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Monday, October 03, 2011

Idealistic Libyan Jew meets the reality of the "Arab Spring"

From Reuters on Sunday:
In the walled old city of Tripoli, Libya's independence flag pokes through crumbling buildings and a gang of children wielding toy pistols tear through dusty alleyways.

In these run-down streets stands the empty, faded peach-colored Dar Bishi synagogue.

The interior can only be seen by climbing up the rubble of a collapsed house and the ark, which would normally shelter the Torah scroll, is instead stuffed with a mattress.

The Hebrew inscription above it "Hear, O Israel" is barely perceptible from wear, and empty paint cans are strewn across the floor. The site of the mikve baths, used once for ritual cleansing, is now a trash dump where stray cats scour for food next to a discarded washing machine as veiled women look on.

Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi said he has dreamed of restoring this synagogue for 10 years, when smoke from New York's burning Twin Towers evoked one of the most powerful memories of his Libyan childhood.

Gerbi says he is the first Jew to return to Libya since the revolt that ousted Gadhafi in August.

Now that Gadhafi is gone, Gerbi wants to help interim Libyan leaders rebuild the lost Libya of his childhood and foster the type of religious tolerance between Jews and Muslims that exists in other parts of the Maghreb such as Morocco.

And he wants the Dar Bishi synagogue to be the symbol of reconciliation between Jewish and Muslim Libyans.

Talking over the Muslim call to prayer one evening last week, he told Reuters: "Some tell me I need to accept it's over. I say no, it's our shop, it's our synagogue and it's not over."
At first it looked like things were going well. From WSJ early today:
Wearing prayer tassels, a yarmulke and Star of David pendant, the man who says he is the first Libyan Jew to return to the country since Moammar Gadhafi's ouster on Sunday reopened the city's lone synagogue for the first time in 44 years.

Reopening the Dar Bishi Synagogue stands as a bold challenge to the country's new leaders to prove their commitment to the pluralistic democratic values they espouse, said David Gerbi, who fled to Rome in 1967 at the age of 12.

In Libya, as in much of the Arab world, animosity toward Israel has often translated into vehement anti-Semitism. One of the more common swipes at Col. Gadhafi in recent months by Libyans was the widely believed allegation that he had Jewish grandparents.

The country's new leadership has tread carefully around the issue. NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil met with Mr. Gerbi in Benghazi late last month. Libya's Berber minority have emerged as vocal advocates of Libyan Jews, with some prominent Berber leaders backing Mr. Gerbi's bid to secure a seat on the country's governing council.

Still, Mr. Gerbi said his request for formal permission to reopen the synagogue was totally ignored. NTC officials responded coolly to the news of the synagogue's reopening, calling it premature to tackle such a sensitive issue. It was unclear whether they would allow Mr. Gerbi to go forward with his plans to renovate and restore the synagogue or would move to stop it.
Today, however, Gerbi  received the answer as he experienced a dose of "Arab Spring" reality. From AFP:
A Libyan Jew who returned from exile as Moamer Kadhafi's regime fell said on Monday he is facing death threats over his attempts to restore Tripoli's abandoned and crumbling main synagogue.

David Gerbi, a 56-year-old psychoanalyst who fled with his family to Italy at the age of 12, said he was facing discrimination and being ignored by Libya's new authorities in his efforts to reopen the Dar Bishi synagogue and gain recognition for Jews who fled Libya during Kadhafi's rule.

"This already happened 44 years ago and now it's happening again," Gerbi, wearing a yarmulke on his head and Star of David pendant, said.

"They think they can make threats, that they are going to kill me, but I'm not going to give up. Like they did not give up to Kadhafi, I'm not going to give up to them."

Gerbi said he was told on Monday when he showed up to work at the synagogue that he would have to leave for his own safety.

A man claiming to represent the authorities told him his efforts were provoking anger in the country and that death threats had been made.

"He said 'there are many coming now, they are coming with guns, if they come you will be killed'," Gerbi said, adding that he had been told that a major demonstration against his efforts was being organised in Tripoli for Friday.

He left after four men armed with assault rifles showed up at the synagogue and its door was locked.
A Libyan Jew who is not an Israeli citizen is being threatened and forcibly barred from re-opening a synagogue in the new, free Libya.

Now, what would you call that?