Raphael Luzon: an innocent in Libya

Raphael Luzon was forced to leave his native Benghazi after the Six-Day War. Yet Libya still exerts a fascination for him – and he has paid three return visits there. On the last, he was lucky to escape Libya with his life. Here are two reviews of his short, personal memoir.

Libyan Twilight by Ralph N Luzon, translated from Italian by Gaia Luzon (Darf Publishers, 2016 – £8.99). 

 Lyn Julius writes in the Times of Israel:

Raphael Luzon sits in a hot and stinking
Benghazi prison cell. He has escaped a lynch mob and been abducted by a
militia. He has recently had a kidney transplant and his medication has
been seized from him, along with his possessions. He  is not sure that
he will get out of Libya alive. Until the Italian consul comes along to
whisk him out to safety and back to London.

Raphael Luzon (left) visited Libya as a guest of Colonel Gaddafi

 

This is the dramatic opening chapter of Libyan Twilight,
a short but vivid and well-written autobiography made up of snapshots
of Raphael’s life, interspersed with memories of religious rituals and 
festivals joyously celebrated during his childhood. Born in Benghazi,
Raphael is one of a community of 38, 000 Libyan Jews forced to leave
Libya. Today not one of them remains. Libya is judenrein.

In 1967, everyone — from the cleaning lady to
the barber’s assistant — predicted that Jews would be targeted by a
raging mob in the aftermath of Israel’s Six Day War victory. The
schoolboy Raphael had to flee the hall where he was sitting exams,
scooping up his sisters on the way home. The family were evacuated to a
military base and thence to Italy. The Jewish boys in his Rome school
were unfriendly. Exile took its toll on his broken father. Raphael’s
later life was scarred by ill health and the death of his first wife
from a brain tumor.

Yet Libya still exerts a fascination for
Raphael, so much so that he paid three return visits there, twice at the
invitation of colonel Gaddafi, and the last in 2012 in the full flush
of the “Arab Spring.”

What drives a man, especially one who has
family responsibilities in London and is not exactly in the pink of
health, to risk his life by returning to his country of birth? A clue
can be found in Libyan Twilight’s introduction by Roberto
Saviano (an Italian journalist with a Jewish mother): “A deep desire for
reconciliation and dialogue between different religions, a dialogue
that relies on equality.”

The book carries the subtitle: “The story of
an Arab Jew.” This too is a clue. Running a North West London “salon”
for Libyans in exile,  Raphael has reconstructed himself as a Libyan
nationalist of the Jewish faith, no different from a Muslim or a
Christian. He wants justice but not revenge. He wants to reclaim his
rights as a Jew in Libya: his grandfather fought alongside nationalists in Misrata.

But when brought face to face with Gaddafi,
his demands are modest. He is not after compensation for seized property
— that is for other Jewish leaders to demand. He wants Gaddafi to erect
a plaque identifying the old Jewish cemetery. He wants a plaque on the
mass grave where lie eight of his Tripoli relatives, shot by an errant
army officer in 1967. And he wants a memorial service for them. No
wonder Gaddafi readily agrees.

Demonstrators call for the expulsion of David Gerbi after he tried to open a Tripoli synagogue

 

Raphael is not the only Jew gripped with the
urge to help rebuild a new, democratic, pluralistic and tolerant Libya
in the wake of the Arab Spring. David Gerbi
returned to his native Tripoli with the modest aim of re-opening the
Dar al-Bishi synagogue — an act which Raphael has described as ‘a
provocation’. Like Raphael Luzon, Gerbi was bundled out of the country
by the Italian authorities before a lynch mob could tear him to pieces.

The lesson both these naive idealists ought to
derive from their brushes with death is that no Libyan Jew is advised
to demand their rights in their country of birth when their very
existence as Jews is considered a provocation.

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******’

Andrew Rosemarine reviews the book in the Jewish Chronicle: 

This short, nostalgic memoir is a highly personal view of the
destruction of Libyan Jewry in 1967 and the permanent danger to all Jews
from fanatical enemies.

Jews settled there over a thousand years before Islam, and numbered
almost 40,000 before 1948. But Libya is now Judenrein, and will remain
so as long as Jew and Arab fight over Israel.

Peoples who treat their Jewish minority badly usually treat other
groups badly, too. This led to civil war in today’s Libya. Numberless
victims were murdered, many others tortured. Messrs Cameron and Sarkozy
intervened to destroy Qaddafi but they had no realistic plans for the
post-Qaddafi period. Why did they not learn from Blair’s mistakes in
Iraq? Why did they desert Qaddafi, after he, alone of all dictators,
voluntarily gave up his nuclear weapons’ programme under Western
supervision? Luzon does not ask these questions. He limits himself to
his own family’s experiences. The style of the book is that of an
innocent idealist, often surrounded by enemies, yet nobly dreaming of
reconciliation between Muslim and Jew. It reads well, with personal
flashbacks immersed in Jewish ritual and Arab political culture.

Qaddafi, though a killer of many of his own people, and supporter of
the Palestinian cause, courted the Libyan Jewish diaspora, and
tantalisingly offered the prospect of compensation. But only when he
needed Western support. Luzon was involved in the discussion, and
provides some insight.

He could have told us much about divisions among the colourful
characters of Libyan Jewry in Rome, which sadly enabled Qaddafi to give
them all nothing. Jews should hang together, if they don’t want to be
hung out to dry.

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