Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Av 5762 - July 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Libya

by C. Ofek

PART IV -- Final Part

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.

The Tefilloh was Answered

The last article ended at the height of an Arab pogrom in November, 1945.

"Humiliated and frightened, we entered the houses. We had not eaten anything the entire day, but we did not even feel hungry. We just fed the children, who were wailing from hunger, some bread. At 7:00, we heard echoes of explosions and then saw huge flames coming from the Jewish houses. In shock, I looked out of a small crack and saw a man in army uniform walking on the rooftops. He shot two bursts of bullets from his machine gun at the rioters. I could see a large number of Arabs falling and gushing blood.

"The rioters first panicked and fled, but they immediately recovered and began to drag the wounded towards the mosque. The shooting had scared the Arabs off. And so, no less than eighty Jews who were hiding in our house were saved from a sure death.

"Later on we found out that the soldier who saved us was a Jewish soldier who served in the British army. He left his camp, without authorization, in order to save us. We, with chasdei Shomayim, were saved, but the Jews in the other houses were not.

"We did not know what happened to them until a number of policemen, with the English commander, came to our house in the morning. They told me to take some men and come bury the slain. My heart told me that a tragedy had occurred and I took about ten bochurim."

Reb Shaul's voice was choked with bitter cries and he could not speak for long moments. He then continued in a choked voice. "I know that what I'm about to tell you is very difficult. Seeing children and babies tortured breaks the heart and makes a hole in the soul. I'll tell you what happened to us because a lot of people don't know what torture we suffered in Libya just because we are Jews, because we are Hashem's chosen children. Young boys, elderly rabbonim, little babies were slaughtered like sheep and burned at the stake al kiddush Hashem, with Shema Yisroel on their lips."

When the English commander brought us to the Jewish house, my eyes darkened. We pulled out our hair and wailed, "Woe to the eyes that saw this!"

The house was completely destroyed and twenty-five bodies lay under the rubble, in terrible condition. We went to the second house. The house itself was not destroyed, because the rioters managed to break down the door and they slaughtered the people inside undisturbed. We took out twenty-four bodies, including elderly people and women and a one-year-old baby.

We gathered all the bodies into boxes and carried them on our backs. We also took the many wounded. We all gathered in front of the police station, crying and wailing. The wails of the bereaved families surpassed everything else. The English mayor tried to comfort us, but who could be comforted? We even refused to touch the food they brought us. How could we eat when our dear ones were slaughtered in front of our eyes?

The wounded were taken to the hospital in ambulances and the dead were put onto trucks. We went to take care of the burial.

This terrible atrocity, however, was not avenged. Out of the many rioters the English did detain, not one of them was judged. There were no Jews alive who could testify against them. In one night, we lost 46 souls.

Our mourning did not end with this. There were terrible pogroms throughout Libya, whose frightening results left deep scars on the entire Jewish nation. All together, the number of killed reached 135 souls. Fifty widows, 92 orphans and more than 30 crippled remained.

The bloody events shattered our trust in the British. With cruel indifference, they had left us to the hands of a bloodthirsty crowd. They did not offer us any protection, even when we begged for it right before the slaughter. We asked ourselves, what should we do? What if it happens again?

The danger still remained, as the Arabs were still thirsty for blood. (The same happened in 1948, three years later.) We decided that we would not stretch out our necks to the bloodthirsty goyim. There were some strong Jews in Tripoli who had defended us against attacking Arabs in the past. Now, however, they were unable to fight thousands of armed Arabs.

We began to buy weapons in all kinds of ways. It was very dangerous. We had to be careful not to attract any attention.

I went to the Arab market in Tripoli twice a week and formed secret connections with one Arab, who sold me weapons. I used to try out the rifles in the Jewish cemetery before I bought them, to make sure the Arab was not cheating me. Once the police heard the shots and began to chase us. The Arab managed to flee and I hid in bushes near the cemetery and was saved.

I was once on a bus, with weapons on my body. In the middle of the trip, a policeman got on and sat down next to me. My heart fell. I quickly recovered and began making light conversation with him, to distract him.

During the year that I bought weapons, my Arab contact tried to rob a bank in Zaire, Libya. During the investigation, it seems, he mentioned my name. I was immediately thrown in jail.

