Toll in 1945 Libya riots could have been worse

Collage of images from The Last Jews of Libya film

Between 4 and 7 November 1945, terrible riots broke out in Libya claiming the lives of 130 Jews. But the death toll could have been worse, had Palestinian Jewish soldiers, Jewish policemen and Zionist youth groups not taken measures to defend the community. On the other hand, the British, who ran Libya at the time, collected weapons from Jewish soldiers two days before the riots broke out, raising suspicions that they knew what was about to happen. Read this extract from Rachel Simon’s JCPA research paper on Jewish Defence in Libya (Fall 2001).

The 4-7 November 1945 riots in Tripoli and its vicinity claimed the lives of approximately 130 Jews, in addition to many injured, and much Jewish property looted, destroyed, and damaged.68 Most of the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City of Tripoli locked themselves in their houses, and several Jews were helped by their Muslim neighbors to reach their homes safely.69 The narrow streets of the Jewish quarters of the Old City, which were inhabited solely by Jews, could be closed and protected better than the new neighborhoods, where Jews lived among non-Jews.70 Consequently, these quarters benefited somewhat from the early initiatives in self-defense organized by Palestinian Jewish soldiers involving some Zionist youth. They blocked the entry of rioting Arabs into the neighborhood and even pushed them back. Several young Jews stood on rooftops throwing stones at the advancing Arabs: one Jew was killed while defending the neighborhood and another shot a pistol at an Arab who had killed three Jews, including the shooter’s mother.71 Some communal leaders who opposed the preliminary defense training admitted that had it not been for these defense groups, the number of dead would have been much higher.

Two days before the riots began, the weapons of the Palestinian Jewish soldiers stationed in Tripoli were collected for inspection; this raised the suspicion that the British had advance knowledge of the forthcoming riots, and wanted to prevent the Jewish soldiers from helping their brethren.73 Nonetheless, the soldiers helped as much as they could. On the first day of the riots, the soldiers still moved freely in town and some twenty of them had been in the Jewish soldiers’ club. They used their car to escort some 150 Jews to their homes and brought injured Jews to the hospital.

On the following day, several soldiers went to check on the situation in town, but after their return to camp, Tripoli was proclaimed “out of bounds” for the company. Their commander blamed the police and the authorities for their inactivity and demanded to let his men guard the Jews and their property. The regional commander promised to take measures to stop the violence, and the soldiers took equipment to distribute among the Jewish refugees coming from the hinterland. Some soldiers forged vacation permits and entered town to distribute food among the Jews. In some instances, Arabs were beaten or run over by the soldiers. Three soldiers were detained after storming into the office of the police inspector of ‘Amrus where 40 Jews had been murdered in view of the police.

Anti-Jewish riots broke out also on the Tripolitanian shore where some defense measures were undertaken, in part benefiting from the presence of Jews within the police force. In Zliten, three Jewish policemen were injured but refused to be hospitalized and continued to protect the Jewish neighborhood until the arrival of Sudanese soldiers who introduced order. The task of the Jewish policemen was made difficult because the British took their weapons, so that they would not “provoke” Arab policemen.75

In Khoms, police inspectors Captain Berlitz and Khlafo Kahalon (Jewish) had stationed the police force, including its Jewish members, at the town entrances and confiscated all axes, scythes, and other iron instruments which the Arabs tried to bring into town, ostensibly for repair by Jewish blacksmiths.76 In Zanzur, a man in uniform stood on a rooftop and shot the rioters with a machine gun, causing the Arabs to flee from that street. This might have been a Jewish soldier who managed to get out of the camp where the other Jewish soldiers had to remain under military orders.77 In Zawiya, the Jewish officer Grant sent some soldiers to rescue several Jews and transfer them to a hospital.78 In ‘Amrus, Jews gathered stones and bottles with a mixture of hot pepper and water ready to throw on Arab rioters were they to try to enter the house. The men took to the roofs while women and the old remained downstairs. When an Arab police inspector saw them on the roof he brought them down forcefully, and threw out all the stones and the peppery mixture. The Jews tried once again to reach the roof and protected themselves by pouring boiling water and throwing sand and stones. When there were no more stones, they demolished internal walls and used their stones. They managed to hold their ground until Sudanese soldiers came, but nonetheless, forty Jews were murdered.79

The Hakhsharah in Colina Verde had to be evacuated, and was completely destroyed.80 The role of the Palestinian Jewish soldiers, the youth movements, and local Jewish policemen in the defense of the community during the 1945 riots can be deduced also from the demand of Arab leaders that the Jewish Palestinian company of the British army be removed, that the Jewish Boy Scouts Association be disbanded, and that Jewish members of the police be dismissed.81 Some Jews were arrested as a result of their participation in the defense of the community during the riots, and remained imprisoned until the mass immigration to Israel: only at the very end of the official emigration were these prisoners released and allowed to leave for Israel.82

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November is the cruellest month


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