Jack Cohen

The Jews of Libya

We visited a small exhibition held at the Netanya City Museum on the Jews of Libya. Why Libyan Jews in Netanya? Because soon after the founding of Israel the Jews from Libya were a majority of immigrants in Netanya. This is their story.

During WWII the Libyan Arabs collaborated with the Germans and aided them in rounding up Jews. After the war in 1946 there was a massacre of Jews in Libya, and clearly it was impossible for them to stay there. The Jewish Agency sent an emissary named Duvdevani (cherry) to rescue them. In 1948, when the State was founded, there were ca. 36,000 Jews in Libya. Most of them were in the cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, but they were also spread around into the countryside. The Jews from the country were very religious and quite primitive, but those in the cities were modernized and influenced by Italian culture. Duvdevani gathered them into the ports and they gave up or sold everything. They were very happy to take boats and sail for Israel via Italy, sometimes at great risk. They were the only Jewish community that made aliyah almost in its entirety.

Half of them, ca. 14,000, settled in Netanya, more than doubling its population in 1948. There were two reason why they settled here, first because it was by the sea and reminded them of the cities they had left. Second, by coincidence, a Palestinian Jew named Menachem Arkin had been a volunteer in the British Army in N. Africa and as a Major had been in charge of Tripoli. After the war when he returned to what became Israel, his job was the Manager of the city of Netanya. He knew many of the Tripolitanian Jews personally from having dealt with them when he was in Libya and he welcomed them to settle in Netanya. At first they lived in tent camps, called ma’abarot, that dotted the countryside soon after independence when the immigrants from Europe and the Arab world flooded in. Eventually they became part of the population and can no longer be distinguished.

The exhibition is entitled “My mother’s gold,” but this refers not to the gold that they brought with them, but more to the advice and guidance that their mothers particularly gave them. Of course they could bring little with them, only what they could carry and hide. They sold their gold bracelets and other trinkets in order to give their children an education. The women also did embroidery and sold this to keep them from poverty. Now, of course, this is their history. Examples of their gold and embroidery are shown in the exhibits. Also shown are quotes from Libyan Jews who became Israelis and remembered their mother’s advice and sacrifices.

We were shown around the exhibition by Chava Appel who is the Manager of the Netanya Museum. At present this is a one story small building, restored from what had been the first city hall of Netanya. This includes the office of the first Mayor, Oved Ben Ami, who was the visionary who in the 1920’s found the site of what is now Netanya when it was completely barren, saw the potential and collected money to build a resort city here. Needless to say he was successful, Netanya now has a population approaching 200,000. In about 2 years a new larger building will be renovated to constitute the enlarged Netanya City Museum with a permanent exhibition. Part of this will memorialize the role Libyan Jewry played in its development.

To update the current situation in Libya, during the uprising against Qaddafi one of the leaders of the revolution invited Libyan Jews to return to Libya. One former Libyan Jew, David Gerbi, took him up on the invitation and went to try to restore a ruined synagogue in Tripoli. He was surrounded by a menacing crowd, then arrested, beaten and expelled. The National Transitional Council issued a statement saying that Gerbi did not have permission to restore the synagogue. Last week a Jewish businessman, Raphael Luzon, went to Tripoli to see if he could arrange a deal. He was also arrested, held for 4 days and then expelled. The message is clear, that post-revoutionary Libya cannot tolerate even a single Jew.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.