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Near Lynch in Libya

November 3, 2011 | by Eliezer Schulman and Michal Ish-Shalom

After working with Libyan rebels, David Gerbi faced an angry mob at the ancient synagogue in Tripoli.

Dr. David Gerbi, a Libyan-born, observant psychologist living in Italy, spent the summer in a Libyan rebel encampment, joining the revolutionary forces and providing them psychiatric care. But their gratitude didn’t last for long. He was nearly lynched and then booted out of the country when he tried to clean up a desecrated synagogue that hadn’t seen a Jew since Muammar Gaddafi took over the country 42 years ago.

Dr. Gerbi, international director of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, was the first Jew to cast his lot with the Libyan rebels when he joined the Benghazi Psychiatric Hospital staff to teach the techniques of healing post-traumatic stress disorder among the fighters. Throughout the summer, Dr. Gerbi, holed up with the revolutionaries, assisted rebel leaders in formulating strategies and restoring unity within their ranks when internal conflicts arose.

After Gaddafi was ousted, the interim government, the National Transitional Council, talked about giving him a position in the soon-to-be-formed parliament, as an official voice for religious tolerance in a country run by an extremist despot for four decades.

Gaddafi was gone but he left his virulent anti-Semitic brainwashing as a legacy.

Although the new Libya is struggling for a more democratic identity, Gaddafi’s 42-year rule succeeded in brainwashing the public with virulent anti-Semitism, propagating the myth that the Jews absconded with the country’s wealth to Israel — when in reality Gaddafi had kicked out all the Jews who remained after the Arab riots of the 1960s. He then confiscated all Jewish property, worth about $500 million, adding it to his private fortune estimated at $200 billion, which he amassed by embezzling Libya’s wealth.

While Gerbi waited for a new government to take shape, he decided to spend the High Holidays in Libya. For Rosh Hashanah, he traveled to Tripoli along with the rebels, where he was to deliver letters from the World Organization of Libyan Jews to Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the revolution and president of the interim government. At that point, he was being treated as a future member of parliament.

But a man like David Gerbi is not one to idle away his precious days in the newly freed country of Libya. Gerbi sought to become the first Jew to pray in the abandoned, decaying Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli, where his forebears had prayed. That simple act of devotion proved that undoing Gaddafi’s work would not be simple after all.

When Dr. Gerbi peered into the interior of the shul, he was confronted by a horrifying sight. The entrance was blocked by a brick wall, and the house of prayer that had displayed its glory before the expulsion of Libya’s Jews had turned into a den of iniquity, a place desecrated by society’s degenerates. Piles of refuse were strewn throughout the sanctuary.

“When I entered the shul, the first words that came out were charam kabir — a grave offense. I could not tolerate that God's Name had been defaced in such a way,” Dr. Gerbi told Mishpacha on his return to Rome.

Dr. Gerbi activated the connections that he had amassed in the previous months, including four sheikhs, to clean out the synagogue. “I spoke with the police force and with members of the army who knew me. We were all friendly after all the time I had spent in the area. They permitted me to clean out the shul and to pray there.”

The only way to remove the accumulated trash was to demolish the wall that blocked the synagogue’s doorway. “I bought equipment for ten people to work together — brooms, hammers, work tools, and cleaning supplies.” In the meantime, a team of photographers and journalists stood by as Gerbi brandished his sledgehammer and struck the wall repeatedly. Perspiration streamed from his brow; the job wasn’t easy. At one point, Gerbi even burst into tears and promised that he would not allow himself to be broken until he entered the shul and carried out his mission.

It was now Monday, the fifth of Tishrei. Dr. Gerbi had set a goal of rendering the shul usable by Yom Kippur at the end of the week. He recruited a team of six additional men and paid them each 4,000 dinars. He also brought his own Book of Psalms and a sign inscribed with the phrase "Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid -- I place God before always, that is traditionally mounted in many shuls.

Gerbi spoke with Sheikh Jamal, one of the most influential religious figures in the new Libya. The sheikh agreed to the shul’s restoration and agreed to accompany Gerbi on his visit to the cleaned-up shul.

