Nausheena Mahomed
Nausheena Mahomed

Save the ancient synagogue of Tripoli!

David Gerbi dressed in traditional Arab clothing during a peace-building mission in Libya (Courtesy)

The Hollow Cries of the Ancestors Must be Dignified & Purified

David Gerbi, a Libyan Jewish Refugee, psychologist, and author is hardly a victim of the fate that befell him and his family in 1967. He is a man of his word, a person of integrity and determination. These are the characteristics I know him so well for today. I met him in 2006 in Johannesburg at our Channel Africa Studio and he made quite an impression on me back then. In fact, I read his book, Making Peace with Gaddafi a few times in the past and was deeply moved by his courage and personal convictions about peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Jews in Libya. He felt it was absolutely necessary despite the great hardship he and his family faced after fleeing Libya in 1967 to escape a life of hate and violent reprisals against the Libyan Jewish community.

Gerbi is a man of peace and reconciliation, believing so much in it, that he was willing to make peace with the Colonel and dictator of Libya, Moammar Gaddafi in 2002. These two figures will always be etched in my mind together, the one overshadowing the other who posthumously keeps extremism alive in every little dictator who wants to impersonate his tyranny in Libya.  Gerbi, does not like the present image of his beloved country, but I think he has made peace with the reality (even though he is hoping for a transformation) after trying several times unsuccessfully recently to return yet again to Libya to visit the ancient Synagogue, Dar Bishi in the old city of Tripoli.

His memory of Libya dates back to sometime before the 1967 war, when the Libya he still loves, sounded and appeared to be a far cry from today’s reality. He described his life in a Libya that so many of us did not have a chance to experience, especially if born after 1967.

“I have a good memory because I was impressed by the fact as a child, I went to school only four days of the week because Friday was a Muslim holiday, so we will see all the Muslims going to pray in the morning at the mosque. They pray five times a day, so it was fascinating listening to the voice of the Muazzin, “Allah hu Akbar,” calling people to prayer. This gave me a nice sense of peace. On Saturday I will go and listen to the sound of the prayer. It was all about listening. I was looking at everybody with the traditional Libyan clothing and on Saturday the Jews wore their traditional clothing and I will hear a different song and different liturgy. On Saturday we would just go to the Synagogue and on Friday you will prepare the food because Shabbath arrived. On Sunday it was another nice day for the Christians who would go to the cathedral. Unfortunately, now it has become a mosque. I would listen to the sound of the bell. Dong, Dong, Dong. This would mean, it is time to come to pray, to wake up.

For me, it was about looking and listening, and I felt in those three days it was a special atmosphere, a special peace, a special harmony. It was now a peaceful time for God. Everybody was going and everybody was respecting each other. Just not tolerating each other. It was about accepting each other, so it was like respecting. The three religions, the religions of the book, they were all accepting each other. You need to remember that Libya was an Italian colony, so it was much more appreciated. We studied Italian, Arabic, Hebrew. We also studied English. It was a place of many cultures. In fact, Tripoli where I was born it means three cities.  It was also an open city by the port. People would come and go. It was a nice atmosphere. Our caretaker of the house was a Libyan Muslim. The light side of Libya was that of co-existence. My father would sell to Libyan, American, Muslim, Italian just about anyone, so it was a nice atmosphere.”

Today, however, his fight is a new one, one perhaps he would never have foreseen as a little boy running happily to his father’s shop to help him or smelling the food his mother was preparing for Shabbath, on Friday in their kitchen at home in Tripoli.  He is trying to save the ancient Synagogue which he discovered recently was being secretly converted into a library. He says it was Libyan authorities who quietly made this decision to convert the ancient Synagogue into a modern library. Gerbi has been corresponding with friends in Tripoli including highly connected people in Italy to find out more about this situation. The Great Synagogue in Italy is an integral part of Libyan Jewry and dates back 2,300 years. It is also the only Synagogue in the country with the potential of being rebuilt as other Synagogues have been destroyed. Some of the Synagogues were converted to mosques and for other purposes.

“For both my collective and personal history, as a Jewish refugee from Libya, I have always committed myself to keep the memory alive, as a representative of the World Organization of the Jews of Libya so that injustice does not go into prescription and the wrong suffered is not forgotten and so that what happened does not happen again. I pledged to pay tribute to this memory and the memory of so many Jews killed, persecuted, and expelled from Arab countries and Iran.

