The Jewish community of Libya traces its origin back to the 3rd century b.c.e. Under
Roman rule, Jews prospered. In 73 c.e., a zealot from Israel, Jonathan the Weaver, incited
the poor of the community in Cyrene to revolt. The Romans reacted with swift vengeance,
murdering him and his followers and executing other wealthy Jews in the community. This
revolt foreshadowed that of 115 c.e., which broke out not only in Cyrene, but in Egypt and
Cyprus as well.
|The first Jewish National Fund Committee, Tripoli, 1915
With the Italian occupation of Libya in 1911, the situation
remained good and the Jews made great strides in
education. At that time, there were about 21,000 Jews in
the country, the majority in Tripoli. In the late 1930s,
Fascist anti-Jewish laws were gradually enforced, and
Jews were subject to terrible repression. Still, by 1941, the
Jews accounted for a quarter of the population of Tripoli
and maintained 44 synagogues. In 1942 the Germans
occupied the Jewish quarter of Benghazi, plundered shops,
and deported more than 2,000 Jews across the desert,
where more than one-fifth of them perished. Many Jews
from Tripoli were also sent to forced labor camps.
Conditions did not greatly improve following the liberation.
During the British occupation, there was a series of pogroms, the worst of which, in 1945,
resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Jews in Tripoli and other towns and the destruction
of five synagogues.
In 1948 a group of new olim from Libya arrived in Jaffa and sought a room in which to hold religious services. They came upon a Franciscan monk who led them to an abandoned building, told them that it was a synagogue and handed them the keys. Inside they found a prayer room and a mikva. Later they learned that the building had been opened in 1740 by the "Constantinople Administrative Committee for Jews in Eretz Israel" as the first Jewish khan [hostel] in Jaffa and had provided lodgings and a place of worship for Jewish pilgrims. In the 19th century it was abandoned and forgotten. Located on a characteristically narrow, winding street, the restored synagogue continues to serve the Libyan Jewish community and is a favorite venue for weddings in Old Jaffa.
A growing sense of insecurity, coupled with the
establishment of the State of Israel, led many Jews
to leave the country. Although emigration was
illegal, more than 3,000 Jews succeeded in leaving,
and many went to Israel. When the British
legalized emigration in 1949, more than 30,000
Jews fled Libya.
At the time of Colonel Qaddafi's coup in 1969,
some 500 Jews remained in Libya. Qaddafi
subsequently confiscated all Jewish property and
cancelled all debts owed to Jews. By 1974 there
were no more than 20 Jews, and it is believed that
the Jewish presence has passed out of existence.
Libya vociferously rejects the peace process with
Aliya: Since 1948, 36,730 Libyan Jews have
emigrated to Israel, 30,972 between 1948 and