Crossing the Ras Ajdir border into Libya from Tunisia on October 24 and 25 required two attempts and three hours, and culminated with an instructive initiation into a post-revolution reality.
The Libyan side felt like a scene from “Lord of the Flies”: gun-toting, barely uniformed teenagers attempting to enforce a semblance of authority; trucks roaming aimlessly, loaded with anti-aircraft guns; occasional tracers from random gunfire cutting across the sky. Entering at midnight only added to the surrealism.
Then, there was the Libyan guard booth at the crossing.
Among the first visuals to greet visitors, it was prominently graffitied with a large caricature of the ousted dictator Moammar Qaddafi, his wild hair sticking out from under a baseball cap. Emblazoned on the cap where a Yankees logo should have been was a large Star of David.
Later, after traversing the country as a freelance journalist, I would see this introduction to Libya as a supreme irony. Qaddafi, I came to understand, had spent decades conditioning his populace to hate Jews in a bid to build popular support for himself, as so many Arab dictators have done. And in the end, when his tyranny and misrule ultimately undid him, it was the hatred of Jews that he so successfully inculcated which was turned against him.
“Did you know that Qaddafi was a Jew?” the Libyan driver we hired to take us to Tripoli from Tunis smugly asked me somewhere on the road close to the Tunisian Island of Djerba, which still has a small Jewish population. “No,” I responded, though I had heard this claim before. “Yes, his mother was a Jew, and on his father’s side he was Italian,” the driver said matter-of-factly.
During the course of my six days hopscotching over the 1,000-mile-wide country, I had the opportunity to listen to scores of Libyans express themselves freely for the first time in 42 years, whether in person or through other media, such as music and graffiti. What I found, unfortunately, along with freedom of expression, was a virulent and ubiquitous anti-Semitism that looks likely to outlast the ruler who promoted it.
The presence of Jews in Libya dates back to the third century BCE, long predating the Arab conquest of Libya in the seventh century. But most of Libya’s 38,000 Jews fled in the wake of anti-Jewish riots after the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948. The remaining 4,000 to 7,000 Jews fled following the 1967 Six Day War. To ensure that they stayed out, Qaddafi, who came to power in 1969, canceled all debts owed to Jews. He also forbade the departed Jews from returning and confiscated their properties. Jewish cemeteries were bulldozed as if to show that even a dead Jew had no place in Libya.
To be sure, widespread incitement against Libyan Jews pre-dated Qaddafi. But the young dictator successfully channeled prevalent anti-Semitism to effectively make Libya Judenrein, cleansed of Jews, for the first time since Greco-Roman era.
Two elderly Israelis of Libyan descent have helped propel the notion that Qaddafi was a Jew: Israel’s Channel Two News interviewed, in February, Guita Boaron and Rachel Saada, who both claimed to share a relative with Qaddafi’s grandmother. Though those claims remain unproven, the interview is cited in Libya and beyond as proof of long-held suspicions that Qaddafi was a Jew.
As we drove toward Libya, listening to a CD dedicated to the February 17th Revolution, the lead song pulsed: “Tripoli, ‘O capital of free Libya, we accept no other city than you. Tripoli, beautiful bride of the ocean, who lives as high as the moon. We live for Tripoli and we will die for it.”
Yet the music soon changed.
With a new driver in Tripoli, as I desperately sought a hotel at daybreak, came a new CD titled “Rap of the Libyan Revolution.” The first track, “Khalas ya Qaddafi” (“Finished, oh Qaddafi”), rapped in English: “Thank you Obama, thank you Jazeera, thank you Sarkozy for everything you’ve done to me.” It then moved into Arabic: “I’m sorry for Algeria because their leader is Bouteflika, who supports every Jew with his soldiers and weapons. Leave, oh Qaddafi. Every day people die, every day people suffer, every day mothers become widows, every day children fear their house will be destroyed, their toys will be broken, that they will become orphans in their youth, Go out, you Jew!”
Another rap number, “HadHihi al-Thawra” (“This Revolution”), rapped in Arabic: “From the north to the south, from the east to the west, let’s rise up, let’s rise up! The anger won’t die, the one who will die is Qaddafi, his supporters and the Jews.”
Tripoli, known as the “bride” or as the “mermaid of the ocean,” felt surprisingly normal despite a lack of unified rebel control. Young bearded rebels who once saw fierce combat were charged with the mundane task of directing congested traffic around Martyrs’ Square (formerly Green Square). While walking down Tripoli’s Omar Mukhtar Street I encountered a young Tripolitan, Mohammed, who looked to be 17 years old. He boasted having four girlfriends and spoke some of the best English in the city. He embodied much of the Arab Spring: young, intelligent, ambitious and capable . Within a minute of conversing, he volunteered: “Qaddafi was Jewish, isn’t that crazy?”
Misrata, on the other hand, resembled a scene out of “Mad Max.” The city, Libya’s third largest, sitting on Mediterranean coast, had been the target of weeks of massive bombardment from pro-Qaddafi forces. Now, about 25,000 rebels belonging to disparate brigades roamed the streets in their jerry-rigged technical vehicles. Despite the chaos, my contact, a kindly former English teacher named Hassain Mustapha, was a voice of reason. While standing in the ruins of one of NATO’s sole targets in the city, a former vegetable market that hid Qaddafi’s tanks, I asked Mustapha his thoughts on Qaddafi’s heritage. He furrowed his brow and quickly shook his head, dismissing any notions that Qaddafi was Jewish or Italian as “dangerous” and “ignorant,” saying that “he was one of us.”