Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Av 5762 - July 10, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Libya

by C. Ofek


The Jews of Libya were never a large community, numbering no more than 38,000 at its largest, which was just before almost 90 percent left for Eretz Yisroel preceding Libya's independence in January, 1952. Yet it is an ancient community and there is evidence of Jewish settlement there dating to the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash.

This series of articles documents many of the special customs of the community. It also tells the story of its last half-century in Libya and the early years in Eretz Yisroel, when it was smothered by the Zionist movement.

Readers who can add to the information here are invited to send their comments and additions. Email:; Fax: 972 2 538 7855; Telephone: 972 2 532 2514.

In Eretz Yisroel

The Zionists did revive the Hebrew language and they did open a Jewish school, but they did not influence our Yiddishkeit at all. They could not break through our strong, fortified spiritual fences.

Our dress remained tzniusdik and long, as always. Our tefillos were tefillos. Everyone kept mitzvos. Even the Ivrit writings were all on holy topics, without any secular views. Before we left to Eretz Yisroel, we warned each other of the spiritual danger of the powerful Zionists. To our great sorrow, we did not succeed in overcoming them once we got there.

It was only when we reached Israel that we realized the tremendous ruchniyus evil that the Zionists did to us.

For example, thousands of olim were placed in the transit camp in Beit Lid. There was no chareidi school there at all. A man from the Jewish Agency asked the Libyan Jews which school they would like to enroll their children in, mamlachti (State secular) or mamad (State religious). When he said mamad, which stands for mamlachti dati the state-religious school, he made a gesture at his forehead insinuating that the letters stood for mechusor da'as, mentally ill. And so, thousands of families enrolled in the secular mamlachti schools.

One of the Aguda activists later asked me sadly, "Tell me, where are your roots? Why are all of you going to mamlachti schools? What an embarrassment."

I was living in Shikun Hei. I immediate traveled to Beit Lid and stood in line as if I wanted to enroll my son. Only then did I see the deceit perpetrated on my innocent brothers, how a twist of a finger caused them to abandon their religion. I publicly protested until the official was fired. Even then, I didn't leave. I stood and made sure that my brothers would not enroll in secular schools.

Painfully, a terrible breach was created when we came to Eretz Yisroel. We couldn't do much because we did not know all of the Jewish Agency's tactics. Don't forget that new immigrants in a strange land lack confidence and are inclined to accept whatever the people in charge tell them. We were also blinded by the euphoria of coming to Eretz Yisroel and the desire to fit in. Many Libyan Jews blindly obeyed the men of the Jewish Agency and did not realize the great spiritual danger involved. Without realizing it, they were drawn away from Yiddishkeit little by little. Many Libyan Jews are tinokos shenishbu. We lost many precious children.

The Jadu Exile

Our longing for Eretz Yisroel deepened as many trials and tribulations plagued us. Until today, when I remember the Jadu Exile my skin crawls, and I thank Hashem that I came out alive.

Spring, 1942, in the middle of the Second World War. The British retreated, and Italian and German troops reentered Libya. Because we had enthusiastically welcomed the British when they conquered Libya previously, my family and many other Jewish families were deported to Jadu, 260 kilometers away from Tripoli. Every two weeks, the oppressors posted a list of families who should prepare for departure in the shuls. We were taken in freight trucks on a five- day journey. At night we slept under the stars. Altogether, 2600 families were taken away.

We were brought to the Jadu camp on motzei Pesach. The camp contained long bunkers which had been used for the army, and was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Italian and Arab soldiers guarded the camp and anyone who came near the fence was shot. We received 120 grams of bread daily. The rest of the necessities were distributed on Sundays for the whole week -- five grams of rice per day, three grams of oil, three grams tomato sauce, five grams sugar, and five grams of coffee.

I was eighteen years old at the time. We were forced to work for twelve hours straight, without a break, hoeing and transporting dirt. It is self understood that with the meager food we received and the backbreaking work, we could expect a slow, torturous death (like the work camps in Europe).

