One year ago, Rina Debach landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport after a flight across the Mediterranean from the Libyan capital of Tripoli. On the plane traveling with her were two officials from the Libyan Foreign Ministry.
In the arrivals hall to greet Debach were the Italian consul general in Tripoli, and family members who had believed for years that she was dead. Five days after Debach’s arrival, Rome’s mayor officially welcomed her to the Eternal City at a ceremony at city hall.
Why such honors for an ordinary, elderly woman?
Because Debach, 81, born and raised in Tripoli, was the last Jew in Libya, the only Jew still found living there 35 years after virtually the entire Jewish population fled in the wake of widespread anti-Jewish violence.
Debach’s arrival in Rome was the symbolic finale of an exodus that signaled the end of a 2,000-year Jewish presence in that part of North Africa — and also dramatically changed the face of Italian, and especially Roman, Jewry.
But that exodus received a postscript this week, when several Libyan Jewish immigrants living in Italy were slated to meet with Muammar Gadhafi, amid reports that the Libyan leader was prepared to compensate them for abandoned and decrepit Jewish communal property in Libya.
A Jewish presence in what today is Libya dates back to at least 300 BCE. About 36,000 Jews lived in Libya in 1945. The vast majority moved to Israel after the birth of the Jewish state in 1948.
By 1967, only 6,000 Jews lived in the country, most of them in Tripoli. Many of them had Italian passports, as Libya had been an Italian colony before World War II. Many non-Jewish Italians also lived in the country.
After the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, anti-Jewish riots erupted in Tripoli. Jewish shops and homes were ravaged, and some Jews who ventured into the street to look for food were killed.
Jewish community leaders asked King Idris’ government to allow the entire Jewish population to leave the country “temporarily,” and the government agreed — even urging Jews to depart.
“For King Idris, this was considered the best solution,” wrote Stefano Tironi, who interviewed Libyan Jews in Rome for a university thesis on the exodus. “On the one hand, it would avoid a repetition of violence and incidents against the Jews, which would have discredited him in the eyes of the West. On the other hand, eliminating the principal object of popular hatred lowered the probability of further riots, satisfying in this way the most uncontrolled and nationalist sector of the public.”
Thanks to an airlift and with the aid of Italian naval ships, all but a handful of Libya’s 6,000 Jews were transferred to Rome in the space of a month, leaving behind their homes, their businesses and most of their possessions.
“I was 13 when we arrived in Italy, and I was so happy to be out of Libya that nothing else mattered,” one man told Tironi decades later. “Back then, I did not understand the human and economic hardship that was hitting my family and everyone else. I was just happy to get out.”
Another man recalled, “We suffered a lot. We didn’t have any money, we didn’t have anything. A lot of people left Libya with only the clothes on their backs.”
Of the 6,000 who left, 4,000 soon moved on to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. But the 2,000 who remained in Rome began rebuilding their lives in a community that was quite different from the one they had known in Libya.
“We got to Rome and rolled up our sleeves,” another man in Tironi’s study said. “My mother, who in Libya had three maids, had to go sell books door to door. There wasn’t any choice: We had to begin again from the beginning.”
The influx of Libyan Jews had a powerful effect on Rome’s Jewish community, and not just numerically.
There are some 15,000 Jews in Rome, the largest community in Italy, where a total of 35,000 Jews live.
Jews trace their presence in Rome back more than 2,000 years. They are neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi, but follow local rituals. After full emancipation in 1870, they quickly acculturated in Italian society.
The Libyan Jews were more religiously observant than most Roman Jews. They swelled congregations, established their own new synagogues and gave impetus to the opening of kosher butchers and food shops. Libyan Jews eventually achieved prominence in communal, cultural and even political affairs.
Today, Libyan-born Jews include one of Italy’s best-known rock music promoters, a leading psychologist and well-known singers and authors.
The exodus of Libya’s Jews foreshadowed an even bigger exodus of Italians just three years later. A year after Gadhafi took power in 1969, he expelled 20,000 Italian citizens living in the country.
Just last week, during a meeting in Tripoli with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Gadhafi agreed that the expelled Italians would be allowed to visit their former home.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.