- Book Reviews
The Jews of Libya: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement, by Maurice M. Roumani. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008. 310 pp. $77.50.
Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, Libyan Jewry received relatively little attention from researchers on North African Jewry for two reasons: its population (36,000 in 1948) was much smaller than that of Morocco (250,000), Algeria (130,000), and Tunisia (90,000), and available documentation was scarce. Roumani recognizes and builds on the work of previous researchers: scholarly works of the Maghreb by H. Z. Hirschberg, Shlomo Dov Goitein, and Michel Abitbol, scholarly works of Libyan Jewish life by Mordekhai Ha-Cohen, Nahum Slouschz, and Harvey Goldberg, and recent scholarly works from Italy and Israel. Sir Martin Gilbert notes in the Foreword, however, that Roumani brings the research up to date in this pioneering detailed work of “what is now a lost community, alive and flourishing only as a world-wide Diaspora, with Israel as its centre” (p. xii).
The Jews of Libya examines the crucial time period from the Italian racial laws of 1938 to the final Jewish exodus from Libya in 1967. Roumani includes a brief introduction to the history of Jews in Libya (“in reality . . . Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the Fezzan”). But after that, the subtitle accurately outlines the chronological organization of the book: Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement. Chapter One, “The Changing Fortunes of Libyan Jews Under Italian Colonialism,” covers 1911 to 1943, including the introduction of Mussolini’s racial laws of 1938. It shows the mixed attitude toward the Italians: eventual disappointment under Mussolini, but the lasting “friendship that Libyan Jews felt for the Italian people in contrast to the Italian authorities” (p. 36). Roumani also discusses the Libyan Jews who stayed in Italy following the evacuation from Libya 1967.
Chapter Two, “The British Military Administration: Hopes and Disillusion,” covers January 23, 1943, when the British (as part of the Allied forces) liberated Libya from the Nazis, to 1951 when Libya became a fiercely independent nation. After being freed from Nazi concentration and labor camps, Libyan Jews still hoped to reclaim their previous lives in Libya. But, a pogrom in 1945 and more attacks in June 1948 following the establishment of Israel convinced them that the fervent independent Arab nationalism required them to exit Libya rapidly despite heavy costs. Chapter Three, “The Role of International Jewish Organizations: Rehabilitation and Protection of Minority Rights,” details daily life for Libyan Jews both before and after Libyan independence in 1951, especially showing the effects of “a new age in which minority groups in North Africa and the Middle East became marginalized by triumphant Arab nationalism” (p. 68). International Jewish organizations gave much greatly appreciated help, but the end was evident.
Emphasizing the end of the 2000-year old community, a little over half of the book, Chapters Four through Six, discuss the Libyan Jewish community’s life in a “world-wide Diaspora” with Israel at the center. Chapter 4, “Exodus: The Choice of Israel,” discusses some illegal immigration to Israel from 1943 to 1948, and then details the massive exodus from Libya whereby within three years following January 29, 1949, when the British gave permission for Jews to immigrate to Israel, over 90% of the Libyan Jews overcame tremendous odds to make aliyah. Nationalist and Muslim fervor, the failure to receive minority rights, and antisemitic riots in Libya hastened the massive departure. Nearly all savings, accumulated in a nearly 2000-year residence, had to be left behind. This loss by Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews is still largely ignored by the world.
The approximately 30,000 Libyan Jews who went to Israel beginning in 1949 formed one of the first immigration waves to Israel. Chapter Five, “Settlement in Israel: The Pains of Displacement and the Difficulties of Absorption” admirably details these immigrants, the absorption of which was not pleasant (p. 161). Roumani discusses the decade of hardships following arrival in Israel (p. 185), but also the integration into Israeli life. He analyzes family size, education, professional mobility, and inter-ethnic marriages as indicators of integration, and concludes that integration was easier and relatively more successful than it was for other Asian/African communities because of the Libyan Jewish “tradition of adaptability to a new situation” while simultaneously preserving traditions (p. 185). Roumani concludes that “Libyan Jews in Israel today continue to be a vibrant group, proud of their achievements, hard-working and feeling fully Israelis” (p.186).
Chapter Six, “Closing the Circle in 1967: The Final Exodus and its Challenges,” updates the story. It discusses the forced evacuation of about 4,500 Jews still living in Libya when the 1967 war started, Qadhafi’s 1969 coup and its effects, and mixed talks about Libya possibly compensating Libyan Jewish exiles for their confiscated property. Roumani concludes that “Libyan Jews continue to have no illusions about Qadhafi’s regime” (p. 220), but that “[a]s Libya opens up more to the outside world, the Libyan leader might surprise us yet” (p. 222). The last Jew to leave Libyan soil was 81-year old Rina Debash, finally given permission to leave on October 10, 2003.
Twenty-eight years ago I reviewed Harvey E. Goldberg’s The Book of Mordechai: A Study of the Jews of Libya, and it is a pleasure to again review an outstanding book on the vibrant Jews of Libya. They had a rich history of over two thousand years including many good years, but then the community, within a few turbulent decades, was forced to undergo tremendous persecution, including Nazi detention and concentration camps, and antisemitic riots and attacks from Arab nationalists that forced them to leave their homeland. But, they established successful lives in Israel and other places. Roumani has produced an outstanding detailed, sensitive, and accurate history, including social, religious, economic, political, and personal analyzes. The inclusion of over 900 footnotes, 70 photographs of people, places, events, documents, or newspaper headlines, and a good writing style make this book easily understood by both lay people and academicians. Roumani’s The Jews of Libya is highly recommended to both academicians and lay people.
Abraham D. Lavender
Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies (Sociology)
and Sephardic Studies Program
Florida International University