I was not worried about being convicted in the bank robbery, because I had nothing to do with it; but I was very worried about my secret cache of weapons. The police searched my house thoroughly, but chasdei Hashem they did not find the weapons. The weapons were hidden in the barn, which it did not enter their minds to search.

Once I had a large quantity of weapons which I had not yet passed on to my Jewish brothers. Someone informed me that the police were searching the area for illegal weapons. I quickly hid them in a "neutral" area -- a square structure of about three meters high, which was attached to water faucets on all sides, for the public, at the end of the Jewish street. This building was built during Turkish rule and was called "the Ottoman faucets."

The inside was empty. I took a ladder and with the help of some friends, transported the boxes of weapons into the building. I put guards at the ends of the streets to warn me if anyone was coming. One box did not fit in. I opened the cover of the sewer and put it in. Two days later, a cleaning man found it. He told the police, who destroyed this box, but they did not find the much larger store of weapons that was right on top of their heads.

Another method of transporting weapons was in sacks of imported goods. Trains and freight trucks traveled between Zaire and Tripoli daily, bringing goods, mainly sugar, from Tunis. We often took advantage of these transports and bribed the Arabs to take weapons for us. The Arabs really did not know what we were adding to the delivery.

I remember one time I put fifty hand grenades in a sack of sugar that was sent from Tripoli to Zaire, and it reached its destination in peace. I had prepared all kinds of strategies if the grenades were found, cholila, but was unprepared for the Arab porter's simple question. "Why is the sack so heavy?"

For a minute, I was confused, but then answered, "The sack got wet from the rain."

The riots created a sense of panic and each family prepared itself in case of more riots. Sometimes, the children also participated in the preparations and helped make homemade weapons. These weapons were primitive, but dangerous.

Once, a family was in the middle of manufacturing weapons when the police started coming. Two girls quickly carried the container of material to its hiding place. In her haste, one of them slipped and the container fell. She got badly burnt on her entire body. Her big sister ran to help her and also got badly burnt. Now they needed someone to take them to the hospital and invent a reason for the burns. In the end, the weapons were not discovered, but the little sister, tragically, died from her wounds. The older one was left crippled.

Our tremendous fear of more Arab riots was not unfounded. Three years later, on Shavuos 5708 (1948), (during the '48 war in Israel), large groups of Arabs from Morocco, Algeria and Tunis passed through Libya on their way to Israel to help fight against the Jews. On their way, they planned a riot against us. They forced us to give them large sums of money for the Arab War of Independence, and then gathered around our houses and planned to attack. Hundreds of rioters were just a few meters away.

We immediately took our hand grenades and weapons and wanted to chase them away. My friend took command and told us not to open fire yet. He let the Arabs approach, and they all swarmed in, sure that we were unarmed. My friend threw a grenade to the right, and the Arabs all ran in confusion to the left. At that moment, we were instructed to aim at the crowded spot. Many Arabs were killed and the rest fearfully fled for their lives.

They couldn't believe that a handful of Jews fought them. Hashem helped us defeat them before they enacted their plot, and the kehilloh was saved. Thirteen Jews were killed in this riot and dozens of Arabs. We had a great nes.

When the British government saw that the Jews had the upper hand, they immediately came out and stood guard "to prevent fire." We clearly saw the outright discrimination against us, and realized that if they wanted to intervene they could.

Time to Leave

After this incident, we felt that we could not continue living in Libya. We had to leave everything and go to the land we so yearned for -- Eretz Yisroel. But how could we? How could we flee from a Muslim country under hostile British rule?

There were groups of courageous youths who left Libya illegally. Under the cover of darkness, they took fishing boats to Italy, Tunis and Algeria, and from there continued on to Eretz Yisroel.

I was twenty-three at the time and had two children. I also wanted to go to Eretz Yisroel secretly, but as a father of a family I could not leave.

I heard that the youths suffered a lot on the way. With only the clothes on their back and a light bag in their hand, they traveled to the ocean far outside the city. They hid among crevices in rocks and caves and waited impatiently for the flame of a lantern to signal them to come to a small fishing boat. They quietly left their hiding places in small groups, walked into the sea up until their necks, and boarded the boat, which brought them out to a ship at midnight. The ship took them to Italy and they traveled to Eretz Yisroel from there.

