Rebels plan to restore Jewish Libya

By Nathan Jeffay, September 8, 2011
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Anti-Gaddafi fighters wave a Kingdom of Libya flag at a checkpoint near Sirte this week

Anti-Gaddafi fighters wave a Kingdom of Libya flag at a checkpoint near Sirte this week

For Libyan rebel David Gerbi, thought to be the only Jew in the war-torn country, the last fortnight has been like a journey in a time machine.

The once-numerous Jewish community of Libya left in two waves: amid attacks on the establishment of the state of Israel and amid more violence during and after the Six-Day War of 1967. When Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he confiscated the property that Jews had left behind and cancelled all debts owed to them.

Dr Gerbi is now visiting the lost world that many of the exiles thought was consigned to history, never to be seen again by Jewish eyes, and finding out what happened to confiscated property.

He is talking to rebel leaders about restoring Jewish sites and rights. "What Gaddafi tried to eliminate, a Jewish culture, memories and history here, they want to restore," he said in an interview from a compound in the Nafusa Mountains.

Advising Libya’s new leaders: Gerbi

Advising Libya’s new leaders: Gerbi

Rome-based Dr Gerbi, whose parents fled Libya for Italy in 1967, has become a respected adviser to rebel leaders. He has been with them for two weeks and, because he is kashrut-observant, living on a diet of fruit, tinned tuna and milk. He expects to remain in Libya until Rosh Hashanah.

Despite some fears in Libya and the West regarding the presence of Islamists among the rebels, Dr Gerbi has faith that the revolution will result in a tolerant Libya, where different faiths live together peacefully.

He said he is "not naïve" about Islamist involvement but believes that Libyans will not let Islamists become dominant post-revolution - both because they disagree with them ideologically and because they want to be more accepted internationally and know Islamist leadership will jeopardise that. "And people tell me that if something goes wrong, we'll have a second revolution."

Dr Gerbi joined the rebels out of a belief that Jewish and non-Jewish Libyans are united as victims of Gaddafi, and therefore Jews should play a part in effecting a change. "This is an historical conflict in which cruel, unfair things happened to Jewish people and other Libyans," he said.

Dr Gerbi has been travelling to meetings of the rebel National Transitional Council, where plans for a new, democratic, post-revolution Libya are being drawn up. A psychoanalyst by profession, his natural area of input is healthcare, but his expertise is also sought on general state-building matters and, on occasion, even psychological insights for military strategy.

His pursuit of the country's Jewish past has taken him to shuls - mostly found "disgusting and full of garbage" - including in Tripoli, Jadu, and Libya's oldest in Yafran. In Jadu, he visited a Jewish cemetery that is in disarray. Rebel leaders said that they will restore it and hold a rededication with a minyan of Jewish exiles in three months.

Dr Gerbi's hope is that with the restoration of Jewish rights - and eventually Jewish property - and well as improvement to the status of other minorities in Libya, it will go from rogue state to a "model for establishing coexistence in the region".

Last updated: 12:31pm, September 8 2011