Both the Libyan Jews now Italian citizens like us and all the descendants who live in Israel and other countries of the world, are not allowed even to go to Arab countries to pray for our loved ones buried in those few cemeteries that are still safe, as many were destroyed and transformed into buildings and highways. They remain in our common prayers, in our commitments for the future of peace in the Mediterranean. However, it is extremely painful and distressing to think that these souls of our ancestors are not fully at peace in a proper dignified burial site where we can honor them traditionally and purely. Instead, they lie resting under buildings and highways. Their existence and their honorable lives in Libya have been wiped out too, conveniently disregarded even in their death they have been cursed by discrimination. Even in their death, the ancestors are regarded as pariahs simply because they are Jews. A proper burial, commemoration, and memorial in a special burial site in Libya will be just redemption for their souls to finally rest in peace honourably. ”

Dar Bishi Synagogue under secret construction & transformation into a library
David Gerbi inside the Dar Bishi Synagogue in 2011 when he was surrounded by a protesting mob of Libyan Arabs.
An outside view of the Dar Bishi Ancient Synagogue in the old city of Tripoli
David Gerbi dressed as an Arab while on a peace-building effort in Libya.
Dar Bishi Synagogue under secret construction & transformation into a library

When I finally caught up with David in December 2020, 13 years after meeting him, for my campaign, Give Peace A Chance, it was clear that his mission to make peace with Gaddafi was nothing more than a Public Relations stunt on the part of Gaddafi to meet with him. It was all pomp and ceremony for Gaddafi who was driving a well-orchestrated media campaign to woo Western support for his Presidency. However, despite this, I still met the same determined, warm-spirited, peaceful person who had just published his article, Injustice does not go into prescription. I caught up with everything he was doing and had accomplished in Libya since we last met in 2006. The Dar Bishi Synagogue featured prominently in his communication and I watched and played out a video which he shared with me on my online campaign, Give Peace A Chance. I also was earnestly interested in the Synagogue. More than anything I wanted to visit the Synagogue with Gerbi and cherished the dream of praying with him as a Muslim in the ancient Synagogue following my new mission on improving the visibility of peace activism. The Synagogue at present is a stark reminder of the painful history of Libyan Jewry.  I was inspired to visit with Gerbi one day, in the hope of its full restoration to transform Dar Bishi into a new symbol of hope for Jews, Muslims, Christians, and for a new Libya too.  Learning of the secret transformation of the Synagogue into a library came as a shock and a blow as we had been earnestly looking at possibilities of traveling together to the Synagogue assuming that it was still safe.

The video he shared with me of his last visit to the Synagogue in 2011 was heartbreaking and attracted the most attention to my campaign. It showed an emotional,  Gerbi who was crying as he was breaking down a wall. His words were powerful and moving, “All the Libyan Jews need justice, no matter if they are Arab if they are Amazhig, if they are black, gay, or if they are Tuareg. No matter what. We all need to be together as one people. I did not want that the name of God, the name of the Jewish people, the name of the Christian people, the God of the Muslim, to see in the middle of this garbage.”

Gerbi was surrounded by filth and garbage in what was a very neglected Synagogue, but he raised his hands and prayed aware, but seemingly unconcerned about being surrounded by the garbage. He was back in Libya, retracing his footsteps of a past that no longer existed, reclaiming a lost history in a country that didn’t care whether the Synagogue existed or not. What they really cared about was that a Jew had returned to Libya and a mob of angry Libyan Arabs quickly made their voices heard to the international media present. They stood outside of Dar Bishi protesting, holding placards that called on him to get out as he was not welcome in Libya.

“I don’t want to play the hero. I don’t want to play the martyr. I just want to be here to support the new Libya and the democracy, and I want to build this. This is why I want to be here. I want to be part and I don’t want to be discriminated against.” This was Gerbi’s response in a report filed by the Associated Press during his visit in 2011, to the angry mob of Libyan Arabs. He had to leave the Synagogue though out of fear for his safety. Since 2011 Gerbi has been waiting for official permission to carry on with the restoration.

Gerbi cares very much and is desperately doing his best to ensure that the Synagogue will not be secretly destroyed altogether or converted into a modern library. It may very well be the last heritage site of Jewish history to save given how far back it dates! In an interview on my show, Give Peace A Chance, Gerbi reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s leadership, a man who chose a hard path, the path of peace and reconciliation and not bitterness. In a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey when questioned on his state of bitterness, Nelson Mandela went on record saying, “Our emotions told us that the white minority is the enemy but our mind told us that if we don’t talk to this man (F.W De Klerk) our country will go up in flames.” Gerbi recollected that “With Gaddafi, he excluded the Jews. So, when you start to exclude the minority in any country those are the moments when the trouble starts. The more minority you can include, the more democratic you are.”

When it comes to Islam and the teachings of Islam, the wise and noble chosen Prophet of Islam on the position of minorities said the following, “Beware! Whoever is cruel and harsh to a non-Muslim minority, curtailing their rights, overburdening them, or stealing from them, I will complain (to God) on the day of judgment. He added: “Who hurts a non-Muslim minority is like hurting me”.

The Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) modeled a society based on tolerance and religious freedom. Every faith was free to practice their beliefs freely without any hindrances. Their religious rights and places of worship should be respected accordingly. Therefore, when considering Gerbi’s position in 2006 when I first met him and then again in 2020, I was, as a Muslim, appalled by the situation in Libya and the current status of a Forgotten Jewish Community. What is happening in Libya and what transpired under the dictatorship of Gaddafi is not a reflection at all on Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). It is a political distortion based on collective revenge by several Arab countries to punish the Jewish minority for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

“Fifty-three years have passed and there has been no recognition and no compensation for moral, psychological, and physical damages from Libya. No compensation was given for confiscated assets, both individual and collective. We are not allowed to return or even to sell our individual and collective assets. But as resilient Libyan Jewish, without asking for help from the Jewish community of Rome, so as not to weigh on anyone, also because the roman Jews recently emerged from the tragedy of the Holocaust, we rolled up our sleeves and committed ourselves to rebuild a new life with honesty and with dignity starting from scratch, both in Italy and in Israel. We committed to studying and learning new languages to integrate into the social fabric of those who welcomed us, without asking for and obtaining any privileges.

