In Libya, a land that at times has shown as little hospitality to Jews as its Sahara Desert does to travelers, a visiting Jewish delegation is getting the royal treatment. A group of Libyan Jews who now live in Italy met early Monday afternoon with Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi in Tripoli, according to a statement obtained by JTA from an Italian P.R. firm working on behalf of Gadhafi’s son.
According to the statement, Saadi Gadhafi, a professional soccer player living in Italy, made the initial contact with representatives of Italy’s Libyan Jewish community during a recent meeting in an Italian hotel.
Shalom Naim, chairman of the American Libyan Jewry Association, described the encounter as "a handshake and a photo opportunity" during which no negotiations were undertaken regarding compensation for the Libyan Jewish community, which was expelled from the North African country after the 1967 Six-Day War.
"We had agreed that no negotiations were supposed to take place," said Naim, adding that he had been trying, unsuccessfully, to reach the Jewish delegation by phone. "We believe that a better environment for negotiating will be in Italy. Plus, this is not the right delegation for negotiating."
The group, Naim said, comprised six representatives of Italy’s Libyan Jewish community and was being led by Shalom Teshuba, vice president of the Jewish community of Rome.
Six months after Libya indicated it would compensate Jews forced to flee the country, the government invited the Jewish group to forge ties and determine compensation for communal property left behind, said Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
Gadhafi welcomed the delegation with full honors, calling them "brothers of Libya," said Leone Paserman, president of the Rome Jewish community and a participant on the trip, in advance of the actual meeting with the Libyan leader.
The visit is "an important opening," Paserman said.
"The Jewish community of Libya is one of the most ancient, with 2,300 years of history," he said. "I hope that the resumption of relations can lead to the restoration of some synagogues and the recovery of the traces that bear witness to a culture that marked the history" of Libya.
Advocates have been fighting for the rights of an estimated 800,000 Jews who fled Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s creation in 1948. The visit to Libya is seen as a potentially precedent-setting step for other Arab countries, Jewish officials say.
Arab countries adamantly demand redress for Palestinian refugees who fled Israel in 1948, but only a few have acknowledged the issue of Jewish refugees as well.
The 1978 Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel referred vaguely to the "refugee problem," without specifying Jews or Palestinians. A member of the Iraqi Governing Council reportedly said recently that the country would return properties stolen from Iraqi Jews.
But the Libyan effort at redress appears to be the most significant — and particularly striking, considering the source.
Gadhafi reportedly financed Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group that kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The Libyan dictator still refuses to recognize Israel.
The invitation to the Jewish delegation comes as Gadhafi has made a political about-face in an effort to gain economic and diplomatic benefits. Observers say his Jewish outreach should be seen as part of that process.
Libya has seen its international standing improve steadily since it compensated victims of terrorist bombings it sponsored — of a 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque; a 1988 Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and a 1989 UTA flight over Africa.
Libya also was rewarded for opening its weapons of mass destruction programs for inspection and elimination. President Bush lifted the final U.S. sanctions on Libya last month, and the European Union lifted its sanctions against Libya on Monday.
Seif Gadhafi, another of Gadhafi’s sons and his likely successor, may have something to do with the movement. He told CBS’ "60 Minutes" that Libya wants to be "the spearhead of all positive changes in the Middle East."
According to a recent report in Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Seif Gadhafi welcomed Jews back to Libya, but did so in a way that was sure to raise questions.
"They are Libyans and are therefore entitled for compensation," he said, according to Ma’ariv. "I call on the 30,000 Libyan Jews, including those in Israel, to come back to the land of their ancestors as citizens and leave the land they took from the Palestinians."
While Jewish officials have welcomed Gadhafi’s moves, they say many questions remain.
Gadhafi is "trying to gain brownie points in America," said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York.
"If he just invites the delegation and speaks nicely to them and puts them up in a nice hotel — and then he basically gives nothing — then it’s just a ploy," Mekel said.
Mekel was referring to a report in Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper that delegation members were hosted in a Tripoli hotel’s presidential suites.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also took a wait-and-see approach.
Gadhafi sees Jews as an important part of "this charm offensive in trying to trade and other things that he is interested in of the West," Hoenlein said. But "we don’t just give him a blank check if he maintains the hostile position toward Israel."
Anti-Semitic riots in Libya began during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and the vast majority of Libya’s 40,000-strong Jewish community left for Israel shortly after the birth of the Jewish state.
By 1967, only 6,000 Jews remained in Libya, most in Tripoli. All but about 200 had left by the time Gadhafi took power in 1969, according to Urman. Only a single, elderly Jewish woman is believed to remain there today.
Urman could not assign a financial value to the communal assets the Libyan Jews left behind, but said they included more than 50 synagogues, more than 20 cemeteries, two Jewish community centers, a Jewish hospital, more than 10 Jewish schools, a retirement home and two mikvahs, or ritual baths.
It’s unclear what course compensation might take — from reconstructing run-down synagogues and cemeteries to financial remuneration to erecting a museum about Libyan Jewish history.
Raffaello Fellah, a Libyan Jewish leader in Rome, claims to have Gadhafi’s authority to restore the Jewish ghetto in Tripoli, including an old synagogue.
In any case, the move marks a major development in recognizing the claims of Jewish refugees, Urman said.
When Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a coalition of several groups, was born two-and-a-half years ago, "this issue wasn’t even on the map," he said.
Since then, Israel has stepped up its efforts to record the histories of displaced Jewish refugees, and the U.S. Congress has two resolutions pending on the topic, Urman said.
"Our objective is to get it on the international agenda," Urman said. "The way to deal with it is direct negotiations between the parties," and "in the context of the Middle East peace process."
Urman’s group believes the issue of Jewish refugees can help resolve one of the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Palestinian demand for a refugee "right of return" to Israel, considered a means of strangling the Jewish state demographically.
Because there were roughly equal numbers of Jewish and Arab refugees from the 1948 war, Urman’s group has argued that the issue of Jewish refugees gives Israel leverage against Palestinian claims.
But will dealing with compensation outside the context of the peace process undermine that tactic?
"If the issue on the agenda were only compensation, then that may lay open this development to that charge, but that’s not the only issue on the table. The issue is much broader," Urman says.
Along with recognizing a longstanding injustice, Gadhafi is attempting to re-establish ties with the Jewish world and maybe even with Israel, he said.
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.