Life in the Jewish Quarter of Tripoli
The Jewish quarters of Tripoli were split into three sizes; large, medium, and small. The name Hara Kabira means “Big Quarter (of Tripoli),” although the spelling for this phrase is hara lkbira.1 This quarter was greatly affected by colonization through the centuries.
Jewish quarters were often separated from other quarters of the city which housed various religious groups. 3 When the Italians occupied Libya, many Jews in Tripoli still continued to live mainly in the Jewish Quarter despite the influx of new cultures. 4 Jewish women were highly regarded in the home and their opinions were often seen to shape family affairs. Outside of the home, it was mainly men who were running the trades and making business decisions in occupations such as being merchants, physicians or jewelers. 5 Jewish women were not allowed to participant in the synagogue services, but did attend during special days such as Sabbath and major holidays. 6
Around 3000 Jewish students attended public schools but over half this number went to the Talmud Torah schools around the city. More students increasingly went to European-run schools as Tripoli was under Italian forces before the anti-Semitic laws were enforced by the Italian facist government. 7 Jewish shops were closed on Saturday for Shabbot, but during the Italian occupation they were forced to remain open. 8 The new laws punished Jewish shop-owners who closed their businesses on Saturday.
During Gaddafi’s reign of Libya, Hara Kabira had been neglected. In 2011, David Gerbi, a Jew exiled from Libya, had tried to restore the former Jewish quarters in Libya. He along with his team had begun restoration of Dar Al Bishi, the best known synagogue in Libya, located in the Hara Kabira region of Tripoli. Gerbi's passion was driven by the fact that many former Jewish sites had been destroyed during the violent history that the Jews endured under the Italian occupation and Gaddafi’s reign in Libya. Unforunately due to threats on Gerbi's life, he was forced to abandon his projects and leave the country. 9
General History of Jewish Libya
The Libyan Jewish community traces its roots back to the 3rd century B.C.E. During the Roman empire, Jews prospered. However, the revolt of the lower ranks of the Jewish community in Cyrene led by Jonathan the Weaver in 73 C.E was crushed by Roman officials, resulting in the murder of Jonathan, his disciples and many Jews of the upper class in the area. 10
During 1911 when Libya was occupied by Italy, Jews were treated fairly well. During that time, there were 21,000 Jews in Libya, many of whom made their livelihood in Tripoli. The Jewish population had built 44 syngogues in the city of Tripoli itself. However, by the 1930s the Italian Fascist government imposed anti-Semitic laws that forbid Jews' entry into government-run jobs and educational institutes. They were also to be documented specifically as the “Jewish race” on their identification documents. 11
In 1942, the Nazis infiltrated the Jewish Quarter in Benghazi and over 2000 Jews were forced into Nazi labor camps. During the British occupation in post-war Libya, Jews were not treated well either. The Jewish quarters were yet again subject to rioting where houses, businesses and synagogues were desecrated. When in 1948, the State of Israel was officially reestablished, over 30,000 Jews fled to Israel as immigrants. 12
Under Libyan law in 1961, a certain permit was needed to confirm Libyan citizenship, but no Jews were allowed to obtain such a permit. In 1967, the Jewish population was estimated to be around 7,000. ln 1969 with the start of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s dictatorship and the years after, Jews continued to be subjected to anti-Semitic laws. Under Gaddafi's reign, all Jewish property was confiscated by the government and any debts to Jews were cancelled which made it difficult for Jews to leave the country. Many Jews still managed to escape during these years and by 2004, Libya had lost all of its Jewish communities. 13