American-Libyan Jews Seek Rights to Heritage

Expansive U.S.-Libyan Embargo Demands Jewish Artifacts

Libya. A photo taken in 1945 showing Holocaust survivors returning to Libya from Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen. Courtesy Yad Vashem.

Update July 27, 2017. CCP and AAMD Speak Out at CPAC Meeting – Reported by HAARETZ.

It is the longstanding policy of the Department of State that people do not have legitimate claims to their history or their art; only governments have claims to art and history.

A request to block all art and artifacts from Libya up to 1911 from entering the United States appears to be the next step in a movement to bar entry of all art from the Middle East to the US. The Libyan Request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) will limit access of all Libyan-Americans to their heritage, regardless of their religious or ethnic background, will prevent US museums from acquiring representative examples of Libya’s place in world art history, and is a slap in the face to Jewish citizens whose families were forced to leave Libya, abandoning all they had.

The Libyan request was discussed by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the Department of State on July 19-20, 2017. The pending request for a US embargo on imports and return of all Libyan materials up to 1911 includes the artifacts of Libyan Jews. The shameful history of the Libyan government’s treatment of Libya’s indigenous Jewish population should be well known. Many in the US public would find returning of objects related to the former Jewish communities to the government of Libya offensive, and wish to return them to Jewish communities, wherever they are now located, instead. There are no longer any Jews in Libya; the last elderly woman was evacuated to Italy in 2003.

Nonetheless, the State Department still insists that the U.S. must return – to the government of Iraq – the water-soaked Jewish family records rescued by U.S. soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s secret police archives and now touring the US. The Department of State still says that these records, which belonged to Iraq’s no-longer-existent Jewish community, will eventually be returned to the National Archives of the government of Iraq in Baghdad, despite pleas from members of Congress not to do so. A similar question in the case of Libya now faces the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.

The record of Jews in Libya may go back to King Solomon’s reign, based on evidence of a synagogue in the Barion region. More secure dating comes from inscriptions from Jewish communities in the Benghazi region dating to 146 BCE. Jewish communities coexisted with others in Libya in the Roman period. As in other parts of the Islamic world, Jews had greater freedom in North Africa than in Europe and wielded important economic power as traders until well into the 19th century.

Italy colonized Libya in 1911, and life for the Jewish communities remained relatively stable until passage of anti-Semitic laws starting in 1939. Concentration camps were set up in 1942 and thousands of Jews were rounded up and trucked to desert camps. Hundreds died as a result of illness, mistreatment, and starvation.

However, even after their sufferings in the Second World War, there were still 38,000 Jews in Libya in 1948. Repeated acts of anti-Jewish violence killed dozens of Jews and hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were burned in multiple incidents that year. Emigration to Israel was permitted in 1949 and several thousand Jews left Libya.

By 1961 only a quarter of the Libyan Jewish community remained. Laws were passed dissolving Jewish community organizations, requiring registration, and granting Libyan citizenship to only six out of some 10,000 Jewish residents. These moves prompted further emigration. Serious violence and anti-Jewish riots after the Six-Day War caused Jewish leaders to ask King Idris I for permission for all Jews to leave. More than 6,000 Jews were evacuated to Italy in one month, leaving most of their possessions behind.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969. In the earlier expulsions of Jews, most had been forced to leave all property behind. Gaddafi confiscated all Jewish property and cancelled all debts to Jews. (At a later date, when his regime was crumbling, Gaddafi reached out to Israel for help.)

Gaddafi made several conciliatory moves toward the expatriate Jewish community and to Israel in 2004, offering compensation for property left behind, but then said that no compensation would be made to Jews living in Israel, where many had moved. Compensation did not take place.

In 2011, a national insurgency (in part based on claims that Gaddafi himself was secretly Jewish) and foreign pressure resulted in the fall of Gaddafi’s government. Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil (Chairman of the National Transitional Council during a transitional period after the fall of Gaddafi’s government) invited World Organization of Libyan Jews leader David Gerbi to return to Tripoli. Gerbi unblocked the entrance to Tripoli’s Dar Bishi Synagogue, announcing the beginning of better relations. However, Gerbi’s work to repair the synagogue ended suddenly two days later when permission was revoked.

Thus, even the most recent attempts at integration, reconciliation or compensation for Jews by the government of Libya has been short-lived and marked by self-interest, not compassion or any desire for justice. This oppressive and abusive relationship is now reiterated, in a small and mean way, by the demand for Jewish artifacts as part of Libyan heritage in the Libyan request for a Memorandum of Understanding with the US.

Discover More