We organized a delegation of Jews to go to the commander and request larger rations. The rosho laughed at us and said, "We didn't bring you here to support you. We just didn't want to waste bullets on you. Now get back to work!"

It was only after much persuasion and crying that the cruel commander allowed neighboring Arabs to sell us vegetables, dates and barley.

We obviously did not have any money with us, so how did we buy the food? The sale was in exchange for labor. After an exhausting day's work, we did work for the Arab villagers like sewing clothes. The camp management gave us two kilograms of wood per person to cook with per week. They gave us large trunks of olive wood, the wood rations for a few families, and we were forced to chop the wood up by ourselves -- more backbreaking work.

Every once in a while, high military officials came to inspect the camp. The camp commanders warned us that we must tell them that we are happy. In general, the Italians were not cruel antisemites. In general, they were pleasant and sensitive to people. Of course, there were always exceptions. The two Italians who were appointed over us, a major and marshal, were sworn antisemites, the likes of which I had never met.

Once, before a colonel's visit from the army, we received our usual warning. It was Tisha B'Av and we were commanded to take a shower and change our clothes in honor of the important visitor. The visitor went from block to block and was genuinely concerned about our welfare. We all answered falsely. One broken woman, Mrs. Liza Sofer, Mr. Chaim Sofer's wife, poured out her heart and told him about the tortures and blows we suffered. The official listened attentively and his face mirrored our pain. He commanded that the two commanders be replaced.

We thought conditions would improve, but we were bitterly disappointed. Halocho hi she'Eisov sonei leYaakov. The replacement continued to torture us without pity.

On Rosh Hashonoh, when he saw us davening, he commanded that we transport a large pile of stones out of the camp for no reason. In the fourteen months we were in the camp, 562 Jews died. Most of them lost their lives to hunger and exhaustion. Poor living conditions bred lice carrying the fatal typhus disease, which also killed many.

We mourned bitterly. An Arab merchant told us that there was an old Jewish cemetery nearby, so we were able to give them a Jewish burial.

The Jews who remained in Tripoli had pity on us. With tremendous mesiras nefesh, they somehow managed to smuggle in sacks of barley, dates, fruits and vegetables, and salted fish. Before Pesach they sent us matzoh and wine. This extra food kept us alive.

A Real Miracle

About twenty days before the British victory, we experienced a black day. I was standing on the hill of the hospital in the camp, and I saw many Jewish camp inmates gathered near the flagpole. I asked the commander what was happening, and he nonchalantly told me that we were in for a black day. He had been commanded to shoot all of us.

I asked him about the 480 sick people in the hospital and he said that all the sick people would be put in the cellar and burned. I started to tremble. Shooting, burning! We had to say vidui!

I left the hill and saw a policeman pulling Rabbi Yosef Gezin zt'l, who was the av beis din, by his clothes. The policeman had pulled Rabbi Yosef, who was wrapped in his tallis, out of the block and was dragging him to the center of the camp, yelling, "This is the time of killing, not the time of praying!"

Masses of Jews stood there crying. The policemen stood on the roof tops with satanic looks on their faces. They were prepared to shoot all of us, men, women and children. We said vidui and Shema and expected death any minute.

It is difficult for me to discuss these moments; I would rather not remember them. One thing I can tell you, that we clearly felt Chazal's dictum, "Even if a sharp sword is on a person's neck, don't despair of mercy."

From eight until eleven, we stood under the sky, hungry, thirsty and waiting for death. The reshoim were just waiting for a go ahead phone call from the military commander.

At 11:00 sharp, the phone rang. The commander commanded that all the soldiers and watch guards leave the camp immediately. It was a nes!

