Exactly one year ago, a Libyan Jew named Raphael Luzon returned to his native land for the first time in 43 years. It wasn’t a simple family vacation: It was the anniversary of Libya’s Independence—Sept. 1, 1969—when a 27-year-old army officer named Muammar Qaddafi staged a bloodless coup against King Idris, who had ruled the country since its independence from Great Britain in 1951. Luzon, the leader of a Libyan Jewish exile organization based in the United Kingdom, was invited by Qaddafi himself.
For decades, the “Brother Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya had attempted to place himself at the forefront of resistance to the Jewish State, giving millions of dollars annually to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Black September terrorist group. In 2008, he claimed that the reason President Barack Obama had called for Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel was that he feared assassination by Israeli agents, “the same fate as Kennedy when he promised to look into Israel’s nuclear program.”
All of which is why Qaddafi’s invitation, delivered directly from the Libyan consul in London, took Luzon by surprise.
Luzon, who had fled Libya for Italy in 1967 at the age of 13, brought his 87-year-old mother and sister along for the trip. It was a bittersweet homecoming: Eight of Luzon’s family members were killed that year by a Libyan army officer in the midst of an anti-Jewish riot. In his native Benghazi, where initial protests against Qaddafi’s rule broke out this February, Luzon visited the house where he was born and the synagogue—one of 82 that existed back then—that he attended as a young boy. Walking through the souk in Tripoli, he was stopped by an Arab Libyan. “Because we threw out the Jews,” the man said, “God gave us Qaddafi.”
At the end of the trip, the Jewish exile dined with the dictator. Over the course of the meal, Luzon claims he reached a “pre-agreement” with Qaddafi about compensation for Libyan Jewry, whose property had been confiscated by the Libyan government. He says Qaddafi went so far as to propose an academic conference with “Jewish Libyan academics together with Arab academics” in Tripoli.
But like many of Qaddafi’s promises, this grand idea went nowhere. “He always declared to the media ‘I’m ready to open doors to Jews,’ ” Luzon told me. But in reality, “he never allowed the Jews to return. I had asked 10 times to obtain a visa and was always rejected.”
Libya’s Jews can trace their history back some 2,500 years, long before Arab tribes ever settled the territory. Yet most left the country soon after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Anti-Jewish riots left a dozen dead and nearly 300 homes destroyed, part of the wave of anti-Jewish violence that swept the region in the aftermath of Israel’s war of independence. By 1951, the vast majority of Libyan Jews, some 30,000, had fled to Israel.
The next exodus of about 4,000 Jews occurred in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. By the time Qaddafi seized power two years later, there were only 100 Jews left. He exacerbated their plight, as well as that of the Jewish exiles, by confiscating all property owned by Jews and by canceling all debts owed to those Libyan Jews whose property had already been seized or destroyed.
However half-hearted, Qaddafi’s latter-day outreach toward his country’s exiled Jews was part of a broader public relations campaign that began in 1999, when the dictator attempted to radically alter his reputation from that of international pariah into something more respectable. That year, Qaddafi turned over two Libyan citizens to The Hague, where they would be tried for their role in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing. He also expelled the Abu Nidal Organization, the terrorist group that had carried out deadly attacks on El Al ticket counters in Rome and Vienna in December 1985, and closed down the training camps that had hosted the whole panoply of terrorist groups ranging from the Irish Republican Army to the Basque ETA to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The regime’s rapprochement with the Libyan Jewish community seems to have been the initiative of the dictator’s son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, who, at least until the uprising began in February, was viewed by many in the West as a liberal reformer. While a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, Saif is said to have befriended Nat Rothschild, heir to the Jewish banking fortune, and is rumored to have stayed at Rothschild’s Corfu villa. The Financial Times recently reported that in 2008, the Manhattan-based public relations firm Brown Lloyd James set up meetings for Saif with American Jewish leaders. Luzon isn’t surprised. He claims Saif is “friendly with a lot of rich Jews,” and the Israeli newspaper Maariv once reported that he was romantically linked to the Israeli actress Orly Weinerman.
Just yesterday, Haaretz reported that Saif claimed he was prepared to sign a peace treaty with Israel once the fighting in Libya ended and was even willing to serve as an intermediary to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been in Hamas custody for more than four years. Saif’s belief that Israel would accept such offers from a dying regime is evidence of his desperation. His instinct to settle with Israel and thus get into the good graces of international Jewry was, however wise, far too little, too late.
A year after his encounter with Qaddafi, Luzon was once again contacted by a putative Libyan leader. Last month, several days before Tripoli fell to rebel forces, two emissaries of Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Qaddafi justice minister who now heads the anti-Qaddafi National Transitional Council, visited Luzon at his home in Hendon, England. They wanted him to join the newly formed Libyan Democratic Party, which will compete in the country’s first free elections scheduled for next year. Jalil plans for the party to be led by a committee composed of two women, two Arabs, two Berbers, and one Jew.
