Libyan protesters seek justice and exiled Jews should, too

I left Libya more than 42 years ago when the mobs were roaming the streets. They were not chanting for democracy or yearning for freedom — they were looking for Jews.

Gina Bublil Waldman

I am a Libyan Jew, though I have now lived in the Bay Area for 40 years. The upheavals sweeping Libya open old wounds. Violent political culture has often been part of Libyan society, especially toward its Jews.

There was a Jewish presence in Libya since the 3rd century BCE — one millennium prior to the advent of Islam in the region. We were “tolerated” to varying degrees by successive rulers and continued to be part of a rich and ongoing thread in the fabric of Libyan society.

During World War II, when the Germans invaded North Africa, there were 36,000 Jews living in Libya, mostly residing in Tripoli and Benghazi.

In 1942, more than 2,000 Jews were deported to Nazi labor camps. More than 500 perished. Members of my family died in the Giado Labor Camp in Libya.

After the war, Arab nationalism spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, leading to riots which often turned into violence directed at the Jewish communities. In 1945, more than 140 Jews were killed and many injured in a pogrom in Tripoli. The film “The Forgotten Refugees” highlights these events.

My mother, Laura, escaped by jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she was rescued by a Christian woman. After the riots my father helped bury the bodies of his friends, an experience that traumatized him for the rest of his life.

When Israel became a state in 1948, anti-Jewish riots escalated, synagogues were torched and Jewish homes were destroyed. This resulted in the mass immigration of 30,000 Jews to Israel. By 1950, only 6,000 Jews were left from what was once a thriving Jewish community. I was one of those Jews.

We were not allowed to leave the country, have citizenship, travel, hold government jobs or attend government schools. We were stripped of our basic human rights and treated as “dhimmi,” subjugated second-class citizens. Although I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, I had no choice but to attend Catholic school. I could recite prayers in Latin, but I was not allowed to learn Hebrew.

In 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and its five Arab neighbors, mobs took to the streets, burning Jewish homes. I became separated from my family and was hidden in the home of a Christian family.

By order of the Libyan government, we were expelled. All of our assets were confiscated; we were allowed to take one suitcase and the equivalent of $20. Fleeing the country, we narrowly escaped death when the bus driver attempted to burn the bus taking us to the airport. We were rescued by Christians.

Today, there are no Jews left in Libya. Their story is my story. Some went back to try to retrieve lost assets and

were thrown in jail for several years by Muammar Ghaddafi.

Forty years later, “el-rais” (“the leader”) Ghaddafi promised the Libyan Jewish community during a visit to Rome that he would discuss compensation of their lost property, but he never did. Recently, he invited a few exiled Jews to return. He played host, exploiting the opportunity for his own political reasons.

On the basis of religion, Arab regimes subjected Jews to arbitrary arrests, confiscation of property and expulsion. Almost all Arab countries, and especially Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, have consistently discriminated against their Jewish populations. As a result, nearly

1 million Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were forced to flee after 1948.

The Jews of Libya were victimized, just as the Libyan people today are victims of their regime. Both should seek justice.

Today, the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya are struggling to change the regimes that oppressed them and stripped them of their dignity. Hopefully, Libya will establish a new government, and when it does, an opportunity will present itself to acknowledge the historical injustice which forced their Jewish communities to flee.

As in South Africa, only the acknowledgment of the inconvenient truth will lead to reconciliation, because without the truth, there can be no reconciliation. This is the first step toward healing a damaged society.

Gina Bublil Waldman was born in Tripoli, Libya. She is the president of S.F.-based JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.