In spite of the title of this Foreign Policy article, Next year in Tripoli, David Gerbi never once says he wants Libyan Jews to return en masse. He is more concerned with restoring Jewish heritage sites, and seeing a pluralistic, minority-friendly Libya emerge from the post-Gaddafi turmoil.
Speaking in Italian, I pressed him (Gaddafi) on opening the Dar Bishi Synagogue. While I had little to hope for, given his detached manner and empty promises, I was pleased to discover that the meeting somehow helped me start shedding my fears and gain back some of the dignity I had felt I lost as a refugee: Qaddafi could no longer harm me, and my Libyan, Jewish, and Italian identities gave me strength.
During my last trip to Libya in the spring of 2011, I joined the anti-Qaddafi rebels by volunteering again at the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital, where I trained the rebels to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was in the mountains north of Tripoli a few months later, working on PTSD with Amazigh Berbers. Like most Libyans, their suffering resulted not only from the current conflict, but also from 42 years of calamities caused by the dictatorship. What they desperately needed was to overcome their fears and find that they could hope again — hope for a better life in freedom.
After Tripoli was liberated, I once again tried cleaning up the Dar Bishi Synagogue. Even though I had received permission from the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the local government to undertake this work, a mob gathered, shouting that “there is no place for Jews in Libya” and carrying signs in both Arabic and Hebrew to make sure, I suppose, that I got the message. Once again, I had to leave. But this time I left with dignity, not fear: I left on the day of my choice and on my own terms. I wanted to signal to the NTC that I would work with it to restore calm and that it needed to work with me. And in so doing, I found more strength.
Despite all these challenges, I still have hope. I will continue to do what I can so that the Jewish presence in Libya is not forgotten and Jews, as well as all minorities, can reclaim their rightful place in Libya. I know that this will take time. Tripoli’s new leadership faces enormous challenges, such as building the essential elements of government and civil life and bridging ethnic and regional divides. But part of this effort must include preserving and protecting Libya’s few remaining Jewish heritage sites. I also urge the NTC and similar bodies to recognize and meet with the WOLJ as the legitimate representative of the Libyan Jewish community.
Hope often needs help. The international community must also act. The United States and its NATO allies played a pivotal role in helping the Libyan people achieve freedom, and now they can help steer the new government toward a path of justice and reconciliation. These countries must send a message to the NTC and other Libyan leaders that they can demonstrate their seriousness about democracy and human rights by breaking with Libya’s past and welcoming back Jews and other minorities. It is a win-win proposition for all interested in Libya’s development and success.
U.S. citizens can also help by urging President Barack Obama’s administration to remain true to its values. The White House must not only focus on economic and political development, but also human rights. As we so often have seen, the way countries treat their minorities signals how they will behave toward their neighbors and the world.
A peaceful, stable Libya is most likely to be realized if it is pluralistic, open, and tolerant. Libya must become a free, just, and democratic country, grounded in the rule of law, in which all of Libya’s minorities — including those Jews forced to flee — are welcomed back into the Libyan family. We can make a difference at this critical juncture, before the cement dries, by making a mark for democracy, human rights, and religious pluralism, so that Libya becomes a model for reconciliation and tolerance.