Sometimes, they were caught by British detectives, sent back to Libya and punished severely.

Those who fled on dry land, through the Libyan-Tunisian border, also suffered terrible hardships and pains. They dressed up like Arabs and in their bare feet, exposed to stones, snakes and scorpions, walked about 190 kilometers through the desert until the border. Most of them were caught by border guards, put in jail and sent back to Tripoli. I davened to Hashem that I would also be zoche to go up to Eretz Yisroel with my whole family.

And so, my tefilloh was accepted. In 5709, on January 26, 1949, the British who ruled Libya announced that Jews who wanted to leave would be given exit permits on condition that they renounce their citizenship and receive citizenship of another county. This was an opportunity to go to Eretz Yisroel.

A tremendous, indescribable excitement overcame all of us. Suddenly we felt that our dream of going to the land of our Forefathers was about to be fulfilled. Without hesitating, we sold our possessions, packed our bags and waited impatiently to go. The only thing we talked about was aliya: the boat, food for the way, the luggage and anything connected.

Organizing aliya was far from simple. An entire community, numbering in the thousands, wanted to leave in an organized fashion. Most of the Jews were spread out in many villages in the Libyan desert, Sirt desert, Tripoli or in Kirniake, a large area over a hundred times bigger than the entire state of Israel. The immigration had to be processed quickly, because no one knew what a new day would bring. We had to seize this golden opportunity.

In those days, it was impossible to prepare all the exit certificates for us -- over 35,000 people -- or to organize medical examinations before leaving. In addition, transporting Jews from Libyan villages to Tripoli in preparation for departure required tremendous organization in leaving the homes, traveling security, and absorption in Tripoli.

Mr. Boruch Duvdevani, a religious Jew who came from Israel, took care of organizing the aliya. He enlisted the Joint and the Uza. They set up clinics in Tripoli and brought doctors from France and Italy to conduct medical examinations. Entire airplanes of medical equipment and medicines were flown in from America.

The examination process engulfed us in thousands. Unfortunately, many were found sick with contagious diseases such as trachoma, ringworm and tuberculosis. One hundred tuberculosis patients were sent to Italy for treatment.

The Joint also took care of the children's health. They established a service for babies and children under age fourteen in the schools. They also gave out warm meals to the needy, and fish oil and milk to all of the children in order to strengthen them. Whoever passed the medical examination and was declared healthy was added to the list of olim.

Now we waited impatiently for the day an official from the immigration office would come to our door with a letter stating, "Be prepared to board the ship . . . Bring your luggage to the luggage inn no later than . . . day." (There was a large inn near the port where the olim brought their luggage. From there it was all sent together to be loaded onto the ship.)

The day we received the letter was a yom tov for us. We already pictured ourselves on the ship. We packed up and were waiting impatiently for the hour.

Even though over fifty years have passed since, a thrill of excitement passes through me whenever I think about the thousands of Jewish brethren who came from the villages to Tripoli to wait for aliya. They came thousands of kilometers on foot, in long lines, carrying decorated sifrei Torah. I'll never forget the glorious sight of the dancing when they reached the city -- elderly rabbonim with young boys and children joyfully celebrating the beginning of the realization of their dreams.

The boats Eilat, Kidma, Gelila and Jerusalem were sent from Haifa to the Muslim-English port of Tripoli. We could barely believe our dream was coming true. Tears of happiness flowed from our eyes as we crowded onto the Eilat, 1500 of us, and we burst out singing Oz yoshir Moshe as the boat pulled away from the port. Even the stiff British policemen had tears in their eyes.

Conditions on the boat were extremely difficult. Not everyone had a place to sleep and food was sparse. Seasickness struck the children, but they didn't complain. One goal stood in front of our eyes -- to reach Eretz Yisroel. For this, we were prepared to suffer.

Before we departed from the boat, a Sochnut official came on and wanted to spray antibiotic drops on our bodies. We were surprised and explained to him that we were all healthy, as we had passed the medical examination in Tripoli. The man insisted and forced us to take the drops. Under his mustache, he whispered in a grouchy voice, "They just shouldn't contaminate us with disease."

We could have been insulted, as we understood Ivrit. By nature we were very clean and we had put on our Shabbos clothes before reaching land; how could he say we were carrying diseases? But we restrained ourselves. Everything was peripheral in light of aliya.