The camp officials were very disappointed with the turn of events. They commanded us to sweep the camp. Rav Gezin was commanded to sweep the floor with his beard. Believe me, we swept those floors and rubbed our eyes to make sure we were really alive. Tears of joy wet the ground, and we said the brochoh of she'oso lonu nes be'oso mokom with great kavonoh.

We stayed in the camp until the British victory, a total fourteen months. Two days after the British victory, the British army brought ambulances and transported the sick to hospitals in the city. They gave us food and candies and brought us back to Tripoli.

The Jews of Libya suffered another terrible blow the same year of 1942, when three innocent Jews were executed. Hoping to curry favor with the Muslim Arabs, the fascist government decided to falsely accuse three Jews of robbing Italy during the British rule. Three precious Jews -- Yona Berbi, his brother Shalom Berbi, and the bochur Avrohom Bedosa Hy'd -- were known as outstanding, serious bochurim who were obviously completely innocent. In a quick show trial, they were condemned and hung on the gallows. All the Jews of Libya cried bitterly for these precious souls.

We were confused and pained over the loss of trust in the Italian government, a trust that had been built up over thirty years. We sensed the outright discrimination and felt despised and trampled on. A feeling of helplessness overcame us. We didn't know what was in store.

"With the British conquest of Libya in 1943, and the Nazi and Italian fascist defeat, we felt relieved," Reb Shaul related. "We thought that we could finally live in peace, without threats and decrees, but we were mistaken. It soon became clear that "it is a well-known fact that Eisov sonei leYaakov."

Arab Neighbors

For years, we had lived in peace with our Arab neighbors. They even watched over us and guarded us during difficult times. When the Italian army retreated and the British army had not yet entered, we fled with all our possessions to our Arab neighbors. They gave us a room and guarded us during the transition period between one army and the other, when wild people were taking advantage of the anarchy. We stayed with the Arabs until a new government was established. This long- standing friendship continued during British rule as well.

The situation changed when news arrived of Jewish-Arab conflict in Israel a few years later. The reports incited the Libyan Arabs. Of course, the reports were exaggerated. There were experienced inciters who spread baseless stories of Jewish cruelty to Arabs in Israel. Agitation spread among Libyan Arabs.

The hatred that was dormant in their hearts flared up into full expression. In spring of 5705, November 5, 1945, this hatred burst like a volcano, and terrible bloody pogroms began in Tripoli.

Inciters used to travel by train to all the cities in Libya in order to incite the Arabs to hate the Jews. They did not have any difficulty attracting a bloodthirsty crowd. The inciters pulled out expensive necklaces and gold jewelry and told them that these treasures were stolen from rich Jews. The desire for money inflamed many Arabs.

The inciters then asked, "Why are you waiting? Why don't you start plundering the Jews?" They called out enthusiastically, "Everyone to Jihad!" And thousands of Arabs called back in a hate-filled voice, "A war on the infidels!"


When the Jewish merchants, including my father, heard what was happening, they got very scared. They immediately left their businesses and gathered in a local shul to plan a course of action. They decided to gather all the Jews of the neighborhood into a few large houses with strong doors, our house included. A delegation of communal leaders also went to the government to apprise them of the upcoming danger. The commander of the city and the police promised to protect us, but the promises were in vain.

As soon as dark fell, masses of wild Arabs armed with sticks and stones burst onto our streets, yelling, "A Jihad on the infidels."

At that moment, I was in shul giving a shiur and did not know what was happening outside. The kehilla secretary suddenly burst into shul and told me to let the talmidim go, lock the shul and go home. His face was white and he could barely talk. The only thing he said to me was, "Hashem yishmor veyerachem."

I ran home as fast as I could. My father locked the door behind me and we all stood frightened and tense. A few minutes later, a stream of large stones were thrown at the house. We all started to cry and scream hysterically, "Help! Save us!"

As the oldest son of the family, I tried to control myself and calm the others down. I told them that there was probably some kind of demonstration against the government outside, not against the Jews specifically. In reality, I was also terribly frightened.

