Libyan Jews cling to roots, but integrated in Israel

Libyan Jews, 90 percent of whom moved to Israel, remain tied to their Libyan roots. But their integration in Israel was successful and quiet, argues anthropologist Harvey Goldberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in The Dartmouth:

After World War II in 1948, over 80 percent of Libyan Jews moved to the newly founded state of Israel, Goldberg said.

“Did [Libyan Jews] still see themselves as Libyans?” Goldberg asked. “What about the impact of new governmental structures? It’s the truth that they have been depicting themselves as Libyan Jews and this has always preceded the Israel state.”

Libyan Jews who moved to Israel remained extremely tied to their Libyan roots, according to Goldberg. Goldberg presented an image to the audience that depicted Libyan Jews in Israel carrying signs indicating their village of origin as their sole means of identification.

A main coalition of Libyan Jews, called the Committee of Libyan Jewish Communities in Israel, further emphasizes how Libyan Jews choose to identify themselves geographically as separate communities, Goldberg said.

“These localities are an expression in a moment where becoming acutely aware of one’s wider engagement to the world was growing.” Goldberg said.

Despite the passionate cultural ties that Libyan Jews maintained while in Israel, struggles to preserve the Libyan Jewish identity persisted on a greater scale, Goldberg said.

When war broke out in Libya in the 1960s and Muammar el-Qaddafi assumed control of the country in 1969, the situation for Jews still living in Libya became “untenable,” Goldberg said.

In one instance of a lack of cultural awareness under Qaddafi’s regime, plans to construct a road in Tripoli destroyed a Jewish cemetery, Goldberg said. In response to discriminatory actions by the Libyan government, many Libyan Jewish leaders “took steps to make sure the memory of the dead and the past in Libya would be made elsewhere,” Goldberg said.

One of the most prominent efforts to “solidify” the Libyan Jewish identity included the creation of the Libyan Jews Heritage Center in Israel, he said. The heritage center includes an education and research center as well as a museum, according to Goldberg.

“The heritage center emphasizes the ethnic experience of Libyan Jews,” Goldberg said. “Part of its success is that it creates accessible generational connections between first generation Libyan Jews and future generations.”

While the Libyan Jewish population in Israel remains one of the smallest of North African Jews, Libyan Jews’ integration into Israeli life was successful and relatively quiet, Goldberg said.

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