“Saturday Night Live” recently had some fun with the news that Libya is inviting Jews to return to the country where they were persecuted and killed before being forced to flee more than 30 years ago.
SNL Weekend Update anchor Jimmy Fallon — doing his best Woody Allen impression, calling himself a “spokesman for Jews” — offered reaction to the unlikely Libyan offer: “You know I’d love to, but I’ve already got plans to time-travel back to Nazi Germany.”
Behind the joke lies a serious initiative that could signal the return of Jews to a land where they dwelled for 2,500 years. It could also lead to the compensation of perhaps $1 billion worth of communal and private property to Libyan Jewish refugees living in America, Israel and Europe.
Saif al-Islam Gadhafi — son of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi — made his latest entreaty to Jews on April 6. It was the third time in recent months that Libya has floated its “welcome back” proposal.
In an interview published in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi several weeks ago, the London-educated junior Gadhafi called on Libyan Jews to return, saying, “This is their country, this is their birthplace.”
Indeed, Jews had lived in the land since biblical times. There were about 38,000 Jews in Libya in 1948. Today there are none. But an estimated 120,000 Jews of Libyan origin live in Israel; 2,000 live in the United States, and several thousand in Italy, France and other countries.
The Jewish initiative comes as Libya’s government has agreed to U.S. demands to give up its pro-terrorism policies in exchange for lifting sanctions and initiating normalized diplomatic relations.
Libya recently agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and to pay $2.7 billion to the families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, blown apart by Libyan agents in 1988, killing 259 passengers.
In addition, Gadhafi’s son said Libya would no longer be supplying Palestinians with weaponry. “Until recently we were in a state of confrontation and hostility with Israel,” he said, according to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv. “But things have changed.”
Many observers are skeptical. “It’s a gimmick,” said Heskel Haddad, president of the World Organization of Jews From Arab Countries. “It’s so [Moammar] Gadhafi can win favor with the world by showing he is good to Jews, knowing that they won’t come back.”
But others said they believed this is an opening bid for negotiations. These Jewish observers said they were not concerned about an apparent quid pro quo included in the Libyan offer: Gadafi insisted that Israelis who return to Libya should leave their Israeli homes and properties to the Palestinians.
“The statement was made for Palestinian consumption,” said Shalom Naim, president of the American Libyan Jewish Association. He explained that the Libyan leader must walk a political tightrope between reaching out to Jews while assuring the Arab world of his support for Palestinians.
While dismissing the property exchange as unrealistic, Naim and others said there was another part of Libya’s offer that was more significant. The junior Gadhafi said that Libyan Jews are entitled to compensation for property seized by his father after Jews fled Libya following the Six-Day War in 1967.
The mere fact that compensation is being discussed, Naim said, is a positive development for Libyan Jewish refugees. Gil Kahn, a political science professor at New Jersey’s Kean College and an advisor to the American Libyan Jewish Association, agreed: “The frequency of the comments suggests the matter of compensation is something the Libyan government is prepared to address,” Kahn said.
Naim, a 61-year-old New Jersey resident, led a Jewish delegation that met on March 5 with Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ali Treki. Naim said the meeting was positive, but there is much work to do to secure guarantees that Libya will move forward on compensation. Gadhafi senior destroyed Jewish property records 30 years ago, he said, making claims difficult to prove.
Naim said his group has also been lobbying Congress, the State Department and the Bush administration to ensure that U.S.-Libya negotiations include the Jewish compensation issue. In March, 41 House members sent a letter to President Bush urging him to include the subject in talks.
As far as returning to Libya to live, Naim and others said the Libyans need not leave the kitchen lights on.
According to Naim, the Israeli Libyan Jewish community issued a statement saying essentially, “Thanks but no thanks. Our home is Israel, not Libya.”
The sentiments were echoed among other Jews who had left Libya.
“We were never at home there,” said New Yorker Vivienne Roumani-Denn, an expert on Jewish refugees from Arab lands who was born in Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya. “Until the Muslim world really makes a commitment to tolerance, to democracy, to let people live with religious freedom, there’s no way to return.”