Leisure at the Lido: Libyan Jews’ pre-67 idyll

Enjoying the Tripoli beachfront and hobnobbing with Sophia Loren and Little Tony, the wealthy Jewish elite who stayed on in Libya after the mass exodus of their co-religionists in 1949 lived in an Italianate bubble. Their charmed life was marked by constant contradiction, writes Eyal David in Haaretz – until it was rendered intolerable by the violent Libyan reaction to the Six-Day War.

June 5, when the first news of the Six Day War reached Tripoli, the riots broke
out (…) Tripoli, the clean and pleasant city has become something out of
Dante’s Inferno. The air was heavy, smoky, police and soldiers armed with
rifles and submachine guns were everywhere. The streets were littered with
broken glass, broken objects, broken wood and looted goods from shops (…) it
was clear that the rioters were going first to the Jews, but now they are after
everything foreign…

This quote,
taken from a testimony of a bank teller, reveals the ‘discordant final note’ in
the life of the small and wealthy Jewish community that remained in Tripoli in
the fifties and the sixties – its elimination in 1967 following the Six Day
War. The war exposed Jews to violent riots in which 17 people were murdered,
including two entire families that were killed by a Libyan officer: the Luzon family
and the Baranes-Raccah family, the family of my grandfather’s sister. This
pogrom was the third in two decades (previous pogroms occurred in 1945 and
1948), and came after years of political and economic restrictions that narrowed
the activity of Jews in the economic and commercial life of the city. The Jewish
community, which was for generations an integral part of the social fabric of
the country, had to hide and quickly leave the country, their homes, and all
their possessions. A small number of Jews did remain in the country until the 1969
military coup of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who, through a series of measures and
rules immediately clarified that in the ‘new Libya’ under his rule there was no
place for foreigners and Jews.

The small
Jewish community that remained in Libya after the great wave of immigration to
Israel from 1949 to 1951 was concentrated mainly in the capital of Tripoli (a
few remained in the city of Benghazi), numbered over 4,000, and according to
some reports was one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the world at the
time. These Jews were mainly members of the upper middle class who chose to
remain in the country under the independent Libyan regime of King Idris (starting
December 1951) and did not have their bags packed in anticipation of an
opportunity to leave, as one would think. On the contrary, they were integrated
into a narrow stratum of foreign and Muslim elites, all of whom roamed in the
same social milieu and were rooted in Tripoli by their property, assets, and
financial interests.

The lives of the Jews in the city were marked
by constant contradiction and it seems that they, whether consciously or
unconsciously, “walked on eggshells”. On the one hand, they were
locals; some of them even came from families with old roots in the country that
continued to play a vital and stable role in the domestic economic scene even after
the discovery of oil in the country in the late fifties and the resulting
foreign investment. But on the other hand, with their behavior and dress, they
made it clear that they were not Arabs. Like the other foreign members of the
elite, they saw the center of their identity in Europe, especially in Italy, and
thus neither in Africa nor in the Arab world. Some of them even held European
nationalities, mainly Italian but also French and British for example. Therefore,
they adopted Western cultural trappings and symbols of social status, which
separated them from the surrounding Muslim society

they lived in an independent Muslim country, most of the time they conducted
their lives in Italian and not in Arabic. In addition, they maintained their
Jewish identity albeit with a high degree of religious flexibility, even when
their Judaism brought discriminatory laws against them. And in general, they
kept their distance from the Muslim population, which constituted the majority
of Libya. For these Muslims, the Jews, in their clear identification with the Italian
culture and language, turned their backs on Libyan Arab society. Moreover,
their high socioeconomic status completely contradicted the low status they
should have had historically as “ahl al-dhimma” (a protected
religious minority under Muslim rule). Further, anti-Jewish propaganda on the
radio and in newspapers as well as in sermons in mosques, which intensified in
view of the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict, increased hostility against Jews.

the restrictions, prohibitions, and harassment that the Jews faced at that time
and the natural sense of fear that some of them felt, they continued to live a comfortable
and vibrant life, which was characteristic of the narrow bourgeois social
stratum in Tripoli. From interviews I conducted with members of the community
in Israel and Italy, as well as the little written documentation that exists on
the subject, it was revealed that the places of entertainment and leisure were
their escape points, in some ways “islands of sanity” in a social
reality that was changing from moment to moment against them. Furthermore, these
places gave them a stable anchor to hold on to, albeit illusory and fleeting.

