A number of Jewish organisations have been pleading with the US State Department not to renew a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya. Instead of protecting Libya’s Jewish and other minority cultural heritage, the MOU, the organisations claim, has permitted Libya to loot and confiscate Jewish patrimony with impunity. The organisations are asking for a derogation in the MOU to exclude Jewish heritage, as is the case with Morocco. Cultural Property News reports:
At a July 26, 2022 State Department hearing on the proposed 5-year renewal of the Libyan agreement, Rabbi Eric Fusfield, deputy director of B’nai B’rith International spoke eloquently to members of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, the body that makes recommendations for the terms of cultural property agreements:
“…no issue is of greater importance to the Jewish community than the rights of the nearly one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. These refugee populations have been largely ignored by the international community, despite their centuries-long history in Arab and Muslim countries prior to their forced expulsion in the wake of the Middle East conflict.
“Nowhere did this Jewish presence end more tragically than in Libya, where Jews had lived since the 4th Century B.C.E. and numbered as many as 40,000 in the early 1900s, but lost their entire population as a result of anti-Semitic pogroms and immigration to Israel. A brutal pogrom in Tripoli on November 5, 1945 killed more than 140 Jews and wounded hundreds more; almost every synagogue was looted. Subsequent riots and government actions resulted in more deaths, destruction of Jewish homes, property confiscations, and the denial of Libyan citizenship, ultimately prompting thousands of Jews to flee the country in the 1950s and subsequent to the Six Day War of 1967.
“The rise to power of Muammar Gaddafi in 1969 led to the confiscation of all property belonging to Jews; the cancellation of all debts to Jews; the destruction of Jewish cemeteries; the conversion of synagogues into mosques; the denial of civil rights for Jews; and barring the return to Libya of Jews who had taken refuge abroad…
“It is with sadness, then, that I note that the cultural patrimony of the Libyan Jewish diaspora is gravely threatened by the absence of guarantees to custody of materials that are rightfully theirs.
“This MOU legitimizes the confiscation of Jewish property seized by Libya’s government when Jews were forced from the country. It is therefore necessary to ask why the US government would put faith in Libya, a regime that has shown blatant contempt for the rights of Jews and other minorities, to act as the protector of the heritage of minority and exiled peoples.”
Other speakers at the Libyan MOU hearing from the Jewish community included Gina Waldman, founder and president of California-based JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Waldman described how, as a child, fleeing to the airport with her parents, she narrowly escaped death when the driver stopped the bus, got out, poured gasoline under it and set it on fire. The family’s lives were saved by two British Christians who rescued them. Waldman told the CPAC committee:
“In this case, Libya is the looter. Libyan authorities have looted all our Jewish religious artifacts, our private and community property. They desecrated all of our holy sites and converted all our synagogues into mosques. It makes them, the looters, the custodians of our patrimony.”
Waldman noted that a specific carve out excluding Jewish artifacts was done in the case of a cultural property agreement with Morocco and asked that – at a minimum – this carve out for both Christian and Jewish property be applied in all MOUs with Middle Eastern countries.
Dr. David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who spent years working through diplomatic channels to obtain permission to restore Libya’s last surviving synagogue, described his several attempts to do so to the CPAC committee:
“In 2007 Gaddafi gave me permission to restore the Dar Bishi Synagogue, visit holy sites in Libya and give psychology lessons at a psychiatric hospital. During this visit I was arrested and interrogated by Libyan Security. They told me that if I talked they would kill me.”
Gerbi survived an assassination attempt in Rome and had to go into hiding in Israel. Nonetheless, he persevered. “In 2009 I met Qaddafi in Rome, he again invited me to restore Dar Bishi, but he didn’t keep his word.”
In 2011, after the fall of Gaddafi, Gerbi met with the head of the then ruling National Council, Mustafa Abdujalil, who once again told him that restoration would be possible as a step to welcome back Libyan Jews. Gerbi told CPAC:
“When I tried to restore the synagogue, a mob tried to kill me. The Italian Consul saved my life and sent me back to Rome. It was a very traumatizing experience, which will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Raphael Luzon, an expert in Libyan affairs, and President of the Union of Libyan Jews, also spoke to the committee, noting that seized Libyan Jewish objects have been taken and stored away without records or access, and that a synagogue he attended as a child has been converted to a Coptic church.
Pnina Meghnagi Solomon, who was born in Tripoli, described having to flee the city with her family in 1967, taking only a single suitcase and being strip-searched on leaving. She said that because Jewish cemeteries were uprooted and bones tossed anywhere, she can only hope that her grandfather’s bones are somewhere in the sea. She brings flowers and tosses them in the Mediterranean to remember and honor him.
After the announcement of the first 2017 Libya emergency MOU and Designated List of objects blocked from import, a number of major Jewish organizations arranged to meet with the Education and Cultural Affairs section (ECA) and other State Department representatives to protest the granting of rights to Jewish religious community and personal property to the Libyan government.
ECA representatives assured the Jewish organizations their concerns would be heard. State Department staff claimed to have removed explicit references to Jewish objects that had been in the December 2017 list from the July 2018 Designated List, but in fact its vague language ensured that Jewish religious, community, and personal property could be blocked from import. Instead of carving out exceptions for Jewish and Christian religious and personal property, the same all-inclusive categories remained in the Designated List. The “revised” July 9, 2018 MOU simply removed the descriptive terms “Jewish”, “Hebrew” and “Christian” while utilizing the term “Ottoman,” a political descriptive that could cover all of the cultural identities of peoples in Libya during the period of Ottoman rule. At the same time, the introductory text of the Designated List stated that “Import restrictions are now being imposed on the same categories of archaeological and ethnological material from Libya as a result of a bilateral agreement entered into between the United States and Libya.”
In December 2018, frustrated with the State Department’s continued execution of all-inclusive MOUs with countries that had forced out Jews, destroyed or converted synagogues to mosques and uprooted graves from Jewish cemeteries, eighteen Jewish organizations, including B’nai B’rith International, JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, The American Sephardi Federation, the ADL: The Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the World Jewish Congress North America, Historical Society of Jews from Egypt, Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and others, signed a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. The letter stated in part:
“The recent statement by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, Joan Polashick, that the State Department is working on an additional five MOUs with Middle Eastern and North African nations makes it essential that a policy is in place that protects Jewish and Christian heritage by explicitly excluding them from any import restrictions and rejecting any state claims to individual and communal property.”