One of the leaders of Libyan Jews in the UK, Raphael Luzon, should not rush back to his country of birth to be the token Jew in the post-Gaddafi government, cautions Michelle Huberman in her Jerusalem Post blog Clash of Cultures:
Raphael Luzon, the chairman of Jews of Libya UK has been invited this week by the National Transitional Council (NTC) leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil, to return to Libya and join a newly-formed Democratic Party. “I said I would accept it once I see it is real democracy and the proposal is offered,” he told the Jerusalem Post this week. My advice to Faelino (as his friends call him), is – not to be too hasty to pack up your suitcases.
Raphael Luzon in his old seat at the synagogue in Benghazi
Of all people, Raphael Luzon has most reason to tread with caution: eight of his relatives, his uncle, aunt and their six children, were murdered by a Libyan army officer in 1967. He has been campaigning to have their remains, stored in trunks, given a proper Jewish burial.
In spite of his personal tragedy Mr Luzon and the community he represents told a Dutch Radio station, after a visit to his homeland last year, that they were Libyans who cherish the land of their birth.
“Everyone is really in love with Libya. Also myself, I have no sentiment of revenge or spirit of hatred. Absolutely not. What happened, it happened. It happens everywhere in the world. Jews have been killed, Arabs have been killed, Palestinians have been killed. Unfortunately war does not recognise any difference between religions, between races, between nothing.”
Mr Luzon downplays his suffering in order to put the accent on nostalgic memories of good relationships with his Muslim neighbours.
Other Libyan Jews may not have suffered as much, but nevertheless do not have such favourable recollections. Gina Waldman, who left Libya in 1969 says “We were not allowed to have citizenship, travel, hold government jobs or attend government schools. We were stripped of our basic human rights and treated as “dhimmi,” subjugated second-class citizens. Although I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, I had no choice but to attend Catholic school. I could recite prayers in Latin, but I was not allowed to learn Hebrew”.
Her mother Laura, escaped a 1945 pogrom in Tripoli by jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she was rescued by a Christian woman. After the riots her father helped bury the bodies of his friends, an experience that traumatized him for the rest of his life.
When Israel became a state in 1948, anti-Jewish riots escalated, synagogues were torched and Jewish homes were destroyed. This resulted in the mass immigration of 30,000 Jews to Israel. By 1950, only 6,000 Jews were left from what was once a thriving Jewish community.
In 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and its five Arab neighbours, mobs took to the streets, burning Jewish homes; 10 Jews in Tripoli were murdered, hundreds injured and Jewish shops burnt. In Benghazi 300 Jews detained for own safety: 14 people from two families were massacred and nearly all of Libya’s remaining Jews fled the country. Gina Waldman became separated from her family and was hidden in the home of a Christian family. Read the rest of her account here.
Although they had been in Libya for centuries North African Jews welcomed the European colonisers as modernisers. They eagerly adopted western dress and quickly become the engine of Libya’s economy. Under Mussolini’s race laws, however, Libya was declared the “the first North African fascist colony.” It was soon obvious that the Italians favoured the Arabs over the Jews and in 1938 Mussolini imposed Germany’s racial laws on Libya’s 38,000 Jews. During the war, Jews endured bombing raids and were deported to the notorious labour camp at Giado. Some 600 died of starvation or disease. Jews of foreign nationality were deported to Italy, and from there packed into freight trains and taken to the infamous Bergen-Belsen and Innsbruck-Reichenau concentration camps.
Today, not a single Jew remains from this ancient Jewish community dating back to Roman times. Colonel Gaddafi seized Jewish properties and cancelled all debts in 1969. He promised compensation, but never delivered. It is estimated the value of private assets lost is around $500 million with a further $100 million for public assets such as synagogues and cemeteries.
Although Italy recently gave $5 billion to Libya to make amends for colonisation, nothing was set aside for the Jews. The Libyan Jews never received the compensation that Gaddafi promised them. The Libyan rebels have hinted that they would help ex-Libyan Jews recover their property, but the chances are slim – especially if Islamists gain the upper hand.
Raphael Luzon has said that he would make the recovery of Jewish assets his top priority, but he could equally fight for justice for Libyan Jews from North West London. If Mr Luzon returns to Libya, he would be exploited as the token Jew in the government, helping to boost an illusory, all-inclusive image for western consumption.
Instead of trying to turn the clock back, Libya would be better off building bridges with Israel, to where 94 percent of the Jewish community fled. Ex-Libyan Jews and their descendants number around 110,000.
Mr Luzon, do us a favour – please stay at home.