Libyan Jews at the Tripoli Lido (photo courtesy Vito Raccah)

community spent its leisure time at the beach of Tripoli, or the ‘Lido’ as it
is called in Italian, in house parties, coffee shops and modern cinemas that
screened mostly Italian but also French and Hollywood movies. Besides these,
you could find the upper middle class Jews of Tripoli in the exclusive clubs of
the Italians and the British in the city. One of the most prominent clubs was The
Italian Club (Il Circolo Italia), which was located in front of the impressive
and beautiful promenade, Il Lungomare, which was built near the beach during
Italian rule. It was a prestigious member-only club that offered its patrons a
variety of activities in the fields of sports and entertainment, including
sport teams like basketball and boxing, various classes in areas like theater
and ballet, and Bridge tournaments. 

The club, as its name indicates, was
designated for the Italian community in the city, but among its members were
also some wealthy Jews including a few members of the community I interviewed. They
stressed that Muslims did not frequent the club at all, only Christians and
Jews, but not only those holding Italian nationality. They said they had sent
their children to the classes held at the club and that they visited the club
when there were concerts and shows in Italian and for the Christmas and the New
Year celebrations (Capodanno in Italian). One of the interviewees talked about
how “when it was Christmas, rich Jews were taking up the tables and the
Italians were upset: ‘What is going on, this is our celebration and the Jews
are taking all the places?!”.

The hotels
located on the promenade were other centers in which parties and celebrations were
held. The most glamorous one was the Uaddan hotel, which was established in
1935 and was described as the “jewel of modern African architecture”.
Daily cocktail parties were conducted at the hotel and it had a fancy entertainment
hall where different balls were held, such as the New Year’s Eve ball, Saturday
night parties that “gave a good reason to hang out until after
midnight”, costume parties, and festive events as varied as weddings of
the rich, including Jews. 

 Jewish guests at a dinner in honour of the film star Sophia Loren (photo courtesy of Vittorio Halfon)

The Uaddan hosted famous artists from Italy in the
fields of music, theater and cinema, such as Sophia Loren, Little Tony, Peppino
di Capri, Rita Pavone and many others and the rich echelon did not miss their
performances. It also had a large swimming pool and it was the home of the only
casino in town. The nightly entertainment in the casino was favored by more
than a few Jews who visited it on weekdays as well as on Saturdays and
holidays, and often lost a lot of money.

recreational pursuit that should be mentioned is that of brothels and
nightclubs. The interviewees mentioned names of two major nightclubs – the more
prominent was the Mokambo and the other was a nightclub that operated in Suq al-Mushir
سوقالمشير), one of the markets within the old city. These clubs
held “deluxe” cabarets, as one interviewee described them, as it was
something with class, not
something dirty,” and the people who came there were “people who had
some money, also Arabs”. They hosted dance performances and stripteases of
“beautiful girls, but not Arabs. They were all foreign, European. Most of
them from Italy, but there were also Yugoslavian, German, English, Spanish,
French… “.

conclusion, most of the Jews who remained in Libya after the great wave of
immigration of 1949-1951 continued to live their lives, while enjoying many
comforts but struggling to maintain their fractured identity as the social
space where it existed slowly diminished. This continued until the living
conditions became intolerable and they were forced to leave. At once, they had
to abandon the rich and full life they had had and start from scratch, as
immigrants in a new country. Only about a half of the community that had moved
to Italy in the late 1960s, mainly the adults, immigrated to Israel later. A few
from the last wave immigration and the former ones reached other countries such
as the USA, France, and England.

Eyal David received his MA from the department of Middle
Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His thesis “The
Daily Life of Upper-Middle Class Jews in Tripoli, Libya: 1951-1967

was written under the guidance of Professor Harvey Goldberg and Doctor
Liat Kozma of the Hebrew University. Contact: [email protected]

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