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From the Blog
Libyan Jews: the forgotten refugees
On the morning of June 5, 1965, Massoud Nahum, his brother Armando and their parents felt a nauseating feeling in the pit of their stomachs. A friend had just told them a bit of news that would alter the course of their lives forever: a war had just broken out between Israel and Arab countries. The Six Day War started on that fateful morning when Nahum, a Libyan Jew, was only 11 years old. Born and raised in Tripoli, he did not know any other home but Libya. Now, with angry mobs outside yelling anti-Jewish slogans, Nahum and his family -- for the first time in their lives -- felt they were strangers, even enemies, that were all but certain to meet their doom. âWe thought it was the end,â Nahum recalled, adding, âWe were expecting the house to be attacked at any minute.â
Gina Bublil, who was only 19 at the time, experienced a similar feeling. At the time, she was still at work when the explosive news broke out. Her mother told her not to come home, as a mob had gathered outside their home, shouting, âDeath to the Jews.â The painful memory of the events was etched on Bublilâs mind as if it had happened yesterday. She spoke with emotions filled with passion and pain at the same time. âI was very scared. I had to hide in the home of a British guy I used to work with,â she said. âI hid there for three weeks.â Bublil experienced discrimination as a child when she was only six. She remembered vividly something that would stay seared in her memory forever. âWhen I was six, I went to a madrassa,â she recalled. The first grade teacher said, âIf you have ten Jews and you kill five, how many do you have left?â
The story of Libyan Jews, like many of North African Jews known as âSephardi,â is one filled with tragedy and sorrow. Many Libyan Jews believe that their history goes back to the third century B.C. They argue they were in Libya even before the coming of Arabs in the 7th century. Arab historians are more of the opinion that all Sephardim Jews migrated to North Africa closer to the 15th century, after they were expelled from Spain. Whichever is the correct estimation, it does not diminish the fact that Jews in Arab countries were victimized by the blowback of the Arab-Israeli conflict that started early in the 20th century, when illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine from Europe stirred tensions between the two communities who had lived in relative peace up to that point.
According to Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to the preservation of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture and history, this blowback manifested itself in the form of discrimination, pogroms, confiscation of Jewish property and finally expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived for centuries in Arab countries. JIMENA estimates that over 38,000 Libyan Jews were expelled between 1945 and 1967.
When Israel was established in 1948, JIMENA estimated that 280 Jewish homes were destroyed in Tripoli and 12 Jews killed. As a result of the hostilities, 30,972 Libyan Jews immigrated to the Jewish state. But many Libyan Muslims claim that most Libyan Jews left Libya in 1948 by their own will. Abdussalam Aburwein, a diehard supporter of the Libyan Revolution and an American citizen, said, âThousands of Jews left Libya to go to Israel. No one forced them out, they left on their own to go to Israel.â Aburwein claimed that although there was some anti-Jewish hostility at the time, it was understandable given the dispossession of Palestinians at the hands of Zionists in Palestine. To that, Bublil exclaimed, âBut I was not a Zionist! I had nothing to do with what happened to the Palestinians!â
Many critics of the expulsion, especially Palestinians, fail to see the logic in the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries, because those among them who immigrated to Palestine did so illegally and ended up taking Palestinian land and homes. Critics say Arab leaders at the time did not practice much common sense. It is estimated that at least 66 percent of Jews in Arab countries immigrated to Israel.
As the war raged on in the Middle East, the specter of death was looming over the Nahum household in Tripoli. Nahum the elder then summoned a family friend named Mahmoud and asked for help. The man was the nephew of King Idris, Libyaâs monarch at the time. But can friends be trusted in a time of a conflict like this?
âWe feared he might turn us in,â recalled Nahum. âBut he was honorable and helped us,â he added. A sliver of humanity in the middle of human folly has always peppered cruel times when man brought death and destruction upon his fellow man. In this case, it meant saving a few lives. âWe were allowed to take one suitcase per person and about one hundred pounds Sterling,â said Nahum. âOur villa was left behind. All the money in the banks was left behind. The many properties were left behind,â he added. The Nahum family, he claimed, was the wealthiest family in Libya, and the largest landowners at the time. On a Libya discussion forum on Facebook, Nahum never misses a chance to affirm his Libyan roots, and his love of his homeland. âAsk your grandparents,â he tells his critics. âThere was a saying for when someone would show up in a new fancy car or clothes, people would say, âWho do you think you are, the son of Nahum?â" He then adds, âI am the son of Nahum.â
Bublilâs family was also very wealthy, and on the morning of June 10, the day Gamal Abdel Nasser resigned his presidency of Egypt (as Bublil clearly recalls), that wealth was going to have to be left behind. âMy father was very wealthy, all his wealth was confiscated,â Bublil said.
