Will the Libyan rebels do justice to the Jews?

This is a cross post from Point of no return

A voice on the radio was giving a resident’s eyewitness account of the rebel advance in Tripoli. “Aren’t Gadaffi ‘s supporters going to fight back?” asked the interviewer. “No”, said the voice – “because Gaddafi loyalists had all been bought off with property Gaddafi had seized from the Jews and the Italians.”

In all the punditry about the post-Gaddafi future, no one has asked if the new regime will do justice to the Jews. Jewish properties were confiscated, debts officially erased, Jewish cemeteries bulldozed into the sea or concreted over, and synagogues, clubs and schools demolished or put to other uses. Law 57 of 21 July 1970 empowered the Libyan government to seize the property of the remaining Jews who had fled Libya after pogroms in 1967. According to Michael Fischbach, an expert on the lost property of both Jews and Arabs, 628 of the 643 emigres eligible for seizure were Jews.

They were once a thriving community of 38,000 dating back to Roman times. Today, not a single Jew lives in Libya. Some 94 percent of the community fled Libya for Israel just after 1948.

Nobody really knows how much the Jews of Libya, who controlled much of Libya’s economy, are owed in compensation. Dr Heskel Haddad, President of the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries, reckons that Jews owned half of Tripoli and half of Benghazi, and much land in the oil-rich region of Cyrenaica. One Libyan Jew forced to abandon his flourishing import-export business estimates that his family’s assets alone were worth $11 million.

For decades, little was heard about compensation for lost Jewish assets. In 2003, when Colonel Gaddafi decided to put his terrorist-sponsoring days behind him and join the Western fold, delegation after delegation of ex-Libyan Jews based in Italy were invited to discuss compensation with Gaddafi. But they all came away empty-handed.

Instead the money seemed to be flowing in the other direction: to the Libyans. In 2008, the Italian government agreed to pay $5 billon over 25 years to make amends for the brutal years of colonial rule. There was no compensation for Italian ‘fourth shore’ exiles, although the Libyans pledged to make it easier for them to visit. Jewish leaders in Rome pleaded for some of the $5 billion to be set aside for the Jews – but to no avail.

What is the rebel attitude to ex-Libyan Jews? Representatives of both the Gaddafi regime and the rebels have been reported to have paid visits to Tel Aviv. A London-based expatriate opposition group advocating a democratic, secular state in Libya has announced it is planning to go through archives in Rome in order to make a full inventory of assets seized from Libya’s Jewish community, with a view to their restitution.

One expatriate Jew, Raphael Luzon, has been invited by the rebels to run for office in Libya: there is no doubt that a Jew or two and some women in the new government would be good for Libya’s image.

There is a tendency to view ex-Libyan Jews as loyal ‘dhimmi’ Libyans longing to rush back to their homeland – if only the conditions were made attractive enough. Although they would be curious to pay a visit to their country of birth, few Jews, however – with the exception of a Jungian psychoanalyst called David Gerbi who has been treating rebel hospital patients – are ready to return to Libya. They want justice in the form of an apology for the suffering they endured, and compensation for what they lost.

All this will be pie-in-the-sky if Islamists gain the upper hand in the post-Gaddafi government. “Some Jews think they may be able to recover some of their lost possessions, as promised by the rebels, but I think the events in Libya are disastrous,” Avi Pedazur, a representative of the World Organisation of Libyan Jews, warns. “The rebels are Muslim extremists and the events in Libya will echo the events that have taken place in Egypt.”

There is a yawning gap between what ex-Libyan Jews want, and what a new government may be prepared to give. It is over 60 years since the overwhelming majority of Jews left Libya. Some 110,000 Libyan Jews and their offspring are now Israelis. And it is with Israelis that the new regime will have to make its peace.