Libyan `revolutionary Jew` to restore synagogue
Tripoli: David Gerbi is a 56-year-old psychoanalyst, but to Libyan rebels he was the "revolutionary Jew”. He returned to his homeland after 44 years in exile to help oust Muammar Gaddafi, and to take on what may be an even more challenging mission.
That job began on Sunday, when he took a sledgehammer to a concrete wall. Behind it: the door to Tripoli`s crumbling main synagogue, unused since Gaddafi expelled Libya`s small Jewish community early in his decades-long rule.
Gerbi knocked down the wall, said a prayer and cried.
"What Gaddafi tried to do is to eliminate the memory of us. He tried to eliminate the amazing language. He tried to eliminate the religion of the Jewish people," said Gerbi, whose family fled to Italy when he was 12. "I want bring our legacy back, I want to give a chance to the Jewish of Libya to come back."
The Star of David is still visible inside and outside the peach-coloured Dar al-Bishi synagogue in Tripoli`s walled Old City. An empty ark where Torah scrolls were once kept still reads "Shema Israel" — "Hear, O Israel" — in faded Hebrew. But graffiti is painted on the walls, and the floor and upper chambers are covered in garbage — plastic water bottles, clothes, mattresses, drug paraphernalia and dead pigeon carcasses.
He and a team of helpers carted in brooms, rakes and buckets to prepare to clean it out.
It took Gerbi weeks to get permission from Libya`s new rulers to begin restoring the synagogue, which is part of his broader goal of promoting tolerance for Jews and other religions in a new Libya.
"My hope and wish is to have an inclusive country," he said. "I want to make justice, not only for me, but for all the people of Libya for the damage that Gaddafi did."
Gerbi`s family fled to Rome in 1967, when Arab anger was rising over the war in which Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Two years later, Gaddafi expelled the rest of Libya`s Jewish community, which at its peak numbered about 37,000.
Gerbi returned to his homeland this summer to join the rebellion that ousted Gaddafi, helping with strategy and psychological issues. He rode into the capital with fighters from the western mountains as Tripoli fell in late August.
Now he has hired neighbourhood residents to help clean and renovate the synagogue in Hara Kabira, a sandy slum that was once Tripoli`s Jewish quarter. He said he is funding the synagogue renovation himself, and plans to stay until his project is complete.
He called it a test of tolerance for Libya`s new rulers.
"I plan to restore the synagogue, I plan to get the passport back, I plan to resolve the problem of the confiscated property, individual and collective," he said. "I plan to help rebuild Libya, to do my part."
Gerbi isn`t sure how many Jewish properties were confiscated, but he hopes to find a way to resolve that issue and build a garden memorial on the site of the former Jewish cemetery, which Gaddafi had covered with high rises and a parking lot.
Libya`s acting justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, said Gerbi could appeal for justice.
"If he was discriminated at some time, Libyan courts are open for his claims," he said in an interview.
Gerbi, who fearlessly wore a yarmulke on Sunday and likes to take walks on the seaside street outside the protective confines of his hotel to clear his head, considers himself a Jewish ambassador of goodwill.
He said he faced some hostility in the beginning but has been able to overcome it with old-fashioned glad-handing, although he acknowledges concerns are high about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Dar al-Bishi is one of the few Libyan synagogues with the potential to be restored. Others have been demolished or put to other uses. Some were turned into mosques.
Jews first arrived in what is now Libya some 2,300 years ago. They settled mostly in coastal towns such as Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks, Italians and ultimately the independent Arab state that was run by Gaddafi for nearly 42 years.
Some prospered as merchants, physicians and jewellers. Under Muslim rule, they saw periods of relative tolerance and bursts of hostility. Italy took over in 1911, and eventually the fascist government of Benito Mussolini issued discriminatory laws against Jews, dismissing some from government jobs and ordering them to work on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.
In the 1940s, thousands were sent to concentration camps in North Africa where hundreds died. Some were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Austria.
In the decades after the war, thousands of Jews left Libya, many of them for Israel.
Gerbi said his family went to Italy to escape tensions, thinking they would return someday, but those hopes were dashed by Gaddafi`s expulsion order. Some relatives later went to Israel, but he chose to remain in Italy.
This is not Gerbi`s first trip back to Libya. He returned in 2002, when he agreed to help Gaddafi`s efforts to normalise relations with the international community and helped an ailing aunt leave the country. Gerbi said he had been Libya`s last remaining Jew.
Gerbi saw the Tripoli synagogue during another trip five years later, and even met Gaddafi in Rome in 2009.
But in the end, all his efforts were stonewalled.
"I thought Gaddafi was really with great intentions, but it was all a lie," he said in a wide-ranging interview on Saturday.
Gerbi is hopeful about Libya`s future, although he has not yet been allowed to join the National Transitional Council, which is now governing Libya, as a full representative.
Jalal el-Gallal, an NTC spokesman, said Gerbi`s efforts to restore the synagogue were premature because the government is still temporary and revolutionary forces are fighting Gaddafi supporters on two major fronts.
"I think it`s just creating a lot more complications at the moment," he said.
One endorsement Gerbi has received is from the synagogue neighbourhood’s main sheik, who also offered him protection.
"The NTC says, `You have to wait. It`s a sensitive subject,`" Gerbi said. "I don`t want to wait. Why should I wait when I did the revolution?"
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