‘Jonathan,” he said to me as we sat down for supper in the Jewish district of Rome referred to as il ghetto, “let me tell you something. Listen carefully.” The man sitting opposite me and speaking with such intensity was David Gerbi, a Libyan-born Jew who took it upon himself to return to his home country and assist the rebels in their fight against Gaddafi — and who was almost lynched in the process.

An elderly couple entered the kosher restaurant, greeting my newfound friend with an emphatic “shalom.” He nodded courteously in acknowledgement. Gerbi is something of a celebrity within the Italian Jewish community, and it’s not at all difficult to see why. Around three years ago, he met Gaddafi, as a representative of the now-prosperous (but exiled) Libyan Jewish community of Rome.

“You know, Jonathan, when people are confronted with imminent death, they react in three ways….” As a leading psychoanalyst Gerbi knows about  the human psyche and much more besides. And while in Libya he was able to put his psychological skills to good use, assisting rebels suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at Benghazi’s psychiatric hospital.

But aside from fighting alongside the rebels determined to oust the despotic Gaddafi, Gerbi had other items on his agenda. He was determined, for instance, to get to the Dar Bishi Synagogue, clean the place up, say Kaddish — the Jewish prayer of mourning — and restore the nearby Jewish cemetery to its former state. When he finally made it to the remains of Tripoli’s once-thriving synagogue, he realized that the Libyans were not exactly welcoming the Jews with open arms. “I went to the window and saw a convoy of cars and a crowd approaching. They were out to get me. I knew it. I could feel it. The rebels who accompanied me had warned me that I was taking a risk. I could hear the roar of the crowd getting louder.”

The ruins of the Dar Bishi Synagogue in Tripoli, Libya (photo credit: Courtesy, Meir Kahaolon)

The ruins of the Dar Bishi Synagogue in Tripoli, Libya (photo credit: Courtesy, Meir Kahaolon)

“But David,” I said, embarrassed at interrupting such a compelling story,  “you were saying that there are three ways people react when facing imminent death. What are they?”

He counted with his fingers. “The three F’s. They either freeze, fight, or flee.”  And which of those “F’s” was his own reaction, as he saw the mob descending on him outside the synagogue? I wondered.-

“None of them, Jonathan,” he said. “Because at that moment in time, I discovered a fourth F — the F of fate. What would happen, would happen. If I was to die, so be it. But I knew that I had God, my roots and my ancestry on my side. So I let fate take its course, knowing that the odds were not all that stacked up against me in the process.”

Some of the rebels accompanying me had already escaped through the backdoor of the synagogue, and in the interests of his safety, urged Gerbi to do the same. “They told me to go out the back door, as the mob was gaining momentum and getting angrier by the minute.”

By standing his ground, Gerbi unwittingly exposed a side of the Libyan revolution that departs from the mainstream narrative of heroic rebels fighting against tyranny and oppression in the name of freedom and democracy. Because the truth was – and remains – that  many of the rebels, to put it at its kindest, simply hate Jews. Most of them were in all likelihood unaware of why. After all, the Libyan people didn’t have many Jews left to hate. As it happened, at that moment in time, Gerbi was the sole Libyan Jew in the country. Gerbi was the Jewish community. Still, he understood them to some degree.

“The generation of their parents still have fond memories of their Jewish neighbors. As for the demonstrators outside — I was not so much afraid of them pitying the regime that had transformed them into robotic anti-Semites.”

“So what happened next, David?” I asked with the kind of youthful enthusiasm I had always reserved for when my grandfather would tell me stories of the Royal Navy in the Second World War.

“And how did you escape?”

“Did the rebels escort you out through the side exit of the Synagogue?”

His eyes hardened. “NEVER!” In fact, Gerbi remained in the synagogue and finished reciting his Psalms. Then he stood up, held his head high, shoulders back, and walked toward the front door. “Remember, Jonathan, fate was on my side.”

Gerbi had absolutely no idea what fate awaited him once on the other side of those doors. “But one thing was for certain,” he said. “There was no way I was going to walk out like a coward through the backdoor of the synagogue where generations of my ancestors had prayed.”

It turned out that Gerbi was right to place his trust in fate. Because, as it happened, his pursuers were waiting at the back exit of the synagogue. In the front, the world media was waiting, and some wise Libyan leaders present told the mob that it was not in Libya’s best interest to lynch someone — a fellow Libyan, to boot — who had worked and fought alongside the rebels, for the simple reason that he was Jewish.  The “problem” (their way of referring to Gerbi) would be dealt with swiftly by other means, they were reassured. A haunting early harbinger, perhaps, that the Arab Spring was to give way to an Islamist winter.

But Gerbi didn’t go to Libya to be put under the spotlight. He wasn’t there to cause a stir. His mission was simple: to reconnect to his ancestral roots, to assist and treat the rebels, and to restore the synagogue and Jewish cemetery. Above all else, it was a deeply personal mission. But his actions struck a nerve not only with the Libyans calling for his expulsion (and some for his death) but also with the Italians and the US State Department who called his actions non-conducive to the public good in Libya, and warned that they could potentially be provocative to Islamists. If the sight of a single middle-aged man, peacefully praying in a synagogue, is to be condemned as provocative, then what hope is there for the revival of Libya’s ancient Jewish community?

And yet Gerbi still has hope.

Driving me back to my hotel on his scooter, weaving in and out of Rome’s notoriously chaotic traffic, he told me that he still plans to place a memorial plaque in front of the synagogue in Tripoli — to honor the Jewish community. “You know”, he shouted through his helmet, “I didn’t go to Libya to proclaim myself ‘the only Jew in the country.’ I did it because I wanted to reconnect with my roots, my ancestry and my heritage.”

Only time will tell whether Jews will once again be welcome in Libya.  But there is no doubt that Gerbi will be a key element in the Jewish collective narrative, as a living testament to the plight of the thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who were forcibly expelled from their homes.

On the streets of Rome with Gerbi

The Czech writer Milan Kundera once wrote:

You begin to liquidate a people by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begin to forget what it is and what it was.

Gerbi is surely to be commended for having taken it upon himself to ensure that this will never happen to Libyan Jewry. The time for silence, he says, is over.

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