I opened the window a bit and peeked out. What did I see? Heavens! The entire street was full of Arab hooligans holding sticks and stones, and heavy metal bars.

The Arabs approached the house and tried to break the door. Our screams and cries grew louder and there was terrible confusion. We felt like a sheep chased by seventy wolves. We knew that if we would fall into the rabble's hands, they would chop us to pieces. We had nothing to protect ourselves with. The house was full of families with their wives, children and elderly. We davened and begged for a nes.

Our bloodcurdling screams reached the police, it seems. To our surprise, we suddenly heard the voice of the Arab police officer yelling at the rabble and chasing them off the street. We opened the door and asked for police protection. The Arab official calmed us down. He showed us his drawn weapon and promised to protect us; we didn't need to be afraid.

The policeman stood at our door for a few minutes, but then fierce cries were heard from another Jewish house and the policeman ran there. The rabble seized the moment and fell on our door. The door broke easily.

I recognized many of the rioters; they were our friends in the past. I begged them to remember our friendship and not harm us, but they did not pay attention to me at all. They just asked for the jewelry my father sold.

My father gave them a box of jewelry, and in a minute, they emptied the box. The rioters who got booty left, but the rest demanded, "More!" I told them that all the jewelry was taken and received a blow on my head. My father, who ran to help me, was stabbed in the back with a butcher knife.

I recognized the Arab who stabbed my father and called him by name. He got confused and quickly fled with the rest of them. They were afraid the police would punish them.

My father was in critical condition. He desperately needed medical care, but we couldn't leave the house. Father lay wallowing in his blood until 12:00 when an English official finally came and took him to the hospital. We remained in the house, worrying until the morning light.

From our house, the rioters burst into the local Jewish tavern and guzzled all the whiskey there (which is forbidden by Muslim religion). In their drunkenness, they became even more rowdy and marched to the shul.

Our precious shul was hit the hardest. The Arabs desecrated the sifrei Torah, tore the seforim, smashed the chairs and benches, broke the windows, plundered the decorations on the sifrei Torah and then burned our precious kisvei kodesh.

The inflamed rabble then went to Jewish stores and emptied them completely. They ran to the "Jewelers' Market," "Spice Market," "Fine Knits Market," and "Carpenters' Market." They dragged away whatever they could carry, and destroyed or burned everything else. Nothing remained intact. The Arabs even plundered the empty Jewish homes. They stole whatever they could and ruined the rest.

In the morning, when the storm calmed down and streets were quiet and empty, we went out depressed and scared. We went to the destroyed shul. Two policemen stood at the entrance and did not allow us to go in, afraid the building might collapse.

We went in anyway, and burst into heart-rending cries when we saw the desecrated shul. We bent to the ground and gathered the yerios of the sifrei Torah that were lying in disgrace, and the scorched kisvei kodesh that were scattered among the pieces of broken tables and benches.

Afterwards, we all gathered in front of the police station and demanded protection for our lives; we saw what was already done to our possessions.

The British commander came out and said coldly that he could not help us, because he had not received instructions from the police headquarters in Tripoli on how to deal with the rioters! Angry at his irresponsible answer, we asked the commander if the police was required to wait for instructions from Tripoli when lives were at stake. He did not answer. He just nodded his head with a wicked smile hovering on his lips. He turned his back and instructed some policemen to disperse us with force.

The British apathy encouraged the Arabs who were standing around us and heard the conversation. We had been left unprotected to the cruel Arabs' whims and could only hope for salvation from our Father in Shomayim.

That evening, we gathered in the large houses and said Tehillim. The government did declare a curfew, which calmed us a bit, but we were flabbergasted when the curfew was only enforced for us. The policemen chased any Jew off the street while large groups of Arab rioters walked freely. In front of the policemen's eyes, the Arabs taunted any Jew passing by. They passed their hands over their throats and said, "We'll slaughter you tonight!"


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