Why Jews rejected Gaddafi’s ‘offer’ to return

Pre-World War 2 Benghazi synagogue classroom

Why has no Jew taken up Colonel Gaddafi ‘s ‘offer’ to Libyan Jews, made in the 1970s, to return to their homeland? It couldn’t be something to do with the way Jews have been oppressed under Muslim rule over the centuries, could it? Andrew Bostom gives a historical review in the American Thinker:

Mordechai Hakohen (1856-1929) was a Libyan Talmudic scholar and auto-didact anthropologist who composed an ethnographic study of North African Jewry in the early 20th century. Hakohen summarizes the overall impact on the Jews of the Muslim jihad conquest and rule of North Africa, including Libya, as follows:

They [also] pressed the Jews to enter the covenant of the Muslim religion. Many Jews bravely chose death. Some of them accepted under the threat of force, but only outwardly…Others left the region, abandoning their wealth and property and scattering to the ends of the earth. Many stood by their faith, but bore an iron yoke on their necks. They lowered themselves to the dust before the Muslims, lords of the land, and accepted a life of woe — carrying no weapons, never mounting an animal in the presence of a Muslim, not wearing a red headdress, and following other laws that signaled their degradation.

Hakohen’s study (pp.74,76) includes this mid-19th description of the Jews fate as Berber Muslim chattel slaves in the Atlas Mountains of Libya:

The Berber [Muslim] Lord passed his Hebrew slave down to his children as an inheritance. If the Berber lord had many sons, each inherited a share in the slave. Each could also sell his share in the slave…if the Hebrew slave met his obligation in giving homage to his lord and was able to acquire money, he could redeem himself by paying a sum agreeable to both parties. With this deed he could acquire a deed of manumission for that portion of the rights held by the seller….[T]o this very day [1865]..there is no Israelite family without an Ishmaelite master to whom the Israelite must make a token payment every year. The Ishmaelite may sell him to another, and this arrangement persisted until only six or seven years ago.

Nahum Slouzschz (1871-1966), a scholar, writer, archeologist, historian and translator, travelled amongst the Jews of North Africa from 1905 to 1916, including a trek through the remote Atlas mountain region, collecting information on their lives and customs. Below are excerpts from two of Slouzschz’s accounts regarding Libyan Jews published in 1906 (p. 660) and 1908 (pp. 660-61).

Jews, Berbers, and Arabs (Libya, 1906)

Until the middle of the last century, the Jews were treated as the serfs of the Berber lords. While abolishing this humiliating institution, Turkey has not yet had the time of curb the moral vexations that the Muslims inflict on their Jewish neighbors. One example out of a hundred: the rabbi of the region [Djebel Nefussi], having journeyed to Nalut, was attacked by local inhabitants who ordered him to get down from his mule, since a Jew may not straddle a mount in the presence of Muslims. Should he dare to complain, he would run the risk of seeing his family massacred by the Arabs.

The most venerated places of worship, the most ancient cemeteries are desecrated by the Muslims and as for agriculture, their Arab neighbors have no qualms in seizing the products of the Jews’ harvest. In spite of the goodwill of the ruling authorities [the Turks], these matters often escape their control.

For example, is it known in Tripoli that the Jewish inhabitants of a village called Al Qsar, who possess about fifty acres of arable land and several hundred olive trees, were forced last year to pay 1,600 francs for their tithe and, moreover, that many a Jew, after having been molested by the local inhabitants, would not dare to lodge a complaint for justice with the authorities?

Expropriation in Tripolitania (Libya, 1908)

Yehud Beni-Abbes is on the very margin of the desert which lies between the oasis and Tripoli; the village comprises two hundred and forty inhabitants, who take up six underground courts. At one time the Jews were very numerous in this country, holding most of the land and defending it successfully against all invaders. We were shown the fertile ravine, which ends in a well-watered valley and which commands the approach of the region towards Tripoli. Here, on the slopes, we found grottoes and traces of mines of an ancient civilization.

We were led across spaced-out fields, and were told that all of this splendid country belonged at one time to the Jews. But towards 1840 the plague ravaged the Jewish population; the only survivors were four families of Beni-Abbes, while many of the neighboring villages were completely wiped out.

The Ulad Beni-Abbes Arabs took advantage of the unhappy plight of the Jews to deprive them of their lands; the rightful owners kept on struggling against the invaders, but to no purpose; besides this, the Arabs, with the meanness characteristic of the servile fellah, took possession of the cemetery, the resting place of a whole line of ancestors, and ploughed it up. They could not have conceived a more malignant act, nor one which would have wounded so deeply the “infidels,” who now, with tears in their eyes, led us across this field which contained the desecrated remains of their ancestors and their rabbis.

