The Libyan “Not Worthy Zone”—Recalling Qadaffi’s “Offer” to “Arab Jews”

Albert Memmi

The unaddressed questions (from November, 1973) of Albert Memmi still address the unworthiness of Libya


The most predictable outcome of Libya’s violent internecine struggle-cum-latest-Arab- “democracy movement” was aptly characterized by Andrew McCarthy: “The Libyan people are no more our ally than Qaddafi.”

McCarthy expanded upon these views with refreshingly singular honesty:

[I]t had been the swift military rout of Saddam Hussein that induced Qaddafi to renounce (or claim to renounce) his ambition to develop weapons of mass destruction in late 2003. But once the hard-power promise of the Bush Doctrine gave way to the belief that thugs could be democratized into submission, the wily old terrorist found a system he could game. And game it he did. I didn’t buy the remaking of Qaddafi then, and I don’t buy the remaking of Libya now. That puts me among a breed that, if news accounts are to be believed, is increasingly rare: I don’t care about the Libyan people — I’m sorry, I mean the “brave Libyan freedom fighters.”

Beleaguered, bizarre, and brutal Libyan dictator Muammar Qadaffi defiantly insisted during a delusional Monday 2/28/11 interview with ABC, BBC, and The Times of London that he remains beloved by his people.

They all love me, all my people [are] with me. They will die to protect me.

The bloody despot Qaddafi’s most recent counterfactual pronouncement echoes in its wicked lunacy his November 1973 statements about another “beloved” audience of his—so-called “Arab Jews”—inviting them to return to their former Libyan and other Middle Eastern Islamic homelands.  Moreover, the seething Jew-hatred now openly expressed by the protesting “brave Libyan freedom fighters”— directed in the absence of the liquidated Jewish community of Libya at Qadaffi himself—justifies, or certainly it should, McCarthy’s lack of concern for the anti-Qaddafi Libyans.

Before describing Qadaffi’s November 1973 “proposal”—highlighted by a surreal “press conference”—an historical overview of the plight of Libyan Jewry under Islam is in order.

Mordechai Hakohen (1856-1929) was a Libyan Talmudic scholar and auto-didact anthropologist who composed an ethnographic study of North African Jewry in the early 20th century. Hakohen summarizes the overall impact on the Jews of the Muslim jihad conquest and rule of North Africa, including Libya, as follows:

They [also] pressed the Jews to enter the covenant of the Muslim religion. Many Jews bravely chose death. Some of them accepted under the threat of force, but only outwardly…Others left the region, abandoning their wealth and property and scattering to the ends of the earth. Many stood by their faith, but bore an iron yoke on their necks. They lowered themselves to the dust before the Muslims, lords of the land, and accepted a life of woe—carrying no weapons, never mounting an animal in the presence of a Muslim, not wearing a red headdress, and following other laws that signaled their degradation.

Hakohen’s study (pp.74,76) includes this mid-19th century description of the Jews fate as Berber Muslim chattel slaves in the Atlas Mountains of Libya:

The Berber [Muslim] Lord passed his Hebrew slave down to his children as an inheritance. If the Berber lord had many sons, each inherited a share in the slave. Each could also sell his share in the slave…if the Hebrew slave met his obligation in giving homage to his lord and was able to acquire money, he could redeem himself by paying a sum agreeable to both parties. With this deed he could acquire a deed of manumission for that portion of the rights held by the seller.…[T]o this very day [1865]..there is no Israelite family without an Ishmaelite master to whom the Israelite must make a token payment every year. The Ishmaelite may sell him to another, and this arrangement persisted until only six or seven years ago.

Nahum Slouzschz (1871-1966), a scholar, writer, archeologist, historian and translator, travelled amongst the Jews of North Africa from 1905 to 1916, including a trek through the remote Atlas mountain region, collecting information on their lives and customs. Below are excerpts from two of Slouzschz’s accounts regarding Libyan Jews published in 1906 (p. 660) and 1908 (pp. 660-61).

