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On November 5, 1945, a deadly pogrom ripped through the streets of Tripoli, Libya. The riot left 140 Jews dead, several more injured, and almost every synagogue in the Libyan city looted and destroyed, which most likely included the Beyt El Synagogue.1 Today, only one of the synagogues ruined on that day and a few of the several more destroyed in the subsequent years, has been semi-repaired and restored.2 Most of the synagogues in Tripoli were either left in their crumbling state or converted into other types of buildings, from businesses to mosques.
Jews in Libya: The history of the Jews dates back to a time before even an Islamic presence in Libya, approximately 2,300 years ago and was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world before its total decimation in the 20th century. The majority of the Jewish communities were located in the coastal cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, but since the discriminatory laws established by Benito Mussolini when Libya was under Italian control and the concentration camps during World War II, the creation of the state of Israel, and the rise of the dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 1969, the Jewish population has completely disappeared. The last Jew living in Libya is believed to have died in 2002.3 In 1931, at the precipice of the majority of violence and emigration, there was approximately 21,000 Jews living in Libya, about 4% of the country’s population.4 At its peak, there were around 38,000 Jews living in Libya.5
The First Jews in Libya: The first Jews in Libya date back to the Hellenistic Period, living in Cyrene, an ancient Libyan city under the rule of Ptolemy Lagos in 323 BCE.6
The Jews Under Various Regimes: Libya has a long history of control being passed among various regimes in modern times. The most significant waves of discrimination and violence began in 1911 with Italy’s takeover of Libya and Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1930s. With Mussolini’s presence in Libya, several discriminatory laws were implemented against Jews.7
During World War II, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration and labor camps in North Africa, and some were even sent to the concentration camps of central and western Europe. Most were sent to the camps in 1942, when German troops occupied the Jewish quarter of Benghazi and sent more than 2,000 Jews to labor camps in the desert.8
In 1945, a deadly riot in Tripoli killed nearly 150 Jews and destroyed nearly every single synagogue. In 1948, the state of Israel was created and most of Libya’s remaining Jews left for Israel. Those that remained were subjected to heightened violence.9 More Jews fled again in 1951 when Libya was granted membership to the Arab League. Following the Six-Day War in Israel in 1967, the 7,000 Jews left endured more pogroms and more left, leaving only about 100 Jews left in the whole of Libya.10
Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969, all properties owned by Jews were taken by the government and all debts owed to Jews cancelled.11 The situation for Jews continued to worsen until there were only about 20 Jews remaining in Libya by 1974.12
Libyan Jews in the Diaspora: A number of Jews of Libyan descent or Jews that fled Libya when they were younger have made attempts to reconnect to their heritage. The most famous attempt is by David Gerbi, who fled Tripoli for Italy with his family in 1967 when he was just a young boy. He returned to Libya in 2011 to restore the Dar al-Bishi Synagogue in the Hara Kabira neighborhood, which was once Tripoli’s Jewish quarter. His attempts were thwarted by violent protests against his attempts and he was forced to leave the country. The last known Jewish citizen of Libya died in 2003.13