Sunday, March 13, 2011

Exiled Jews seek justice, alongside protesters

The upheavals sweeping Libya are opening up old wounds and awakening painful memories for Gina Waldman, but Libyan-born Jews like herself are still denied justice, let alone recognition. Article in J Weekly :

I left Libya more than 42 years ago when the mobs were roaming the streets. They were not chanting for democracy or yearning for freedom — they were looking for Jews.

VWaldman, Gina
Gina Bublil Waldman

I am a Libyan Jew, though I have now lived in the Bay Area for 40 years. The upheavals sweeping Libya open old wounds. Violent political culture has often been part of Libyan society, especially toward its Jews.

There was a Jewish presence in Libya since the 3rd century BCE — one millennium prior to the advent of Islam in the region. We were “tolerated” to varying degrees by successive rulers and continued to be part of a rich and ongoing thread in the fabric of Libyan society.

During World War II, when the Germans invaded North Africa, there were 36,000 Jews living in Libya, mostly residing in Tripoli and Benghazi.

In 1942, more than 2,000 Jews were deported to Nazi labor camps. More than 500 perished. Members of my family died in the Giado Labor Camp in Libya.

After the war, Arab nationalism spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, leading to riots which often turned into violence directed at the Jewish communities. In 1945, more than 140 Jews were killed and many injured in a pogrom in Tripoli. The film “The Forgotten Refugees” highlights these events.

My mother, Laura, escaped by jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she was rescued by a Christian woman. After the riots my father helped bury the bodies of his friends, an experience that traumatized him for the rest of his life.

When Israel became a state in 1948, anti-Jewish riots escalated, synagogues were torched and Jewish homes were destroyed. This resulted in the mass immigration of 30,000 Jews to Israel. By 1950, only 6,000 Jews were left from what was once a thriving Jewish community. I was one of those Jews.

We were not allowed to leave the country, have citizenship, travel, hold government jobs or attend government schools. We were stripped of our basic human rights and treated as “dhimmi,” subjugated second-class citizens. Although I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, I had no choice but to attend Catholic school. I could recite prayers in Latin, but I was not allowed to learn Hebrew.

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