Jews, Berbers, and Arabs (Libya, 1906)

Until the middle of the last century, the Jews were treated as the serfs of the Berber lords. While abolishing this humiliating institution, Turkey has not yet had the time of curb the moral vexations that the Muslims inflict on their Jewish neighbors. One example out of a hundred: the rabbi of the region [Djebel Nefussi], having journeyed to Nalut, was attacked by local inhabitants who ordered him to get down from his mule, since a Jew may not straddle a mount in the presence of Muslims. Should he dare to complain, he would run the risk of seeing his family massacred by the Arabs.

The most venerated places of worship, the most ancient cemeteries are desecrated by the Muslims and as for agriculture, their Arab neighbors have no qualms in seizing the products of the Jews’ harvest. In spite of the goodwill of the ruling authorities [the Turks], these matters often escape their control.

For example, it is known in Tripoli that the Jewish inhabitants of a village called Al Qsar, who possess about fifty acres of arable land and several hundred olive trees, were forced last year to pay 1,600 francs for their tithe and, moreover, that many a Jew, after having been molested by the local inhabitants, would not dare to lodge a complaint for justice with the authorities?

Expropriation in Tripolitania (Libya, 1908)

Yehud Beni-Abbes is on the very margin of the desert which lies between the oasis and Tripoli; the village comprises two hundred and forty inhabitants, who take up six underground courts. At one time the Jews were very numerous in this country, holding most of the land and defending it successfully against all invaders. We were shown the fertile ravine, which ends in a well-watered valley and which commands the approach of the region towards Tripoli. Here, on the slopes, we found grottoes and traces of mines of an ancient civilization.

We were led across spaced-out fields, and were told that all of this splendid country belonged at one time to the Jews. But towards 1840 the plague ravaged the Jewish population; the only survivors were four families of Beni-Abbes, while many of the neighboring villages were completely wiped out.

The Ulad Beni-Abbes Arabs took advantage of the unhappy plight of the Jews to deprive them of their lands; the rightful owners kept on struggling against the invaders, but to no purpose; besides this, the Arabs, with the meanness characteristic of the servile fellah, took possession of the cemetery, the resting place of a whole line of ancestors, and ploughed it up. They could not have conceived a more malignant act, nor one which would have wounded so deeply the “infidels,” who now, with tears in their eyes, led us across this field which contained the desecrated remains of their ancestors and their rabbis.

The Arabs, however, had not dared to dispossess the last native Jews entirely; they managed, instead, to force them into a collective ownership of the whole village, so that the Jews, having no distinctive property of their own, are yet forced to till fields and cultivate fruit trees belonging exclusively to the Mussulmans, and at a distance from their homes.  The outcome is that the Jewish farmer must look on, without daring to protest, while his Arab neighbour appropriates the first-fruits of his olive-groves and the best produce of his own plot of land, which is swallowed up in the vast Arab fields.

Even this did not satisfy the oppressors. There is in the village an ancient synagogue, a sanctuary held in deep veneration. It is situated in a hollow surrounded by an open court, and its roof is colored like the soil in order to conceal it from view. This spot affords them the only moral gratification they have; it is the one meeting place where they can offer up their prayers or pour out the plaints of the Piyyutim [liturgical compositions], which mourn the sorrows and proclaim the hopes of Israel.

The fanatic Mussulmans, jealous of this sanctuary, planned, after the desecration of the cemetery, the ruin of the synagogue, on the pretext that the neighboring mosque would, according to Mohammedan law, be profaned by its proximity.

Fortunately, there were judges in Tripoli and money in the hands of the Jews. By a happy chance the Jews have in their possession a document which proves that the synagogue was in existence on its present site five hundred years before the foundations of the mosque were laid, that is to say, seven or eight centuries ago. The administration, basing its decision on the right of priority, was able to rescue the synagogue, to the unbounded joy of the Jews. Looking through the Geniza of this sanctuary we found, among other things a tablet dating from 5359-that is, 348 -years-old. Surely these Jews, swallowed up in the Sahara, have deserved a better fate.

