A few days ago, the indefatigable and always valuable Michael J. Totten wrote a short entry at CONTENTIONS noting disturbing signs that the post-Qaddafi order will not be as welcoming to Libya’s exiled Jews as, say, the new Tunisian or current Moroccan governments have been. As Totten notes, “The Arab world has been more bigoted against Jews in the last hundred years than it was at any time during the previous thousand.” In Libya, it wasn’t always this way, of course. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Maurice Roumani’s The Jews of Libya, and subsequently of meeting this brilliant scholar. Roumani explains how the Libyan crackdown on its own Jewish population accelerated through the 20th century, as well as the tensions that sometimes existed between the Libyan Jewish population and their Italian counterparts across the Mediterranean. As with the Palestinians and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’s flirtation with the Nazis, so much in Libya dates back to the legacy of World War II. As I summarize Roumani in my review:
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.
The real treat of Roumani’s work is his final chapter, however:
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 Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rise two years later, the final nail was put into the community’s coffin.
Let’s hope a new, more optimistic chapter can be written. The transitional government in Tripoli must realize tolerance should never be put off, for the longer extremism is tolerated, the more it will metathesize.