Going for Blood

The day before Yom Kippur, Gerbi entered the shul and lit three traditional lanterns. While he was in the middle of a silent prayer, “a group of Libyans ran inside and told me armed men were coming and planning to stab me to death,” he recounts. “I was standing there and praying, and I said, ‘I am not leaving. First I want to say Tehillim.’ That actually kept my fear level down. Meanwhile, the sheikh arrived, agitated; I was praying and he was panicking. He urged me to leave, and said that he wanted all the journalists to leave the shul. Then chaos began.

"I’m going to leave through the front door, with self-respect — because I am not acting only out of respect for myself, but out of respect for all Jews."

“I said, ‘Just a few more pages and I’m done. Then I’ll leave calmly. If God wants me to die within the sanctity of a shul, I am prepared for that, but I will not disgrace God's Name. I am trying to make a Kiddush Hashem here.’ In the meantime, people advised me to escape through the back door. For my part, I said, ‘I’m going to leave through the front door, as is appropriate, with self-respect — because I am not acting only out of respect for myself, but out of respect for all Jews. I will honor the Jewish People this way. This is a shul, and I will not demonstrate disrespect for the Jewish Nation.’ The sheikh then said I could leave through the front. I said, ‘Come, let us go out together,’ but even he suddenly grew afraid and ran out the back door.”

Gerbi was driven by the desire to prove that a change had taken place in Libya, that the revolution he had assisted had not been in vain, that Gaddafi’s rule had ended from the Jewish perspective as well. In an interview with a CNN correspondent after the event, Gerbi explained that if Libya were to undergo a democratization process, it had to include the recognition that Jews had lived and thrived in Libya for 2,300 years before they were evicted, a fact that Libyans who had grown up after the Jewish expulsion could not swallow.

“In the Arab countries,” Gerbi says, “the Jews have always fled from the Arabs.” That is the situation he wants to change. “I wanted to show that this time the Jews are not afraid. That’s why I walked around with a black yarmulke on my head and with my tzitzis blowing in the wind. The Tehillim I recited helped me feel my faith in God in the midst of the pogrom that was developing around me.”

When Gerbi finally emerged from the shul, the security personnel who were protecting the journalists were waiting for him. He then broke down in a torrent of tears. “Why was it necessary to hate the Jews? What was my crime in wanting to daven in a shul and to clean it? I couldn’t understand or accept what had happened,” Gerbi relates bitterly.

David Gerbi’s one-man act of religious sensitivity created an outburst of latent anti-Semitism.

David Gerbi’s one-man act of religious sensitivity created an outburst of latent anti-Semitism. On Erev Yom Kippur, the anti-Gerbi protests reached Benghazi, where a huge rally against him took place. At the same time, a massive protest was held at Tripoli Square, along with another one below the luxury Corinthia Hotel where he was staying. It was the night of Yom Kippur. For five hours, hundreds of people shouted that they wanted Gerbi to come downstairs; they wanted to seize him and kill him.

“When I was aiding the revolution, being Jewish was just fine with them. Suddenly they wanted me to discard my Jewish identity?” he says, still hurting. “I refused to give in on this point. I was born in Libya and I am Jewish. The Italian consul called and begged me, ‘Come; run away. People will come to rescue you.’ The hotel staff and officials from the government also came, but I insisted that I would not move from the spot, because it was Yom Kippur, and I remained there. I decided that if God had decreed for me to die during the 10 Days of Repentance, that was what would be. I didn’t want to be a hero or a martyr,” Gerbi emphasizes. “I only wanted what we deserved, our rights.”

Gerbi emphasizes that he did not blindly risk his life without thinking. “I knew that if they did anything to me, the entire international community would be aware of it. The media was there. I understood that I had to leave, but I didn’t want to run away. This was like the exodus from Egypt, when the Jews left in an honorable way, rather than escaping like thieves in the night. The ambassador, the government officials, and the hotel staff all begged me, ‘You will be aiding the revolution if you leave.’ They were afraid for the safety of the guests and the hotel workers. Ultimately, I agreed to evacuate by plane on the night before Sukkot.”