The World War II era, and the two decades following it witnessed a rapid dissolution of the major Jewish communities in the Arab Muslim world—pogroms, expropriations, and expulsions resulting in the exile of some 900,000 Jews (pp.150-64; 663-77). As historian Norman Stillman has observed, even the first decade after World War II saw (p.155),

…the overall Jewish population in the Arab countries…reduced by half through emigration. In several countries the decline was far greater. By the end of 1953, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya had lost over 90 percent of their Jews, and Syria 75 percent. Most of the Jews who remained in the Arab world were in the French-ruled Maghreb. It was not long, however, before the three countries of that region achieved their independence. Within little more than two decades after the end of World War II, most of the North African Jews were gone as well.

Recurrent anti-Zionist/Antisemitic incitement from 1943 to 1945 culminated in a series of anti-Jewish riots during November of 1945 (p.157).

One day after rioting in Egypt subsided, much more extensive and devastating anti-Jewish violence erupted in Libya. A minor altercation between Arabs and Jews near the electric power station outside the Jewish quarter of Tripoli was followed the next day (November 5th) by an anti-Jewish pogrom (p. 158):

…mobs numbering in the thousands poured into the Jewish quarter and the Suq al-Turk (the bazaar where many Jewish shops were located) and went on a rampage of looting, beating, and killing. According to one confidential report, weapons were distributed to the rioters at certain command centers, one of which was the shop of Ahmad Krawi, a leading Arab merchant…only Jews and Jewish property were attacked. The rioters had no difficulty in distinguishing Jewish homes and businesses because prior to the attack, doors had been marked with chalk in Arabic indicating “Jew,” “Italian,” or “Arab.” Mob passions reached a fever picth when a rumor spread that the Chief Qadi of Tripoli had been murdered by Jews and the Shari’a Court burned. The terror then spread to the nearby towns of Amrus, Tagiura, Zawia, Zanzur, and Qusabat.

Zachino Habib, Tripoli’s Jewish community president, provided this eyewitness account of what transpired in Tripoli, Zanzur, Zawia, Qusabat, and Zitlin on November 4-5, 1945 (p. 158):

…the Arabs attacked the Jews in obedience to mysterious orders. Their outbursts of violence had no plausible motive. For fifty hours they hunted men down, attacked houses and shops, killed men, women, old and young, horribly tortured and dismembered Jews isolated in the interior…In order to carry out the slaughter, the attackers used various weapons: knives, daggers, sticks, clubs, iron bars, revolvers, and even hand grenades

Stillman assessed the toll of the pogrom in lives and property, as well as its psychosocial impact (p. 158):

When the pogroms—for that is what the riots essentially were—were over, 130 Jews were dead, including thirty-six children. Some entire families were wiped out. Hundreds were injured, and approximately 4,000 people were left homeless. An additional 4,200 were reduced to poverty. There were many instances of rape, especially in the provincial town of Qusabat, where many individuals embraced Islam to save themselves. Nine synagogues—five in Tripoli, four in the provincial towns—had been desecrated and destroyed. More than 1,000 residential buildings and businesses had been plundered in Tripoli alone. Damage claims totaled more than one quarter of a billion lire (over half a million pounds sterling). The Tripolitanian pogroms dealt, in the words one one observer [Haim Abravanel, director of Alliance schools in Tripoli], “an unprecedented blow…to the Jews sense of security.” Many leading Arab notables condemned the atrocities, but as the British Military Administration’s Annual Report for 1945 noted, “no general, deep-felt sense of guilt seems to animate the Arab community at large; nor has it been too active in offering help to the victims.”

The ongoing isolation and alienation of Jews from the larger Arab Muslim societies in which they lived accelerated considerably after the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948, and the immediate war on the nascent Jewish state declared and waged by members of the Arab League. A rapid annihilation of Israel and its Jewish population was predicted and savored by Arab leaders such as Azzam Pasha, the secretary of the Arab League, who declared (p. 159):

[T]his will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the crusades

Such widely held expectations may have subdued violent mob reactions of the Arab masses against Middle Eastern and North African Jews at the outset of the war. However, once the Arab offensive in Palestine experienced setbacks, several weeks after the war began, anti-Jewish violence erupted in Morocco and Libya (p.160).