The Arabs, however, had not dared to dispossess the last native Jews entirely; they managed, instead, to force them into a collective ownership of the whole village, so that the Jews, having no distinctive property of their own, are yet forced to till fields and cultivate fruit trees belonging exclusively to the Mussulmans, and at a distance from their homes. The outcome is that the Jewish farmer must look on, without daring to protest, while his Arab neighbour appropriates the first-fruits of his olive-groves and the best produce of his own plot of land, which is swallowed up in the vast Arab fields.

Even this did not satisfy the oppressors. There is in the village an ancient synagogue, a sanctuary held in deep veneration. It is situated in a hollow surrounded by an open court, and its roof is colored like the soil in order to conceal it from view. This spot affords them the only moral gratification they have; it is the one meeting place where they can offer up their prayers or pour out the plaints of the Piyyutim [liturgical compositions], which mourn the sorrows and proclaim the hopes of Israel.

The fanatic Mussulmans, jealous of this sanctuary, planned, after the desecration of the cemetery, the ruin of the synagogue, on the pretext that the neighboring mosque would, according to Mohammedan law, be profaned by its proximity.

Fortunately, there were judges in Tripoli and money in the hands of the Jews. By a happy chance the Jews have in their possession a document which proves that the synagogue was in existence on its present site five hundred years before the foundations of the mosque were laid, that is to say, seven or eight centuries ago. The administration, basing its decision on the right of priority, was able to rescue the synagogue, to the unbounded joy of the Jews. Looking through the Geniza of this sanctuary we found, among other things a tablet dating from 5359-that is, 348 -years-old. Surely these Jews, swallowed up in the Sahara, have deserved a better fate.

The World War II era, and the two decades following it witnessed a rapid dissolution of the major Jewish communities in the Arab Muslim world — pogroms, expropriations, and expulsions resulting in the exile of some 900,000 Jews (pp.150-64; 663-77). As historian Norman Stillman has observed, even the first decade after World War II saw (p.155),

…the overall Jewish population in the Arab countries…reduced by half through emigration. In several countries the decline was far greater. By the end of 1953, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya had lost over 90 percent of their Jews, and Syria 75 percent. Most of the Jews who remained in the Arab world were in the French-ruled Maghreb. It was not long, however, before the three countries of that region achieved their independence. Within little more than two decades after the end of World War II, most of the North African Jews were gone as well.

Recurrent anti-Zionist/Antisemitic incitement from 1943 to 1945 culminated in a series of anti-Jewish riots during November of 1945 (p.157).

One day after rioting in Egypt subsided, much more extensive and devastating anti-Jewish violence erupted in Libya. A minor altercation between Arabs and Jews near the electric power station outside the Jewish quarter of Tripoli was followed the next day (November 5th) by an anti-Jewish pogrom (p. 158):

…mobs numbering in the thousands poured into the Jewish quarter and the Suq al-Turk (the bazaar where many Jewish shops were located) and went on a rampage of looting, beating, and killing. According to one confidential report, weapons were distributed to the rioters at certain command centers, one of which was the shop of Ahmad Krawi, a leading Arab merchant…only Jews and Jewish property were attacked. The rioters had no difficulty in distinguishing Jewish homes and businesses because prior to the attack, doors had been marked with chalk in Arabic indicating “Jew,” “Italian,” or “Arab.” Mob passions reached a fever picth when a rumor spread that the Chief Qadi of Tripoli had been murdered by Jews and the Shari’a Court burned. The terror then spread to the nearby towns of Amrus, Tagiura, Zawia, Zanzur, and Qusabat.

Zachino Habib, Tripoli’s Jewish community president, provided this eyewitness account of what transpired in Tripoli, Zanzur, Zawia, Qusabat, and Zitlin on November 4-5, 1945 (p. 158):

…the Arabs attacked the Jews in obedience to mysterious orders. Their outbursts of violence had no plausible motive. For fifty hours they hunted men down, attacked houses and shops, killed men, women, old and young, horribly tortured and dismembered Jews isolated in the interior…In order to carry out the slaughter, the attackers used various weapons: knives, daggers, sticks, clubs, iron bars, revolvers, and even hand grenades

Stillman assessed the toll of the pogrom in lives and property, as well as its psychosocial Impact (p. 158):

When the pogroms — for that is what the riots essentially were — were over, 130 Jews were dead, including thirty-six children. Some entire families were wiped out. Hundreds were injured, and approximately 4,000 people were left homeless. An additional 4,200 were reduced to poverty. There were many instances of rape, especially in the provincial town of Qusabat, where many individuals embraced Islam to save themselves. Nine synagogues — five in Tripoli, four in the provincial towns — had been desecrated and destroyed. More than 1,000 residential buildings and businesses had been plundered in Tripoli alone. Damage claims totaled more than one quarter of a billion lire (over half a million pounds sterling). The Tripolitanian pogroms dealt, in the words one one observer [Haim Abravanel, director of Alliance schools in Tripoli], “an unprecedented blow…to the Jews sense of security.” Many leading Arab notables condemned the atrocities, but as the British Military Administration’s Annual Report for 1945 noted, “no general, deep-felt sense of guilt seems to animate the Arab community at large; nor has it been too active in offering help to the victims.”

