Jews have lived in Libya since the 3rd century BC, when North Africa was under Roman rule. During the Greco-Roman period Libya corresponded approximately with Cyrene and the territory belonging to it. Jews lived there – including many that moved there from Egypt; Augustus granted Cyrene’s Jewish population certain privileges through Flavius, the governor of the province. At the time, they had close contact to the Jews in Jerusalem. In 73 BC during the First Jewish-Roman War in Iudaea Province, there was a revolt by the Jewish community in Cyrene led by Jonathan the Weaver, which was quickly suppressed by the governor Catullus. Jonathan was denounced to the governor of Pentapolis. In vengeance, the Romans then killed him and many wealthy Jews in Cyrene.
In 115, another Jewish revolt broke out not only in Cyrene, but also in Egypt and Cyprus. In 1911, Libya was colonized by Italy. By 1931, there were 21,000 Jews living in the country (4% of the total population of 550,000), mostly in Tripoli. The situation for the Jews was generally good. But, in the late 1930s, the Fascist Italian regime began passing anti-Semitic laws. As a result of these laws, Jews were fired from government jobs, some were sent away from government schools, and their citizenship papers were stamped with the words “Jewish race.” Despite this repression, 25% of the population of Tripoli was still Jewish in 1941 and 44 synagogues were maintained in the city. In 1942, German troops fighting the Allies in North Africa occupied the Jewish quarter of Benghazi, plundering shops and deporting more than 2,000 Jews across the desert. Sent to work in labor camps, more than one-fifth of this group of Jews perished.
During World War II, Libya’s Jewish population was subjected to anti-Semitic laws by the Fascist Italian regime and deportations by German troops.
After the war, anti-Jewish violence caused many Jews to leave the country, principally for Israel. Some of the worst anti-Jewish violence occurred in the years following the liberation of North Africa by Allied troops. From November 5 to November 7, 1945, more than 140 Jews were killed and many more injured in a pogrom in Tripoli. The rioters looted nearly all of the city’s synagogues and destroyed five of them, along with hundreds of homes and businesses. In June 1948, anti-Jewish rioters killed another 12 Jews and destroyed 280 Jewish homes. This time, however, the Libyan Jewish community had prepared to defend itself. Jewish self-defense units fought back against the rioters, preventing dozens of more deaths.
The insecurity which arose from these anti-Jewish attacks as well as the founding of the state of Israel led many Jews to emigrate. From 1948 to 1951, and especially after immigration became legal in 1949, 30,972 Jews moved to Israel. On December 31, 1958 the Jewish Community Council was dissolved by law. In 1961, another law required a special permit to prove true Libyan citizenship, which was, however, denied to all but six Jewish inhabitants of the country.
By 1967, the Jewish population of Libya had decreased to 7,000. After the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Libyan Jews were once against the target of anti-Jewish riots. During these attacks, rioters killed 18 people and more were injured. Leaders of the Jewish community then asked King Idris I to allow the entire Jewish population to “temporarily” leave the country; he consented, even urging them to leave. Through an airlift and the aid of several ships, the Italian navy helped evacuate more than 6,000 Jews to Rome in one month. The evacuees were forced to leave their homes, their businesses and most of their possession behind. Of these 6,000, more than 4,000 soon left Italy for Israel or the United States. The ones who remained created a Jewish community in Rome, which now consists of 15,000 people, including many from Libya and their descendants who have a large influence on the community.
By the time Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi came to power in 1969 only about 100 Jews remained in Libya; under his rule, all Jewish property was confiscated, all debts to Jews were canceled and emigration for Jews was legally prohibited. Still some Jews succeeded in leaving the country and by 1974, only 20 Jews lived in Libya. In 2002, the last known Jew in Libya, Esmeralda Meghnagi, died and it was thought that the long history of Jewry in Libya had ended. In the same year, however, it was discovered that Rina Debach, a then 80-year old woman, who was born and raised in Tripoli, but thought to be dead by her family in Rome, was still living in a nursing home in the country. With her ensuing departure for Rome, there were no more Jews in the country. The last Jew of Libya, Rina Debach, left the country in 2003.
In 2004, Gaddafi indicated that the Libyan government would compensate Jews who were forced to leave the country and stripped of their possessions. In October of that year he met with representatives of Jewish organizations to discuss compensation. He did, however, insist that Jews who moved to Israel would not be compensated. Some suspect these moves were motivated by his son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who is considered to be the likely successor of his father. In the same year, Saif had welcomed Jews back into the country, saying that they are Libyans that should “leave the land they took from Palaestinia.” On December 9, Gaddafi also extended an invitation to Moshe Kahlon, the deputy speaker of the Knesset and son of Libyan immigrants, to Tripoli
Under Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has ruled the country since 1969, the situation deteriorated further, eventually leading to the emigration of the remaining Jewish population.
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