On the 51st anniversary of the demise of the Jewish community in Libya, David Harris in the Algemeiner pays tribute to the Italian ambassador in 1967, who saved many lives (with thanks: Imre, Edward):
The new atmosphere of fear and insecurity, coupled with the powerful attraction of the rebirth of Israel for this deeply religious community, led to the emigration of all but 6,000 Jews by 1951, the year Libya gained independence.
Notwithstanding constitutional guarantees provided by the new Libyan nation, restrictions on Jews were gradually imposed. By 1961, Jews could not vote, hold public office, serve in the army, get passports, purchase new property, acquire majority ownership in any new business, or supervise their own communal affairs. Yet some Jews remained, umbilically linked to their ancestral land and hoping against hope, despite all the evidence to the contrary, for positive change.
Then, in June 1967, war broke out in the Middle East. Inspired by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab appeals, Libyans took to the streets and attacked the remaining Jewish community.
Classroom in a Benghazi synagogue before WWII
By the time calm was restored, 18 Jews in Tripoli, the country’s capital, were dead. The toll might have been even higher had it not been for the courage of Cesare Pasquinelli, Italy’s ambassador to Libya. He ordered all Italian diplomatic missions in the country to extend their protection to the Jews. A very few Muslims helped as well, including one who, at personal risk, hid the teenager who was to become my wife, along with her parents and seven siblings, for two weeks until they were able to leave the country. Tellingly, however, this righteous Libyan refused any public recognition, lest his life be put in danger for saving Jews.
Within a matter of weeks, all the remaining Jews of Libya fled abroad, urged to do so “temporarily” by the government. Each was permitted one suitcase and the equivalent of 50 dollars. Most headed for Israel; 2,000 went to Italy. In many respects, the tragic fate of Libya’s Jews was no different from that of hundreds of thousands of Jews in other Arab countries.
To no one’s surprise, this temporary exodus became permanent. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969 and the following year announced a series of laws to confiscate the assets of Libya’s Jews, issuing bonds providing for “fair compensation” within 15 years. But 1985 came and went with no compensation paid.
And so, with only a few scattered international protests, scant press attention, and deafening silence from the United Nations, another once-thriving Jewish community in the Arab world came to an end — and the once-rich tapestry of the region’s diversity took yet another irretrievable hit.