some of Colonel Gaddafi's senior officials. The regime asked him act as a conduit with America, conveying a message of peace to US officials, and he obliged.

He returned to Libya in 2007 but, after an initially positive visit, things turned nasty: he was detained and his possessions were retained as he was bundled onto a plane to Malta.

Some of his property was subsequently returned but other items, including mezuzot which he hoped to one day place on restored Libyan synagogues, were not.

Mr Gerbi then met Colonel Gaddafi in Rome in 2009. The dictator held his hands as they spoke of Libyan Jewry. But the meeting did not lead to the reconciliation he hoped for, and he has since concluded that his efforts with Colonel Gaddafi and on his behalf were "in vain… because he did not know how to greet the possibility of transforming Libya".

    Last updated: 1:16pm, June 16 2011