There will be no Passover Seder in Libya tonight.
This is so because, in Libya, there are no longer any Jews.
The history of the Jewish people in Libya dates back to the 3rd century BCE. In 1911 under Italian rule, Jews were treated relatively well. Approximately 21,000 Jews were living in Libya, with the majority residing in Tripoli. However, in the 1930’s the Fascist Italian regime initiated anti-Semitic laws which barred Jews from government jobs, government schools and required them to stamp “Jewish race” into their passports. However, this was not enough to deter Jews from Libya, as 25% of the population in Tripoli was Jewish with over 44 synagogues in existence.
In 1942, the Jewish Quarter of Benghazi was occupied by the Nazi’s and more than 2,000 Jews were deported and sent to Nazi labor camps. By the end of WWII, about one-fifth of those who were sent away had perished. Even with the end of WWII, the situation for the Jews in Libya did not improve. In 1945, more than 140 Jews were killed and even more injured in a pogrom in Tripoli. The rioters not only destroyed and looted the city’s synagogues, but they also ruined hundreds of homes and businesses as well. Again in 1948, coinciding with the declaration of the State of Israel, anti-Semitism escalated and rioters killed 12 Jews and destroyed 280 homes. This time, though, the Jews fought back and prevented even more deaths and injury. As a result of the rampant anti-Semitism, 30,972 Jews immigrated to Israel.
A new law in 1961 required a special permit to prove Libyan citizenship. Virtually all Jews were denied this permit. By 1967 the Jewish population decreased to 7,000. When anti-Semitic riots commenced following Israel’s Six Day War, King Idris and other Jewish leaders urged Jews living in Libya to emigrate. An Italian airlift saved 6,000 Jews and relocated them to Rome. Evacuees were forced to leave behind homes, businesses and possessions. When Muammar al-Gaddafi came to power in 1969, there were only 100 Jews remaining in Libya. His government confiscated all Jewish property, cancelled Jewish debt and made emigration for Jews legally prohibited. Some Jews still managed to get out. By 2004 there were no Jews left in Libya.
I cite this to add a bit of context to recent news of a French philosopher being barred from Libya because he is a Jew.
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who supported France’s military intervention in Libya, was barred from visiting there because he is Jewish.
Levy, a celebrity in France, was supposed to join former French president Nicolas Sarkozy on a visit that began on Tuesday in Tripoli.
The [Libyan] website reported that Levy had to stay behind at the insistence of municipal bosses in Tripoli. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one city official told Rue89, “We did not invite him and we’ll close the door in his face if he comes. If the prime minister invited him, he can stay with the prime minister.”
An unnamed spokesperson for the city of Tripoli was quoted as telling Rue89 that the fact that Levy is Jewish could have exposed the municipality to attacks by Islamist militia.
Levy was a vocal supporter for French military intervention in Libya against Muammar Gadhafi and in favor of the rebel forces whose revolution led to the rise to power of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.
Those knowledgeable about the ethnic cleansing of roughly 850,000 Jews from Arab lands in the later half of the 20th century would not be at all surprised by Levy’s story, nor that that the cultural legacy of Arab antipathy still endures – antisemitism, remarkably, even without Jews.
In lamenting the experience of even only one Jew, however, I’m reminded of the Passover tradition in which we are commanded to feel as if each one of us were enslaved, and each one of us personally liberated from Egypt.
Ze’ev Maghen has eloquently written that being a Jew means having had ‘existed, built, climbed, fallen, lost, wept, rejoiced, created, learned, argued, loved and struggled for thousands of years’. Jewish tradition, he passionately insists, can inspire you to “suck in the insights and bask in the glory and writhe in the pain and draw on the power emanating from every era and every episode and every experience” of your people.
Though only one man named Levy was excluded because he was a Jew, our tradition informs a sensibility which imagines that we are the Jew who is feared as one Jew too many.