Thursday, June 07, 2007

Libyan Jewry conference promotes reconciliation

Libyan Muslim scholars from Tripoli and Benghazi, and Libyan Jewish scholars and other experts in the history of the Jewish community in Libya, met for two days at SOAS (the London School for Oriental and African studies) on 31 May and 1 June to promote dialogue between different communities in Libya. (With thanks for this report to Eric Salerno)

The Jewish community, whose roots go back 1,300 years, formed one of the largest minorities in Libya together with Berbers and Bedouins. They co-existed peacefully in the country and were positively and constructively active in all fields of Libyan society. In the last 60 years, thousands where forced, one way or another, to leave their homeland. The last exodus of 6,500 Jews followed street riots which took place at the beginning of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.

The presence of Dr. Mohammed Jerary, director of the Libyan studies centre of Tripoli, and two other Libyan scholars, was seen as a very significant beginning in the promotion of dialogue between cross-sections of this North African country. The event celebrated the rich and deep-rooted culture of Libyan Jewry and will hopefully rebuild the confidence to generate goodwill and friendship towards reconciliation. The information and historical facts provided will serve as tools to learn and plan for a better future between Jews and Muslims.

The title of the conference was Coexistence Of Libyan Muslims and Jews: Lessons from the Past and Plans For The Future; Proposal To Create an Organised Platform For Cooperation. The moderator was Mr. Adel Darwish, Journalist & Middle East expert. On the panel were Prof. Maurice M. Roumani (historian and writer), Dr. Faraj Najem (writer and scholar), Mr. Ahmed Rahal (writer and journalist), Prof. Vincenzo Porcasi (economist), Dr. Eric Salerno (writer and journalist), Prof. Salah Al Din H. Al Suri (expert in modern Libyan history) and Dr Khalifa Al Ahwal (expert in History of Jews of Libya).

Bataween adds: Today not a single Jew lives in Libya, where Jews first settled 2,000 years ago. On 31 May, a film was shown and a lecture delivered on Libyan Jewry, whose checkered history encompassed periods of prosperity and peace. Jews suffered from Mussolini's racial laws when Libya became an Italian colony. During the war years, foreign nationals were deported to Nazi concentration camps: some never returned. Over 3,000 local Jews were interned in the Giado concentration camp. One in five died from starvation and disease.

After liberation and under British rule, some 130 Jews were massacred in 1945. Many Jews fled for Israel after rioting in 1948; 18 Jews were murdered and shops and synagogues burnt down in riots in 1967. Mrs Luzon, mother of Raphael Luzon, chairman of the Libyan Jews' Association in the UK, lit a candle for each of their eight relatives killed in 1967.

At the session on 1st June, Muslim Libyan historians were at pains to emphasise the sunlight, rather than the shadow, in the Arab-Jewish relationship. Dr Farej Najem denied that Jews, dhimmis under Shariah law, had been forcibly converted to Islam. Dr Khalifa Al Ahwal said that Jews - a third of the population of Tripoli was Jewish in 1855 - had been in the forefront of trade, commerce and culture, but reproached the Jews for hedging their bets by adopting foreign passports.

The speakers disputed the fact that all Libyan Muslims had welcomed Mussolini: indeed 40,000 Libyan Arabs had died at the hands of general Graziani in what Eric Salerno describes in his book as an Italian genocide.

Iin his classical work on the Jews of Libya, the Italian historian Professor Renzo de Felice referred to their misery and wretchedness, but the Arab Muslims lived in even worse conditions. Both suffered under Italian and British rule. The era 1952 to 1967 following Libyan independence was apparently a 'golden age' for the 7,000 Jews still in in the country.

Libya has passed Decree 68, which allows for compensation to Jews expelled and dispossessed in 1967 as well as Maltese and Italians who lost their property in 1969, although no Jew has yet reported receiving compensation. The country is open for business and wishes to attract ex-Libyan expatriate investment with various economic incentives.

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