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Justice for Libya's Unmentionables

by Giulia Boukhobza Tuesday, Jul. 01, 2003 at 10:50 PM

By 1961, Libyan Jews could not vote, hold public office, obtain passports, buy new property, or supervise our own communal affairs. At best we were second-class residents (I can't even say citizens) although Libya was our birthplace and centuries-old home.

Justice for Jews from Arab nations

Giulia Boukhobza, the International Herald Tribune, July 1, 2003

NEW YORK This is the first time I have ever written about my experience as a Jew from Libya. It's not easy for me. The memories are still painful. Jews had a continual presence in Libya for over two thousand years, predating the Arab conquest and occupation by centuries. My own family had lived on Libyan soil for hundreds of years, if not longer.

I was born in Libya in 1951, the year of the country's independence. Most of the nearly 40,000 Jews left Libya between 1948 and 1951 because of a wave of anti-Jewish rioting, beginning in 1945, that left hundreds dead and injured and thousands homeless. My family, however, decided to stay and see if things would improve. After all, it was our home, it was our language, and it was the land of our ancestors. And the new Libyan constitution offered guarantees that gave us hope.

We were wrong. The hope was misplaced. The guarantees were absolutely worthless. By 1961, Jews could not vote, hold public office, obtain Libyan passports, buy new property, or supervise our own communal affairs. In other words, at best we were second-class residents - I can't even say citizens - though this was our birthplace and home.

Our fate was sealed six years later. In June 1967, the anti-Jewish atmosphere in the streets became terrifying, so much so that my family could not leave our house in Tripoli. My parents and I, along with my seven brothers and sisters, sat frightened at home for days. And then the mob came for us.

I can't even begin to describe the scene. It seemed there were a thousand men chanting “Death to the Jews.” Some had jars of gasoline which they began to empty on our house. They were about to strike a match. We were near hysteria. But then one man from the mob courageously spoke up. He said he knew us and we should be left alone. Amazingly, the mob complied and moved elsewhere.

Other Jews, however, were not as lucky. Some, including close friends of ours, were killed, and property damage was estimated in the millions of dollars. Our family went into hiding for several weeks before we were finally able to leave the country and reach Italy. We arrived with barely a suitcase each.

Today, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single Jew left in Libya, not one. An ancient community has come to a complete end.

My family had to start from scratch in Italy. We had nothing and no one. But we persevered. We knew that we weren't the world's first Jewish refugees, or the last, and that we would just have to make the best of a difficult situation. And that's exactly what we did. We did not wallow in self-pity. We did not seek to make ourselves wards of the international community. And we didn't plot revenge against Libya. We simply picked up the pieces of our lives and moved on.

The more I think about what befell us, though, the angrier I become. In effect, we were triple victims. First, we were uprooted and compelled to leave our home forever solely because we were Jews. Second, our plight was largely ignored by the international community, the UN and the media. Do a search and you'll be shocked at how little was written or said about this tragedy. And third, Libya erased any trace of our existence in the country. Even the Jewish cemeteries were destroyed and the headstones used in the building of roads.

In other words, first our homeland was taken away from us, then our history as well.

I can no longer be a Jew of silence, nor can I allow myself to become a forgotten Jew. It is time to reclaim my history. It is time to demand accountability for the massive human rights violations that occurred to us in Libya. That's why, after 36 years, I've chosen to speak out today.

The writer now lives in Westchester County in New York state.

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