In 1948, 36,000 Jews lived in Libya. Today, none do. Roumani, a Ben-Gurion University political scientist born in Libya, has created a masterful account of the last decades of this vanished community.
In 1911, the Italian army conquered Libya. The resulting Italian administration approached the Libyan Jewish community through its experience of Rome's positive relations with its Jewish community. There were marked differences between the two communities, however, leading to tumultuous relations for the ensuing two decades. Libyan Jews resisted both Italian rabbis and the reforms they sought to oversee as they fought to preserve their identity. Italian society did influence Libyan Jewry, however, catalyzing Zionism, for example. Hebrew classes became a fixture in Libyan Jewish communities in the 1920s and 1930s. Bad accompanied good, though; as anti-Semitism grew in Italy during the fascist period, anti-Jewish incidents increased in Libya, and as the Axis oriented its foreign policy toward the Arabs, Italian leaders privileged Libya's Arabs over its Jews. As the Axis solidified in the late 1930s, Rome imposed anti-Semitic race laws on both Italy and Libya. Libyan Jews were interned in local labor camps, deported, and, in some cases, transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
As postwar Arab nationalism grew, anti-Jewish rioting and pogroms worsened. Arab hostility increased as independence neared, forcing Libyan Jews to choose between emigration to Israel or Europe or life under a hostile Arab government. Most chose the former, but a hardy core remained. Here, Roumani's detail is stellar. Exploring archives from Jerusalem to Rome to New York, as well as contemporary Arabic and Hebrew newspaper accounts, he recounts the organizational involvement of international Jewish agencies comprehensively and without sacrificing readability.
Roumani's final chapter, tracing the Libyan Jews who chose to remain in their country after Israel's independence, is one of the best case studies of Arab nationalist intolerance. Tripoli closed Jewish schools, forced Jews with relatives in Israel to register, and even placed the Jewish community's administration under Muslim trusteeship. Jews could not vote, serve in public capacities, or purchase property. Violence was commonplace. On the first day of the Six-day War in June 1967, Libyan mobs destroyed 60 percent of Jewish communal property. The Libyan government placed Jews in protective custody in a detainment camp from which they were quickly evacuated by air and sea. With Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi's rise two years later, the final nail was put into the community's coffin.
Libya had a Jewish community for millennia. Within a matter of years, it collapsed. The Libyan Jewish community may not have been the Arab world's largest or most prominent, but The Jews of Libya, nevertheless, should become standard reading not only for students of Jewish history but for those professing expertise in modern Arab or North African history as well.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.Read article in full