In the course of my research into the more violent aspects of Italian colonialism in Libya - the repression of the Arab population (starting from 1911 with the initial invasion and in 1929-32 in what general Graziani defined the “pacification of Cyrenaica”, and later the treatment of the Jewish comunity after the promulgation of the Racial Laws in 1938) - I came across a very interesting aspect concerning the relationship between the different Libyan communities. Over the course of centuries, Arabs, Berbers and Jews, had at different times fought each other, but also had experienced a very interwoven and, in many cases, fraternal relationship. That to some extent was put to the test by the attempt, at times successful, of the prevailing colonial power to “divide and rule”.
The Jewish comunities in
One of the most horrible aspects of the repression of the population of
Today the situation is even more difficult: the people who suffered most have passed away, those with memories tend to be very old and are not always able to concentrate on facts. Emotions, as important as perceptions are, but not necessarily historical proof, take up a major place in their stories. And the archives, though more and more accessible, are not always complete. The documentation from that period in the Italian archives – I refer both to the camps set up in
In the last few years, to make up for lack of documentation I dedicated more time to oral testimonies, as I did in the 1970s. In
The repression of the Jewish community of
One of the most complete stories about that period was told by a man by the name Ofek. When the British retreated, and Italian and German troops re-entered Cyrenaica and
"Every two weeks, the oppressors posted in the synagoges a list of families who should prepare for departure. We were taken in freight trucks on a five-day journey. At night we slept under the stars. Altogether, 2600 people were taken away. I was 18 years old at the time. We were forced to work for 12 hours straight, without a break, hoeing and transporting dirt. It is self-evident that with the meager food we received and the backbreaking work, we could expect a slow, tortuous death (as in the work camps in
"It was only after much persuasion and crying that the cruel commander allowed neighboring Arabs to sell us vegetables, dates and barley. We obviously did not have any money with us, so how did we buy the food? The sale was in exchange for labor. After an exhausting day's work, we did work for the Arab villagers, such as sewing clothes."
Yehuda Chachmon, born in
"A few months before the war started, they began mistreating us. They would curse and humiliate us. The first transport for 150 people was in trucks with no cover. It was a four-day ride in the desert till they reached Giado. It was a military camp situated near an Arab village named Giado, about 40 kilometers from the Tunisian border. There were approximately 3,600 of us in the camp. The shacks were long buildings. Every family of 10 got
Many of the Libyan Arabs that I spoke with, insisted in describing the good, often personal relationship, with the Jews in their towns and villages. This confirms what the historian Yacov Haggiag-Liuf writes in his History of the Jews of Libya: "the relationship with the Arab population improved, with each helping the other, as a result of a common bitter destiny. The Arabs gave refuge to Jews outside the Hara (Jewish quarter) and in the villages near the city, even if, at times, they overcharged them rent. And for their part, the Jews helped the Arabs when they could with basic necessities. On the other hand, the Italians , particularly the Fascists, abused the Jews, humiliating and offending them with insulting names, beating them whenever possible".
I believe that this aspect – the relationship between the different comunities that deteriorated only with the political and emotional situation that emerged with the foundation of the State of Israel – is important: it shows that, once a political solution is found to the Palestinian question and peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors, the anti-Israeli antagonism that in many cases is portrayed not as anti-Zionism but also anti-semitism, would slowly disappear.