Those are not the words of a victim, and even though Gerbi does not seek to be a hero either, he is a person of integrity and has been cut-off with severe ill-intent from his homeland, where a political agenda continues to discriminate against Jews, a vicious agenda that has created a perpetual cycle of hate and intolerance in Libya which is unhealthy not just for Libya but for the Muslim world too as it sends a signal that is a fierce misrepresentation of a great religion. What is more disturbing is that this intolerance of Jewish rights and religious freedom is acceptable by the majority of Libyan society.

Gerbi has recently, been seeking the assistance of Libya’s Prime Minister, Abdel Hamid Deviva, UNESCO, the UN envoy to Libya Jan Kubis, the US Ambassador to Libya, and the Italian Embassy in Libya to maintain the Synagogue in Tripoli and not to convert it into a library or anything else. I hope that his efforts will be the start (if only a minor victory) of renewing Jewish history in Libya by saving the Synagogue even if it ends up being only a symbol of hope in the meantime, a stark symbol of the possible revival of the dignity of a forgotten and buried community, literally under roads and buildings.  For nearly a decade now, this nation is torn apart from a civil war that began in 2011, following the toppling of Moammar Gaddafi and his subsequent killing.

It remains to be seen if the scheduled Libyan elections for 24 December 2021, will usher in any hope for peaceful dialogue, as suggested by Dr. Ahmouda Khalifa, a Libyan citizen who trades as an architect, “The interim government faces great difficulties. The dismantling of the multiple armed and professional militias is still a very difficult matter. There are militant forces who are already working to disrupt the upcoming elections. This is the fear amongst Libyans. The matter of the Synagogue is dominated by those with militant trends, the issue of the Jews and the Synagogue is unacceptable to them. However, there are liberal forces at work too, especially the voices of a new generation.”

When Gerbi and I reconnected in 2020 just after the normalization deals were signed with four Arab countries, the legitimacy of the Abraham Accords in respect of the ongoing Israel Palestine conflict was still being tested.  This is what he stated in his article, Injustice does not go into prescription, “Today at the end of 2020 we are witnessing the miracle of the normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world. United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. The support given to the Abrahamic Accords gives hope that Oman too could soon normalize relations with Israel. I conclude with the hope of soon seeing the rest of the Arab countries normalize relations with Israel and in particular with Libya, the country where I was born and whom I love.”

His story is just one of 850 thousand Jewish refugees who were persecuted and driven out of Arab countries since the 1940s. No matter which way you consider the Abraham Accords and the normalization policies, whether, through the lens of the Israel Palestine conflict or the lens of the self-interests of the signatories, one thing is certain it is a historic game-changer for Jews like Gerbi, even though in his case he is Libyan. From a humanitarian perspective, it is a sober opportunity to end hostile relations and emotional extremism against Jewish minorities in Arab countries.  It is a step forward, towards breaking down these walls of hate and prejudice and opening hearts and minds between Jews and Arabs in those countries, bringing a semblance of hope to Gerbi and the Forgotten Jews of Libya, innocent civilians who just want to go back home freely whenever they can and connect with their millennial heritage.

“I am willing to go all the way to the very end until there is justice. This means I will fully pursue the quest of the full restoration of the Dar Bishi Synagogue and I will go to the end to do my utmost to ensure that the souls of the ancestors are finally laid to rest with dignity and respect.  The two 2,300-year-old histories of Libyan Jewry must be remembered for the next generation.  This is for the ancestors who deserve to be dignified and purified in a way that fully restores their rights posthumously.  I believe in the afterlife, so I will really go to the end, despite the hurdles, skepticism, indifference, helplessness, injustice. Even if I am alone, there is always God with me. I feel close. I am not doing something wrong. I feel that this is right. I respect people who pray in their Mosque or in their Church. Everyone deserves their right to the freedom of religion. While it is too early to obtain official permission for full restoration, I am hopeful that as the tide of politics turns in Libya, I will eventually be granted full permission. I am hopeful and I am determined.” David Gerbi

All photos credit David Gerbi with permission to publish. 

David Gerbi is a psychotherapist in private practice in Rome and the executive director of the World Organization of Libyan Jews. He is also an author of Peace Builders, Making Peace with Gaddafi, and How to make peace.

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About the Author
Nausheena Mahomed is a South African Multi-Media and broadcast journalist by profession. She's worked as a journalist in Africa for almost two decades over several of the mainstream platforms and is most well-known for her time at Africa's first 24-hour news channel, eNCA. She is also the founder of Channel M Productions, a private media company in South Africa.
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