Libya’s Other Refugees

My office purchases office plants through a service that also comes by to prune/water the  plants once a week.  The man who waters the plants is an Israeli ex-pat who has lived in the US for the last 30 years or so.  Occasionally he and I will talk middle east politics, and when the NATO bombing effort started in Libya, he mentioned that both his parents were born in Tripoli and that his family had been in Libya for many generations before they were forced to flee in the wake of WWII and the hostilities that arose toward jews in Libya when Israel was created.  I hadn’t even known that there had ever been Jews in Libya until I heard this story, but apparently Libya had a jewish community for thousands of years before it was destroyed in the 1940s:

What was once the most beautiful synagogue in Libya’s capital city can now be entered only by sneaking through a hole smashed in a back wall, climbing over dusty trash and crossing a stairwell strewn with abandoned shoes to a space occupied by cooing pigeons.

The synagogue, Dar al-Bishi, was once the center of a prosperous Jewish community, one whose last remnants were expelled decades ago in the early days of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime…

Libyan Jews seem proud of their heritage and even nostalgic for their ancestral home. But they are also bitter at the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of Libyan Muslims and at the eventual elimination of an ancient native community in a wave of anti-Jewish violence linked to the rise of the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel.

Today, most of the community’s few crumbling remains lie in Hara Kabira, a sandy slum that was once Tripoli’s Jewish quarter.

Inside the Dar al-Bishi synagogue, faded Hebrew above an empty ark where Torah scrolls were once kept reads Shema Israel ‘Hear, O Israel’ – the beginning of a Jewish prayer. The floor is strewn with decades of garbage.

What was once a ritual bath next to the synagogue now houses impoverished Libyan families. In a nearby alley, three arched doorways in a yellow facade are decorated with Jewish stars of David. The building was once the Ben Yehuda Jewish youth club, said Maurice Roumani, a Libyan-born Israeli and Libyan Jewry expert. Barel’s father, Eliyahu, taught Hebrew there.

The full article is worth a read.  In all the talk from countries like Libya, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, etc.. about the plight of Palestinian refugees there is rarely, if ever, an acknowledgement of how these same countries treated close to a million Jews who had lived there peacefully for generations.  With the exception of small communities remaining in Iran, Tunisia and Morocco, Jews have largely been chased/forced out of the arab/muslim middle east. 

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