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.”
Through Mustapha, I interviewed Antar Abdul Salaam al-Beiri, commander of the 300-strong group Amir Katibat Misratah, one of Misrata’s militias. Al-Beiri had a good grasp of Libya’s fluid dynamics. He spoke of the need for democracy, for closer relations with the international community and for a return to normalcy after Qaddafi s 42 years of eccentric rule. He was sharp and reasonable, someone I could envision assuming a position of authority in the new Libya. As the talk ended I turned the tables on him, asking if he had any questions for me, curious to see if I would receive a question more revealing than his answers. He immediately asked, “Did you know that Qaddafi was originally not Libyan?” Mustapha grimaced, but then asked with a knowing grin, “Where was he from?” Beiri proudly responded, “He was originally Jewish.”
Many of the Libyans I met reminded me of missionaries committed to spreading the word that Qaddafi was and always would be alien to Libyan soil. It was almost as if the taxi driver, Mohammed and the brigade commander — by invoking two of the Arab world’s greatest evils, Zionism and colonialism (by the hands of the Italians) — had accomplished an amazing feat of disassociation between themselves and the man who ruled them for most of their lives, as if they were saying: “You know, Qaddafi was not one of us. A Libyan could not have done what he did.” It was a refusal to come to terms with Libya’s own past. Even a dictator, after all, requires popular support from some segments of society to rule for more than four decades.
Benghazi, our final destination and epicenter of the revolution, was Libya’s first liberated city and, as a result, felt the most normal. My contact there, Wahbi Kwaafy, a man in his late 20s, was married to a French woman and had worked with journalists on the front lines. He arranged interviews with members of the brigade that found Qaddafi. Kwaafy adamantly wanted to make it clear that a Benghazi brigade had found Qaddafi while members of a Misrata brigade were responsible for his abuse and death, a distinction lost in the frenzied reporting following Qaddafi’s capture.
Kwaafy drove me around Benghazi as we chilled out to local rap music. He spoke highly of the emerging hip-hop scene, noting that “before the revolution, it was dangerous to rap and no one could live off of it. Now, it is possible.” The music contained similar epithets directed toward Jews. Kwaafy took me to Liberation Square (formerly Martyr’s Square), where, on October 23, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Libyan Transitional National Council, declared Libya’s liberation. Kwaafy explained that large flags belonging to NATO coalition forces had been flown there, but the Islamists objected. They instead attempted to fly an Al Qaeda flag, but then the locals objected. Now the square is populated with smaller coalition flags and hundreds of pictures of the dead. But next to the square is the courthouse, where at the beginning of October, Islamists successfully flew Al Qaeda’s black flag.
Opposite the courthouse, on a building belonging to the February 17 Revolution Coalition, as the alliance that converged against Qaddafi is known, was considerable graffiti related to the ousted dictator, with Stars of David and swastikas abounding. One drawing depicted him stealing the people’s money. Just as Kwaafy was explaining that Libyans had no problem with Jews, only with Zionism, I glanced at a wall that was sprayed with the words “Moammar ibn Yehudia,” “Moammar is the son of Judaism.” Anti-Semitism, widely recognized as politically incorrect and morally untenable, is often replaced with anti-Zionism for cover, but the writing on the wall was clear.
When I raised the unsuccessful return of Libyan Jew David Gerbi, Kwaafy said: “Right, I’ve heard about him. I think he was a crazy Tunisian Jew or something.” In fact, Gerbi’s family fled Libya following the 1967 War. Gerbi, who was 12 at the time, eventually settled in Italy with his family. But he never forgot his native land. When the rebellion broke out, Gerbi, a Jungian psychologist, lobbied on the rebels’ behalf with South Africa, which had a frosty view of the rebellion and a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council that made its view important. South Africa eventually voted for the resolution passed by the Security Council authorizing NATO to protect citizens in Libya. Later, Gerbi treated rebels suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in a Benghazi hospital.
In October, Gerbi returned to Tripoli to reopen the historic Dar Bishi Synagogue. In response he was nearly lynched while praying there. Hundreds of Libyans protested his presence in Tripoli and Benghazi on the eve of Yom Kippur, with placards that read, “There is no place for Jews in Libya.” His endeavor ended under threat of death and with a return flight to Rome on an Italian military plane.
“It’s easy to get rid of Qaddafi the person, but much more difficult to get rid of the Qaddafi within,” Gerbi told The Jerusalem Post.
Even if Qaddafi had Jewish ancestry, his completion of the ethnic cleansing of Libya’s Jews, his support for terrorism against Israel and Western targets and his backing for Palestinian fighters against Israel during the Lebanese Civil War (my driver to Benghazi from Misratah was in fact stationed in Lebanon to provide military assistance) defies any claim that he identified or practiced as a Jew.
Libyans today may find it convenient to participate in an act of collective scapegoating and denial, a refusal to admit that one of their own could rise to such power only to demean and dominate his own people. But a country unable to come to terms with its history may find itself incapable of building the successful, inclusive democracy it has promised the world. While Libyan interim government officials have said that Gerbi’s timing was too soon, a simple cross-country trip tells me that, at least in my generation, there never will be an appropriate time for Libyan Jews.
Contact Andrew Engel at firstname.lastname@example.org