“It would be the first Arab country to propose this kind of thing to a Jew,” Luzon says. “Lots of Arabs are elected to the Israeli parliament, but not the opposite, unfortunately. I told them I’m very pleased about the proposal and that I would accept it based on the condition that they are really going to build up a free and democratic system.”
Another positive sign of the new Libyan politics emerged last week, when Ahmad Shabani, a co-founder of the Democratic Party, said that “We are asking Israel to use its influence in the international community to end the tyrannical regime of Gadhafi and his family.” Not only was this statement, in and of itself, reassuring to Israel and Libyan Jewry, but the venue in which it appeared, the Israeli daily Haaretz, held its own significance given that Arab political figures hardly, if ever, speak to Israeli media outlets.
Jalil’s support for reconciliation with his country’s forgotten Jews, however, should not be mistaken for a national sentiment. Libyans under Qaddafi, like Arabs across the region, have been indoctrinated by state-sponsored anti-Semitism for decades. Lost amid the flattering press coverage of the gallant rebels is the widespread belief among Libyans that Qaddafi is himself Jewish, and that the Mossad tried to keep him in power.
The origins of this belief can be traced to Qaddafi’s mysterious family history and the longstanding rumor that he has either a Jewish mother or grandmother. Never mind that there is little evidence to support these claims: In the Muslim world, the most effective smear is to claim that an enemy is a tool of Jews and Zionists, or even worse, a Jew himself. Indeed, last week when I was in Libya, I came across some anti-Qaddafi graffiti depicting him as a crude Jewish stereotype festooned with the Star of David. (And yet such images are far less plentiful than those in Cairo portraying former President Hosni Mubarak in such fashion.)
Like Luzon, Gina Bublil Waldman fled Libya in 1967. She and her family were nearly killed when the driver of the bus taking them to the airport attempted to blow it up. She’s now the president of an organization called JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, and speaks around the country about the dispossession and exile of Libyan Jews. Waldman is far more skeptical about the prospects of post-Qaddafi Libya than Luzon. While she’s “thrilled that Gadaffi has finally been chased out,” she says she has “really mixed feelings because some of the people leading the rebels are also fundamentalists.” Waldman points specifically to Abd al-Hakim Belhaj. A former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist organization with links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, Belhaj is now the head of the Tripoli military council that led the assault on Qaddafi’s Bab al Aziziya compound. “Are these people rebelling because they want democracy, or are they rebelling because they’re so miserable and so poor and their systems and governments have been corrupt that they’ve had enough?”
That’s the fundamental question to be asked about all the revolutions that have swept the Arab world since last December, when a young Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire and inflamed the region. What’s often overlooked in all the sympathetic news coverage, Waldman argues, is just how widespread anti-Semitism is in these societies, even among so-called liberals. Hatred of Jews, she says, was widespread in Libya prior to the Qaddafi era. Her own story of exile—she, along with the vast majority of Libyan Jews, left two years before Qaddafi even came to power, in the midst of an Arab war against Israel to which Libya was not even party—is certainly evidence of it. “[Anti-Semitism] was very much widespread,” she says. “It was integrated in every aspect of life in Libya whether it was in the mosque where they preached against Zionists and Jews,” or in the country’s educational system and media.
Waldman believes that Luzon is credulous when it comes to promises of a “new” Libya, just as he was credulous with Qaddafi last year. “He had 42 years to make good for it and he never did,” she says of the dictator. Two years ago, she traveled to Rome while Qaddafi was there, in hopes that he would actually hold a promised meeting with the substantial Jewish Libyan expat community that has settled in Italy. Though Qaddafi was in the Italian capital for several days, the only time he claimed to be available was during the Sabbath, she remembers.
“With all due respect,” Waldman says to me about Luzon, “if he has been invited to go back, many of us believe that he would be used as a token, the court Jew that is being ushered back into Libya to show how ‘multicultural’ this country’s going to become.” Before any Jews return to Libya she says, “the first order of business is [for Libyans] to recognize that a Jewish community existed there and they owe us an apology for the wrongs they’ve done to us.”
A major part of that apology, she says, would include some sort of recompense for the synagogues and other Jewish sites that were destroyed long ago, including a Tripoli cemetery on which the ritzy Corinthia Hotel now stands. When I tell Waldman that I visited the Corinthia about 15 minutes before a firefight erupted outside between rebels and forces loyal to Qaddafi, she replies, “You were sitting on my great-grandfather’s grave.”
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.