With great excitement, we bent to the ground and kissed the dust, before the Sochnut agents brought us to immigrant camps.

I was taken to a house nearby. I lived in a wooden hut with my three little children. We put some cartons on the floor and that's what we sat on, ate on, and slept on. Food was sparse then in Israel, and they only gave us a little soup, bread and margarine.

Again, we didn't complain. We were so happy to be in Eretz Yisroel that we didn't feel we were lacking anything. Just the opposite, we were very grateful to the people who were helping us acclimate.

Every Shabbos, we gathered in a tin hut that served as our shul. We sang and rejoiced that we were in Eretz Yisroel.

The transition was very difficult. For example, Rumanian olim were with us in the camp and we went together with them to register in the housing department.

For some reason, the Rumanians never had to wait in line to receive housing or work. The day I requested housing, I was told that I was entitled to two rooms, because we had five family members. That night I was surprised to hear noises from the next-door tent. The Rumanian who lived next to me, father of one child, was moving to an apartment while I was left in the camp for another few long months.

They made us problems with finding work as well. In Libya, I was a rov, shochet and mohel. Since I was well versed in Torah, I requested a job teaching Jewish children Torah.

I was waiting in line with a Rumanian and asked him what job he was looking for. He said that he is a "tov moreh" and that he has "shlosha shonim" (instead of saying shalosh shonim) experience. His Ivrit was completely garbled and behold, he came out of the room holding a teaching certificate while I was sent to work in the orchards!

I had to dig holes around orange trees. The work drained me, as I was never trained nor experienced in farming. In the evening, the orchard owner called me and said, "Listen Shaul, this is not going to work. You can't come work in an orchard wearing a suit. Don't you have farming clothes at home?"

On that day I was fired. It took two weeks until I was sent to teach in Ashkelon. I was devoted to the job, but did not have any satisfaction from it. The children were sabras and they constantly laughed at me and embarrassed me. I couldn't understand; what was wrong with me? During recess, I called the gang leader and asked him about it.

He said, "Teacher, your language is really funny."

What's so funny? The boy explained that I was using a very poetic Ivrit and the boys did not understand many of the words. It took me time until I fit in with the sabras and was accepted.

I went from one job to another until I finally found steady work. Nevertheless, I didn't complain. Like all the Libyan olim, I tried very hard to integrate into Eretz Yisroel and to find only the beauty in it.

After I retired, Hashem helped me and I joined the yeshiva of Shuvu Bonim. From then, I sit and learn Torah with adults my age, and the learning gives me strength. My two sons, who learned in yeshivos in Yerushalayim, went to Santiago, Chile to teach Torah to the Jewish community there. They are filling the spiritual void there and guarding the community from foreign winds. I am happy that they are going bederech Hashem and teaching it to the public.

Or Sholom

About six years ago, Mr. Pedatzur Benetia, a descendant of the Libyan congregation, founded Or Shalom, named after his father's grandfather Rav Shalom Tier zt'l, a former rov in Komes, Libya; and his father Reb Shalom Benetia zt'l. The organization's goal is to unify the Libyan community.

Mr. Benetia traveled from one yishuv to another where Libyan immigrants live today, and collected material about Jewish life in Libya. The collection of ancient sifrei Torah, traditional clothing and household vessels grew over the years. The valuable articles are temporarily being stored in one room until they can be placed in a spacious museum.

One of Or Shalom's important undertakings is the publishing of seforim that had been printed earlier in Libya in kesav Rashi. Three seforim were already published and a fourth is in the process. The seforim are sold at discounted prices in order to increase Torah learning.

We asked if anyone can go to Libya today and reclaim the remnants of the past. Mr. Benetia said that a journalist, Boaz Bismot, visited Libya with a French passport a year ago, but he did not receive instructions before he left and did not know which places would have been beneficial.

Mr. Benetia also related that he thinks that some of the shuls in Libya were recently renovated as tourist attractions.

In 1994, Kadafi began to renovate the Der Strosi shul in the Jewish quarter in Tripoli for historical purposes only. Mr. Benetia, whose goal is to ignite the fire of Judaism in Libyan descendants, spares neither time nor effort in reviving the glorious past, to continue strengthening the extensive heritage of Libyan Jews and bequeath it to the next generation.


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