âKing Idris came out with a decree to expel Jews and confiscate their property and freeze their bank accounts,â she added.
But according to Aburwein, Jews were never expelled. âLibyan Jews were scared after the 1967 War and asked the king (Idris) to get them out of Libya,â he said. Nahum scoffed at the claim. âIs that what you call it when you are persecuted, hunted down and killed? Would you use the same terminology for a fellow Muslim?â
âWe pledge solidarity with Palestinians,â Aburwein said. âWe cannot see our brothers and sisters have their land taken away from them and not do something,â he added. âIt's a measure of putting pressure on the Israelis,â Aburwein claimed, âso that justice is done to the Palestinians.â
Both Nahum and Bublil point to guilt by association. âDo you remember the nationalities of the 19 hijackers responsible for 9/11?â Bublil asked. âImagine if the United States were to expel every Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Saudi because of the hijackersâ national or religious background.â Nahum gave a similar analogy, and then added, âLibyan Jews had nothing to do with the dispossession of the Palestinians. Why were we punished?â
That sentiment is echoed by none other than a Palestinian whose family was driven out of historic Palestine in 1948. âI don't think it was just or correct to expel the Jews from any [Arab] country since guilt by association is not valid in Islamic or international law,â said Dr. Hatem Bazian, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley. âThis made it possible for Israel to use this as yet another reason to justify its dispossession of the Palestinians,â he added.
Police officers came to Bublilâs home, asked for travel documents, and then gave them special exit visas. Bublil, her parents, grandparents, and brother were allowed to take the equivalent of $20 dollars each, were boarded in the back of a truck at 5:00 a.m., and then driven to the airport. âWe were completely relieved that we were safe,â said Bublil. âOn the other hand, there was anguish. We didnât have anything.â
The Nahum family was also able to catch a flight out of Tripoli and land in Rome. The one hundred pounds Sterling they had in their pocket was spent on their hotel the very first night. âWe lived in an old WWII camp in a town called Capua outside of Naples,â said Nahum.â We stood in line for food like prisoners, the bathrooms had no doors and rats freely moved within the old barracks,â the son of the wealthiest Libyan Jewish family recalled bitterly. Those were days that would never be forgotten.
Right of return
Today, Nahum goes by the first name âLucky,â and is a successful fashion designer in New York. However, his heart is in Libya. He never forgot Libya, and after the success of the revolution, Nahum feels entitled to go back like any other Libyan. âI have longed to return at least for a visit before the end of my life. Not a day went by when I didn't think of my homeland, intently following the news for a hint that I might possibly be able to return,â he said. âMy father died three years ago before his dream could come true. I am now 56 and continue to wish for a return, this time though I would have to bring my father in spirit as time for him ran out,â he added.
Bublil is of a different opinion. She believes Jews would never be treated fairly in Libya, and unless discriminatory laws were rescinded, she does not see herself ever going back. âIntolerance has not changed. Jews wonât go back. Anti-Semitism is more rampant now (in Arab countries) that before,â she said.
Aburwein believes otherwise. According to him, 99 percent of Libyans do not want Jews back. âThe unspoken stance Libyans have as a solidarity with Palestinians is (sic) . . . unless Israel resolves the issue of Palestine to the satisfaction of the Palestinians, there will be no home for Jews in Libya." Dr. Bazian disagrees. âI would support it on the principle that a person should not be kept away from his or her homeland if they have not committed anything to harm the country of their origin and are ready to uphold and defend it from enemies internal and external, which would include Israel in this case,â he said.
Abdulraouf Breish, a Libyan living in Tripoli, has mixed feelings about the subject. âThe last thing I care about is Jews returning to Libya,â he said. âI personallyÂ think if they return, it's going to cause a conflict between Muslims and Jews and I believe Libya is already going through a very rough road, so we don't really need to make it any rougher with the Jews coming back.â He paused, then added, âMaybe later after everything is stabilized and everything is fine with them returning, I'll be ok with that.â
Nothing would please Nahum better than to return to his homeland. He laments the amount of ignorance among his fellow Libyans about the history of Libyan Jews. âI didn't expect the amount of damage the 42 years of brainwashing under Gaddafi had done,â he said. âThe inadequate education he gave them is staggering. When Libyans don't even know their own history, that Libyan Jews had been there for millenniums, itâs a tragedy,â he added.