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Exiled Libyan Jew blocked from restoring synagogue

David Gerbi
David Gerbi in front of the main synagogue in Tripoli on Sunday. A day later he said he had been blocked from the building.Abdel Magid Al-Fergany / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Libyan Jewish man who returned from exile to try to restore Tripoli's main synagogue has been blocked from the building a day after knocking down the wall in front of its entrance.

A visibly angry David Gerbi went to clean garbage from the synagogue on Monday only to be told by men at the scene that they had received warnings he would be targeted by violence and that he should stop his efforts.

Gerbi, who fled with his family to Italy in 1967, said he had secured permission from the local sheik to restore the synagogue and that he was surprised he was now being blocked from completing the work. Gerbi's colleague Richard Peters said that several men armed with assault rifles later appeared to guard the building.

Breaking down in tears, Gerbi said Monday that Libya needs to decide if it's going to be a racist country or a democratic one.

"What Gadhafi tried to do is to eliminate the memory of us. He tried to eliminate the amazing language. He tried to eliminate the religion of the Jewish people," said 56-year-old psychoanalyst whose family fled to Italy when he was 12. "I want bring our legacy back, I want to give a chance to the Jewish of Libya to come back."

It took Gerbi weeks to get permission from Libya's new rulers to begin restoring the synagogue, which is part of his broader goal of promoting tolerance for Jews and other religions in a new Libya.

"My hope and wish is to have an inclusive country," he told the Associated Press on Sunday as he cleared out the synagogue. "I want to make justice, not only for me, but for all the people of Libya for the damage that Gadhafi did."

Gerbi returned to his homeland this summer to join the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi, helping with strategy and psychological issues. He rode into the capital with fighters from the western mountains as Tripoli fell in late August.

Gerbi said he is funding the synagogue renovation himself, and plans to stay until his project is complete. He called it a test of tolerance for Libya's new rulers.

"I plan to restore the synagogue, I plan to get the passport back, I plan to resolve the problem of the confiscated property, individual and collective," he said. "I plan to help rebuild Libya, to do my part."

Long history
Jews first arrived in what is now Libya some 2,300 years ago. They settled mostly in coastal towns such as Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks, Italians and ultimately the independent Arab state that was run by Gadhafi for nearly 42 years.

Some prospered as merchants, physicians and jewelers. Under Muslim rule, they saw periods of relative tolerance and bursts of hostility. Italy took over in 1911, and eventually the fascist government of Benito Mussolini issued discriminatory laws against Jews, dismissing some from government jobs and ordering them to work on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.

In the 1940s, thousands were sent to concentration camps in North Africa where hundreds died. Some were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Austria.

In the decades after the war, thousands of Jews left Libya, many of them for Israel.

Gerbi said his family went to Italy to escape tensions, thinking they would return someday, but those hopes were dashed by Gadhafi's expulsion order. Some relatives later went to Israel, but he chose to remain in Italy.

This is not Gerbi's first trip back to Libya. He returned in 2002, when he agreed to help Gadhafi's efforts to normalize relations with the international community and helped an ailing aunt leave the country. Gerbi said he had been Libya's last remaining Jew.

Gerbi saw the Tripoli synagogue during another trip five years later, and even met Gadhafi in Rome in 2009.

But in the end, all his efforts were stonewalled.

Gerbi is hopeful about Libya's future, although he has not yet been allowed to join the National Transitional Council, which is now governing Libya, as a full representative.

Jalal el-Gallal, an NTC spokesman, said on Sunday that Gerbi's efforts to restore the synagogue were premature because the government is still temporary and revolutionary forces are fighting Gadhafi supporters on two major fronts.

"I think it's just creating a lot more complications at the moment," he said.