How the Italian ambassador saved Libya’s last Jews

On the 51st anniversary of  the demise of the Jewish community in Libya, David Harris in the Algemeiner pays tribute to the Italian ambassador in 1967, who saved many lives (with thanks: Imre, Edward):

The new atmosphere of fear and insecurity, coupled with the powerful
attraction of the rebirth of Israel for this deeply religious community,
led to the emigration of all but 6,000 Jews by 1951, the year Libya
gained independence.

Notwithstanding constitutional guarantees provided by the new Libyan
nation, restrictions on Jews were gradually imposed. By 1961, Jews could
not vote, hold public office, serve in the army, get passports,
purchase new property, acquire majority ownership in any new business,
or supervise their own communal affairs. Yet some Jews remained,
umbilically linked to their ancestral land and hoping against hope,
despite all the evidence to the contrary, for positive change.

Then, in June 1967, war broke out in the Middle East. Inspired by
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab appeals, Libyans took
to the streets and attacked the remaining Jewish community.

 Classroom in a Benghazi synagogue before WWII

By the time calm was restored, 18 Jews in Tripoli, the country’s
capital, were dead. The toll might have been even higher had it not been
for the courage of Cesare Pasquinelli, Italy’s ambassador to Libya. He
ordered all Italian diplomatic missions in the country to extend their
protection to the Jews. A very few Muslims helped as well, including one
who, at personal risk, hid the teenager who was to become my wife,
along with her parents and seven siblings, for two weeks until they were
able to leave the country. Tellingly, however, this righteous Libyan
refused any public recognition, lest his life be put in danger for
saving Jews.

Within a matter of weeks, all the remaining Jews of Libya fled
abroad, urged to do so “temporarily” by the government. Each was
permitted one suitcase and the equivalent of 50 dollars. Most headed for
Israel; 2,000 went to Italy. In many respects, the tragic fate of
Libya’s Jews was no different from that of hundreds of thousands of Jews
in other Arab countries.

To no one’s surprise, this temporary exodus became permanent. Colonel
Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969 and the following year announced a
series of laws to confiscate the assets of Libya’s Jews, issuing bonds
providing for “fair compensation” within 15 years. But 1985 came and
went with no compensation paid.

And so, with only a few scattered international protests, scant press
attention, and deafening silence from the United Nations, another
once-thriving Jewish community in the Arab world came to an end — and
the once-rich tapestry of the region’s diversity took yet another
irretrievable hit.

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