Tripoli of gold

The 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Judea & Samaria, and the Sinai Peninsula has been celebrated with great fanfare in recent weeks. On a much smaller scale, the 50th anniversary of the Jewish exodus from Libya was commemorated this week at the Diaspora Museum at a gathering of some 200 ex-Libyan Jews who came to mark their miracle of 1967. The Six-Day War had a dramatic influence on the Jewish communities in the Arab world.

Amos Guetta, who was one of the organizers and is also a relative of mine, showed me a list of 100 people who had to be turned away due to lack of space in the hall. “We had no idea how many people feel that this story has not yet been told who wanted to come and hear and be heard.”

The following is just part of the larger story about the Libyan community: the Libyan regime had been hostile to the Jewish community even before the war broke out. They tried to prevent the Jews from holding any educational, cultural or even sporting events. It was forbidden to receive mail from Israel, and travelling there was a criminal offense. Many other laws were enacted which curbed the freedom of the community, anti-Jewish speeches were delivered at the mosques and appeared in the media. When the war broke out in June 1967, the government declared a “Week of Solidarity” with the Palestinians then a pogrom ensued. Eighteen Jews were murdered, shops and businesses were attacked, and the authorities stood by and did not intervene. The community’s leaders went into hiding, convinced that their end was near.

Guetta was one of the speakers: “Until 1967, Jews and Arabs still lived together, but in one fell swoop, the situation suddenly became dangerous. My mother Toni was physically attacked in broad daylight, our shops and cars were set on fire. Everyone was terrified and went into hiding. Families did not know where each of their children were because the lines of communication were cut off. My mother sent a child into hiding, today he is present at this meeting. I remember seeing my parents looking on in tears as the Jewish Quarter went up in flames. We were in hiding for a whole month and then we received a surprising message: the government was permitting the Jews to leave for Italy. We were in disbelief, we left our homes, our property and everything we owned and fled. There was not enough room on the flight so the cabin crew said we should stand up as there was no other choice. From the air, we looked down on our beloved Tripoli and couldn’t believe we were leaving. The last Jews left Libya — forever. When we landed in Rome, the pilot announced: “You are free now, you no longer need to be frightened.”

Many thousands made aliyah, others remained in Italy, but in those first few days in Rome, the first thing we did was to be reunited. In Israel, the paratroopers were weeping in joy at the Western Wall, and in Rome family members who hadn’t seen each other for years were weeping in joy of reunification. Some people met with relatives they didn’t even know existed. “During the first days of our freedom, we became aware that the Arabic radio station in Libya had been lying and that Israel was victorious. Then we began talking freely about everything. The parents of one of my 12-year-old friends revealed to him for the first time that he had two older sisters living in Israel. They had been too frightened to tell him while they were still in Libya, because had he spoken about it in public, they would have all been murdered. Hidden in a cupboard in our home in Tripoli was a picture of two cousins living in Israel. We would often sneak a peek at the picture, but now we would be able to meet them in person. As soon as we arrived in Rome, we set up a synagogue and called it “The First Tripolitan Zionist Synagogue in Rome.” The sign is still standing today. It is a funny name, like “The First Yemenite Synagogue on the Moon,” but for us it meant a lot. It was the first time we could freely use the word “Zionist.”

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The population of Israel is just eight million people. There are 14.5 million Jews in the world, out of a total population of 7.5 billion people. Israel’s area is approximately 20,000 km2 out of Earth’s total land mass of 510,000,000 km2. So why are we always in the news? What is the source of the world’s obsession with Israel and the Jews? I propose two answers — one new and the other one, old.

Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations singled out the obsession and unfairness during her maiden speech at the UN. “So many events take place around the world, and we are only discussing Israel! This is a double-standard. The Security Council is supposed to discuss how to maintain international peace and security. But at our meeting on the Middle East, the discussion was not about Hezbollah’s illegal build-up of rockets in Lebanon. It was not about the money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists. It was not about how we defeat ISIS. It was not about how we hold Bashar al-Assad accountable for the slaughter of hundreds and thousands of civilians. No, instead, the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East. This prejudice approach bears no relationship to reality.”

Obviously, her analysis is excellent. Haley is just as good as Danny Danon at brandishing figures — 70 anti-Israel resolutions as opposed to seven anti-Iran resolutions. Yet, what is the deeper reason for this? Why does our very existence as Jews bother so many people and why does our living here in Israel drive them really crazy?

In Europe in 1935, Rabbi Yeruham Levovitz taught his students a class about the weekly parasha, Shlach Lecha which tells of the Sin of the Spies and our deep-seated connection to the Land of Israel. What he said then, could have been written today after watching the news on the BBC or CNN.

“The news is all about what is happening in the Land of Israel. Only a fool could say that these are simple or incidental things. Today there is but one politics in the entire world. Every event, even if it occurs at the other end of the world, because an issue that affects the entire world. And how do all these global issues become connected with question of the Jews? It is unbelievable that there is hardly any place or hardly one in the entire world who doesn’t speak about Israel and the Jews. The entire world discusses the question of the Land of Israel, as if it is the only problem that exists. This is truly a sign from Heaven! What is it trying to teach us? What is the reason for all this awakened interest in the Land of Israel? I do not want to become involved and give an answer because I have no real understanding about this, but one thing is clear: it is no simple matter.”

Even if we ourselves do not understand the secret, we do understand that there is definitely a secret involved here.

About the Author
Sivan Rahav Meir is a media personality and lecturer. A Jerusalem resident, she is the World Mizrachi’s scholar-in-residence. Her lectures on the weekly Torah portion are attended by hundreds and the live broadcast attracts thousands of listeners around the world. Sivan lectures in Israel and overseas about the media, Judaism, Zionism and new media. She was voted by Globes newspaper as most popular female media personality in Israel and by the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.