Aldo Habib with his wife Eveleen (photo: The JC)
A week ago, the Libyan Jewish community in the UK lost one of its most dedicated members: Aldo Habib passed away, aged 84. Born in Tripoli, he was the son of a president of the community, Giuseppe Habib. Aldo fled Libya in 1967 with his wife and young family having left behind business interests worth millions, but he never stopped campaigning for justice. In his memory, I am reproducing an article he wrote in the magazine Jewish Renaissance (2005):
I grew up in Tripoli with my parents, three sisters and a large extended family. We were able to observe our traditions, keep our festivals, eat kosher food and maintain our strong sense of Jewish identity, while mostly living in harmony with our Arab neighbours. But we lived through difficult years: Fascism under Italian rule; World War II; the British Army Administration and finally Arab rule under King Idris.
We survived anti-Semitism and the presence of the German Army and we were comparatively lucky as they did not really bother us. They deported those couple of hundred Jews who had British passports to concentration camps in Libya and Germany. Luckily – yet ironically – these people returned safely. We were spared the fate of the Jews of Europe in the Holocaust.
The British Army Administration from 1943-1952 was harsh and we Jews were treated as enemy aliens. My first experience of riots was in 1945, when mobs of Arabs attacked Jews in their homes and in the street for no apparent reason. More than 300 Jews were killed.
The British police did not stop the riots immediately on the grounds of not having orders from London to do so.
Every time there was even a slight incident in Israel there were skirmishes.
Two particular tragedies remain in my mind: a Jewish man ran from the mob to the safety of an Arab farm hoping to find shelter. He was buried alive by the Arab hethought was his friend. Then there was the young pregnant Jewish woman who was attacked by a mob who cut her unborn child from her stomach. I cannot forget these people even today.
There was an incident at our own home when a mob of Arabs were trying to enter. We found a cupboard with wine in it and threw the bottles down to the street. Nobody was hurt, the Arabs ran away and the police complained to my father that the bottles were acid as they had left marks in the street.
My father was deeply committed to the Jewish community as well as being in business in a substantial way. For several years he was the President of the community and fought for the civil
liberties of the Jews. He was often involved in disputes with the British Governor. I found a letter in which he complained to the governor of the harassment of some Jewish men who in1948 fought back against a group of Arabs who were attacking them. Jews were nowon their guard and ready to defend themselves. Instead of stopping the fights, the British police took the Jews to prison.
The first immigration to Israel of approximately 30,000 people was during 1948/51. The majority were poor people – who did not have sufficient assets to keep them in Libya. The Arabs would wave and cheer and carry their cases to the boats and there was a good feeling generally. The richer Jews, numbering some 6,000, were reluctant to leave.
In 1952 when Libya was given independence by the British, my late father was appointed with other Jews,Catholics and Muslims, as a judge for a couple of years, until the Libyan Arabs took over the courts. Most Jews continued to run successful businesses. The dealers in cars, trucks and tyres were
Jewish and the major part of the export and import business was in the hands of Jews.
Many Arabs worked with them and also became successful in business. In the late 1950s and early 60s there was the oil prospecting boom and business was good for everybody. Up to 1967, relations with the Arab population were mostly calm, though there were small incidents in Tripoli that coincided with periods of unrest in Israel. The Jews would shut their shops and businesses
and stay at home to avoid trouble. Life would then return to what we considered to be normal.
When in 1962 my father died, several hundred people including many Muslims came to his funeral.
There were so many people that the police were sent to see what was happening in case it was a riot against the Jews. In 1967 when trouble was brewing inthe Middle East, we had just an inkling of
what was happening through televisionreporting from abroad. At the outset of the Six-Day War there were riots in Libya that signalled the beginning of the end of the remaining Jews.
The flat where I lived with my English wife and two small children was next to the American Embassy and mobs of screaming Arabs were in the street outside. Through the shutters we saw cars being overturned and burnt. The rest of my family were in another part of the town. I cannot tell you the fear I felt. We learnt that several Jews were killed including two large families who disappeared into the ‘safety’ of Arab police custody and who were never heard of again. For 17 days we were
imprisoned in our home, relying on English neighbours to bring us food and grateful to our few brave Arab friends and employees who risked their lives to visit us. Eventually we were contacted by members of the police and told to leave for our own safety. We left with little in our hands.
The Italian government assisted the exodus to Italy of many of the community, some of whom settled in Rome and Milan. The majority went to Israel. A small number settled in different parts of the world, including London. I earnestly hope that one day all those Jews who left the country will be compensated for the property that they could not take with them.
Aldo and his family settled in London.
'Compensate Jews from frozen assets'