The ongoing isolation and alienation of Jews from the larger Arab Muslim societies in which they lived accelerated considerably after the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948, and the immediate war on the nascent Jewish state declared and waged by members of the Arab League. A rapid annihilation of Israel and its Jewish population was predicted and savored by Arab leaders such as Azzam Pasha, the secretary of the Arab League, who declared (p. 159):

[T]his will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the crusades (…)

Giulia Boukhobza chronicled the final destruction of the remnant Libyan Jewish community, breaking her silence 36-years (July 1, 2003) after surviving the 1967 pogrom in Tripoli (p. 677):

This is the first time I have ever written about my experience as a Jew from Libya. It’s not easy for me. The memories are still painful. Jews had a continual presence in Libya for over two thousand years, predating the Arab conquest and occupation by centuries. My own family had lived on Libyan soil for hundreds of years, if not longer. I was born in Libya in 1951, the year of the country’s independence. Most of the nearly 40,000 Jews left Libya between 1948 and 1951 because of a wave of anti-Jewish rioting, beginning in 1945, that left hundreds dead and injured and thousands homeless. My family, however, decided to stay and see if things would improve. After all, it was our home, it was our language, and it was the land of our ancestors. And the new Libyan constitution offered guarantees that gave us hope. We were wrong. The hope was misplaced. The guarantees were absolutely worthless. By 1961, Jews could not vote, hold public office, obtain Libyan passports, buy new property, or supervise our own communal affairs. In other words, at best we were second-class residents – I can’t even say citizens – though this was our birthplace and home. Our fate was sealed six years later. In June 1967, the anti-Jewish atmosphere in the streets became terrifying, so much so that my family could not leave our house in Tripoli. My parents and I, along with my seven brothers and sisters, sat frightened at home for days. And then the mob came for us. I can’t even begin to describe the scene. It seemed there were a thousand men chanting “Death to the Jews.” Some had jars of gasoline which they began to empty on our house. They were about to strike a match. We were near hysteria. But then one man from the mob courageously spoke up. He said he knew us and we should be left alone. Amazingly, the mob complied and moved elsewhere. Other Jews, however, were not as lucky. Some, including close friends of ours, were killed, and property damage was estimated in the millions of dollars. Our family went into hiding for several weeks before we were finally able to leave the country and reach Italy. We arrived with barely a suitcase each. Today, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single Jew left in Libya, not one. An ancient community has come to a complete end. My family had to start from scratch in Italy. We had nothing and no one. But we persevered. We knew that we weren’t the world’s first Jewish refugees, or the last, and that we would just have to make the best of a difficult situation. And that’s exactly what we did. We did not wallow in self-pity. We did not seek to make ourselves wards of the international community. And we didn’t plot revenge against Libya. We simply picked up the pieces of our lives and moved on. The more I think about what befell us, though, the angrier I become. In effect, we were triple victims. First, we were uprooted and compelled to leave our home forever solely because we were Jews. Second, our plight was largely ignored by the international community, the UN and the media. Do a search and you’ll be shocked at how little was written or said about this tragedy. And third, Libya erased any trace of our existence in the country. Even the Jewish cemeteries were destroyed and the headstones used in the building of roads. In other words, first our homeland was taken away from us, then our history as well. I can no longer be a Jew of silence, nor can I allow myself to become a forgotten Jew. It is time to reclaim my history. It is time to demand accountability for the massive human rights violations that occurred to us in Libya. That’s why, after 36 years, I’ve chosen to speak out today.

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  • outside of Israel, we are all dimmies!Will i get shot for this?
    Sultana Latifa a Jewish refugee from Egypt

  • Why would any Jew reject Khaddafi's offer to return?
    Tunisian born philosopher and writer Albert Memmi, a famous theoricist of anti-colonialism in North Africa, has answered that question decades ago, and his essay to Khaddafi is just as pertinent today as it was thirty-five years ago.

    Such an idea would seem grotesque to all the Jews who fled their homes – from the gallows of Iraq, the rapes, the sodomy of the Egyptian prisons, from the political and cultural alienation and economic suffocation of the more moderate countries. The attitude of the Arabs towards us seems to me to be hardly different from what it has always been. The Arabs in the past merely tolerated the existence of Jewish minorities, no more. They have not yet recovered from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise up their heads, attempting even to gain their national independence! They know of only one rejoinder: off with their heads."

    Read it all. And then reread it.

  • Dear Juniper
    That is very flattering of you to suggest a book – I'm not sure any publisher would consider it.

  • Dear Bataween, have you considered publishing your blog in book form? It would be wonderful to have all your work in a book, with all the photos.

    Maybe there is a publisher somewhere who would do this. At the moment I bookmark so many posts and realise I want to keep ALL of them.

    What do other followers think?


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