Gerbi remained in his hotel room under de facto house arrest. “The protestors were waiting to pounce on me. I trusted no one, and I remained in my room. For security reasons, I switched rooms. I didn’t answer the telephone, and I took various steps to mislead anyone who might be trailing me. I would take an elevator to the wrong floor and switch elevators in the middle, so that no one knew where I was. In the meantime, I was summoned to the police station; they claimed that I had entered an archaeological site without permission.

“This approach — that it’s an archaeological site and therefore entry is prohibited — this came from Gaddafi,” Gerbi deduces. “I said, ‘All right, I’m prepared to be questioned.’ They were incensed by my acquiescence. They had hoped that I would plead for my life.

"They thought I had come from Israel to take over the country. That’s how brainwashed they were."

“I was amazed that this hatred was spurting forth. Gaddafi had brainwashed the country to believe the Jews had fled to Israel with all of Libya’s wealth. They didn’t even know that any Jews had been born in Libya; they thought I had come from Israel to take over the country. That’s how brainwashed they were. They asked me, ‘Do you have an Israeli passport?’ I said, ‘No, I have an Italian passport,’ and they didn’t believe me. When I told them I had been born in Libya, they were shocked.”

The Long Road Back

David Gerbi hasn’t given up on his mission to salvage the Libyan Jewish heritage dating back to the third century BCE, and believes that, with Gaddafi’s demise, it might again be possible. When Colonel Gaddafi came to power in 1969, the Jewish community of Libya had already been decimated by pogroms carried out by Muslims angered over the Israeli-Arab conflict. From a peak of around 30,000 during the 1930s, only a few hundred remained, but it was Gaddafi’s policies that brought about the community’s elimination. He confiscated private and communal Jewish property, withheld civil rights for Jews, and forbade those who had taken refuge abroad from returning. He destroyed the Jewish cemeteries in Tripoli and Benghazi and converted the synagogues into mosques.

David Gerbi was 12 when his family was exiled from Tripoli, and he says that the trauma of that time — which he carried into adulthood — was what actually motivated him to enter the field of psychology.

“Suddenly, after the Six Day War, the Arabs began persecuting us. As a child, I didn’t understand the reason, and it took me years to get over the inner turmoil of that time,” Dr. Gerbi remembers. “Libya is close to Egypt, and Nasser encouraged the murder of Jews. They took over a portion of our property and placed a dividing wall on our porch, which I could not cross.

“So the entire community fled. Many went to Israel, but my parents fled to Italy. My father had been in the gold and diamond business; he left everything behind. Two years later, when Gaddafi came to power, he confiscated all Jewish property and prohibited Jews from reentering Libya.

“It’s easy to get rid of Gaddafi the person, but much more difficult to get rid of the Gaddafi within.”

Dr. Gerbi made several trips back to Libya before the revolution. In 2002, he succeeded in rescuing his aunt, the last Jew remaining in Gaddafi’s domain; in 2007 he was invited to Libya by Gaddafi himself, after expressing his interest in visiting the land of his birth and restoring one of the synagogues located there, but he was quickly expelled; and in 2009, he met Gaddafi.

In 2009, Dr. Gerbi accepted an invitation to meet Gaddafi in Rome to speak about improving relations between the regime and Libya’s exiled Jewish community. In recent years Gaddafi held irregular talks with Libyan Jews, preferring to deal with those in Italy over those who had settled in Israel, which he would vilify in overblown tirades. He had on occasion even promised to consider returning property rights, but nothing practical ever came of those talks.

“I can still see his face in front of me,” Dr. Gerbi told a Jerusalem Post reporter on his return to Rome after the synagogue debacle. “He had the eyes of a Bedouin, someone who could find water in the desert, but he could not connect with our reality.”

Dr. Gerbi still has hope for a democratic Libya but says the interim government has to make a choice — either to go with the hate-filled Islamists, or to open a new page in relations with the Jews.

“It’s easy to get rid of Gaddafi the person,” he said, “but much more difficult to get rid of the Gaddafi within.”

—Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report

This article originally appeared in Mishpacha, the premier weekly magazine for Jewish families. Click Here to receive Mishpacha’s free weekly newsletter. Click Here for subscription information.

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