The secret mission to erase 2,000 years of Jewish life in Libya

The Libyan authorities have been hiding what they are doing to Tripoli’s Dar Bishi synagogue


 For the past three months Libyan authorities have been surreptitiously converting Tripoli’s Dar Bishi synagogue into a modern Islamic cultural centre.

Dar Bishi is the last tangible sign of Libya’s Jewish past – other synagogues have been transformed into something else or destroyed. The old Jewish cemetery was destroyed by the then leader of Libya, Colonel Gaddafi, and a motorway now runs where gravestones used to be.

Dr David Gerbi, a Libyan Jewish refugee whose family was expelled from Libya in 1967, has for years been campaigning to restore the synagogue and save the remnants of Jewish life in the country. Now living in Rome where he works as a psychologist, Gerbi maintains a wide network of friends and sympathisers in the country, among them many diplomats. Several weeks ago he heard that the zone around Dar Bishi had become a no-go area and that secret work being was carried out inside. Attempts to find out what was happening were immediately thwarted, with no explanation given.

Finally, one of his contacts managed to enter the building and secretly take photographs that show without a shadow of doubt the extensive range of the works. More enquiries confirmed his suspicions about the Libyan government’s plans for Dar Bishi. “They are taking advantage of the fact that the country is in a state of chaos to violate our history, to try to obliterate the 2,000 years of Jewish life in Libya,” he says. “The synagogue is where our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers prayed and it needs to remain what it has always been, a Jewish site of prayer. Already many of our synagogues have been turned into mosques or libraries. So much of our heritage has been destroyed.”

Dar Bishi, in its current form, was designed by a Jewish-Italian architect, Umberto Di Segni, in 1922 as part of Mussolini’s project to “Italianise” the country, then an Italian colony. The brief was to build a ‘prestigious’ synagogue inspired by Rome’s Tempio Maggiore.

The site chosen had been occupied by an ancient synagogue built hundreds of years earlier by a rich Jew, Bishi Guetta, hence the name.The new building, financed by the local community, was built in record time and inaugurated the following year with great pomp. For years (until the fascists decided Jews were dispensable) the new temple was part of any official itinerary, visited by Mussolini himself (April 1926), the whole Italian royal family (March 1928), Libya’s governor Italo Balbo (March 1935) and countless others.

Gerbi has been fighting for the rights of Libyan Jews for many years. It is a battle that saw him negotiating with Colonel Gaddafi, so that his aunt, Rina Debash, the last Jew left in Libya, would be allowed out of the country to die in Italy with her family.

In 2011 he did voluntary work there to help victims of post traumatic stress disorder caused by Libya’s internal conflicts. However, the welcome didn’t last and his last visit to the country of his birth that same year ended dramatically. Footage shot by CNN shows an emotional Gerbi in a rubble-strewn Dar Bishi while outside a mob is baying for his blood.

He is now persona non grata in Libya but that has not stopped him. As the Italian representative of the World Organisation of Libyan Jews, Gerbi has appealed to the international community – the Italian government and the EU in particular – as well as Unesco to put pressure on the Libyan government to stop the transformation of Dar Bishi.

He is hoping that the winds of change that recently have swept through the Middle East will reach Libya too. “Look at the extraordinary event that is the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab countries,” he says. “Maybe something is changing. To quote David Ben Gurion, ‘He who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.’ Time will tell.”


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