The first such incidents took place on June 7 and 8 in the northeastern Moroccan towns of Oujda and Jerada. Forty-two Jews were killed  and approximately 150 injured, many of them seriously. Scores of homes and shops were sacked.

On June 12, the day after the first truce was declared between the Israeli and Arab forces in Palestine, mobs attacked the Jewish Quarter in Tripoli, Libya. (Thousands of Moroccan and Tunisian volunteers had been streaming through the city on their way east to join the Aranb armies fighting in Palestine.) However, Jewish self-defense units, which had been organized here as in other cities that had suffered pogroms in recent years, repelled the attackers with stones, handguns, grenades, and Molotov cocktails, inflicting heavy casualties. The rioters then turned upon undefended neighborhoods outside Hara. Only thirteen or fourteen Jews were killed and twenty-tow seriously injured, but property damage was very high. Approximately 300 families were left destitute. There were also attacks against the Jews in the surrounding countryside and in Benghazi.

Giulia Boukhobza chronicled the final destruction of the remnant Libyan Jewish community, breaking her silence 36-years (July 1, 2003) after surviving the 1967 pogrom in Tripoli (p. 677):

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.

Albert Memmi, a writer and philosopher born in Tunis in 1920, and an expatriate “Arab Jew,” provided an eloquent analysis of Qadaffi’s November, 1973 statements, below—made just 6-years after the 1967 Tripolitan pogrom described by Giulia Boukhobza—beckoning “Arab Jews” to return to the Islamic Middle East.

Go back home. Return to your native country. Are you not like ourselves? Arab Jews?

Memmi was invited to attend a “discussion” with Qaddafi on Saturday. November 24, 1973 organized by four major European newspapers—Le Monde, The Times of London, La Stampa, and Die Welt. Not surprisingly, Memmi recounts,

As the time set aside for each participant in the meeting with Colonel Kadhafi was limited, I was not able to deliver these questions in full. The next day, however, several newspapers printed various extracts from them.

Memmi’s  most piercing questions (reproduced below) were of course never addressed by Qadaffi. These queries remain equally relevant four decades later, not only for Qaddafi and his regime, but also his potential successors, the anti-Qaddafi Libyan “democrats,” and their champions—delusive US policymaking elites, and talking heads.

Is it true that you have said that once the European Jews were sent back to Europe, only the Jews born in the Arab countries could continue to live there?

Do you seriously believe that the German or Polish Jews, at least the few survivors, could go back and live in the places where their parents, wives, husbands, and children were burned in the oven?

In that case, what would you do with the children of those Western Jews, children born in Israel and who now [circa 1973] make up 25 percent of the population?

Do you believe that the Jews born in Arab countries can go back and live in the countries from which they were plundered and massacred, before being expelled? Particularly since you want Islam to be fully reinstated, even, I am told, to the extent of cutting off thieves’ right hands and sending the women back to the harem or to the promiscuity of polygamy. That is your business, of course. But do you think that someone who is not Muslim can go back and live under such laws, even supposing the Muslims were willing to let him?

Is it true that you have said that the Jews have always lived at peace in the Arab countries? And that you have nothing against Jews, only Zionists?

Can it be that you seriously believe in the myth, deliberately invented for the sake of reassuring Westerners, that the Jews lived idyllic lives in the Arab countries?

The ongoing brutality of the Qadaffi regime is pathognomonic of the region’s millennial continuum of Islamic despotism. Qadaffi’s “democratic opposition”—even in the absence of Jews—still expresses the Libyan Muslim masses equally oppressive legacy of Jew-hatred directed at its last now extinct indigenous pre-Islamic minority, which suffered throughout more than a thousand years of Islamic rule, culminating in a final wave of violent pogroms from 1945-1967, which liquidated the Jewish community of Libya.

With this history in mind, perhaps the most fitting US policy towards Libya is not a “No Fly Zone,” but a Not Worthy Zone”.

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