Qaddafi’s Hatred of Jews Turned on Him



Graffiti depicting Qaddafi as a Jew is everywhere in Libya.


ed note–it is apparent from this article that the rumors leaked early on in the Libyan revolution concerning Gaddafi’s “Jewishness” were Israeli psyops intended to turn his people against him. Something to keep in mind next time some Jewish media outlet is discussing ‘so and so’s’ Jewish background.

Crossing the Ras Ajdir border into Libya from Tunisia on October 24 and 25  required two attempts and three hours, and culminated with an instructive  initiation into a post-revolution reality.

The Libyan side felt like a scene from “Lord of the Flies”: gun-toting,  barely uniformed teenagers attempting to enforce a semblance of authority;  trucks roaming aimlessly, loaded with anti-aircraft guns; occasional tracers  from random gunfire cutting across the sky. Entering at midnight only added to  the surrealism.

Then, there was the Libyan guard booth at the crossing.

Among the first visuals to greet visitors, it was prominently graffitied with  a large caricature of the ousted dictator Moammar Qaddafi, his wild hair  sticking out from under a baseball cap. Emblazoned on the cap where a Yankees  logo should have been was a large Star of David.

Later, after traversing the country as a freelance journalist, I would see  this introduction to Libya as a supreme irony. Qaddafi, I came to understand,  had spent decades conditioning his populace to hate Jews in a bid to build  popular support for himself, as so many Arab dictators have done. And in the  end, when his tyranny and misrule ultimately undid him, it was the hatred of  Jews that he so successfully inculcated which was turned against him.

“Did you know that Qaddafi was a Jew?” the Libyan driver we hired to take us  to Tripoli from Tunis smugly asked me somewhere on the road close to the  Tunisian Island of Djerba, which still has a small Jewish population. “No,” I  responded, though I had heard this claim before. “Yes, his mother was a Jew, and  on his father’s side he was Italian,” the driver said matter-of-factly.

During the course of my six days hopscotching over the 1,000-mile-wide  country, I had the opportunity to listen to scores of Libyans express themselves  freely for the first time in 42 years, whether in person or through other media,  such as music and graffiti. What I found, unfortunately, along with freedom of  expression, was a virulent and ubiquitous anti-Semitism that looks likely to  outlast the ruler who promoted it.

The presence of Jews in Libya dates back to the third century BCE, long  predating the Arab conquest of Libya in the seventh century. But most of Libya’s  38,000 Jews fled in the wake of anti-Jewish riots after the creation of the  State of Israel, in 1948. The remaining 4,000 to 7,000 Jews fled following the  1967 Six Day War. To ensure that they stayed out, Qaddafi, who came to power in  1969, canceled all debts owed to Jews. He also forbade the departed Jews from  returning and confiscated their properties. Jewish cemeteries were bulldozed as  if to show that even a dead Jew had no place in Libya.

To be sure, widespread incitement against Libyan Jews pre-dated Qaddafi. But  the young dictator successfully channeled prevalent anti-Semitism to effectively  make Libya Judenrein, cleansed of Jews, for the first time since  Greco-Roman era.

Two elderly Israelis of Libyan descent have helped propel the notion that  Qaddafi was a Jew: Israel’s Channel Two News interviewed, in February, Guita  Boaron and Rachel Saada, who both claimed to share a relative with Qaddafi’s  grandmother. Though those claims remain unproven, the interview is cited in  Libya and beyond as proof of long-held suspicions that Qaddafi was a Jew.

As we drove toward Libya, listening to a CD dedicated to the February 17th  Revolution, the lead song pulsed: “Tripoli, ‘O capital of free Libya, we accept  no other city than you. Tripoli, beautiful bride of the ocean, who lives as high  as the moon. We live for Tripoli and we will die for it.”

Yet the music soon changed.

With a new driver in Tripoli, as I desperately sought a hotel at daybreak,  came a new CD titled “Rap of the Libyan Revolution.” The first track, “Khalas ya Qaddafi” (“Finished, oh Qaddafi”), rapped in English: “Thank  you Obama, thank you Jazeera, thank you Sarkozy for everything you’ve done to  me.” It then moved into Arabic: “I’m sorry for Algeria because their leader is  Bouteflika, who supports every Jew with his soldiers and weapons. Leave, oh  Qaddafi. Every day people die, every day people suffer, every day mothers become  widows, every day children fear their house will be destroyed, their toys will  be broken, that they will become orphans in their youth, Go out, you Jew!”

Another rap number, “HadHihi al-Thawra” (“This Revolution”), rapped  in Arabic: “From the north to the south, from the east to the west, let’s rise  up, let’s rise up! The anger won’t die, the one who will die is Qaddafi, his  supporters and the Jews.”

Tripoli, known as the “bride” or as the “mermaid of the ocean,” felt  surprisingly normal despite a lack of unified rebel control. Young bearded  rebels who once saw fierce combat were charged with the mundane task of  directing congested traffic around Martyrs’ Square (formerly Green Square).  While walking down Tripoli’s Omar Mukhtar Street I encountered a young  Tripolitan, Mohammed, who looked to be 17 years old. He boasted having four  girlfriends and spoke some of the best English in the city. He embodied much of  the Arab Spring: young, intelligent, ambitious and capable . Within a minute of  conversing, he volunteered: “Qaddafi was Jewish, isn’t that crazy?”

Misrata, on the other hand, resembled a scene out of “Mad Max.” The city,  Libya’s third largest, sitting on Mediterranean coast, had been the target of  weeks of massive bombardment from pro-Qaddafi forces. Now, about 25,000 rebels  belonging to disparate brigades roamed the streets in their jerry-rigged  technical vehicles. Despite the chaos, my contact, a kindly former English  teacher named Hassain Mustapha, was a voice of reason. While standing in the  ruins of one of NATO’s sole targets in the city, a former vegetable market that  hid Qaddafi’s tanks, I asked Mustapha his thoughts on Qaddafi’s heritage. He  furrowed his brow and quickly shook his head, dismissing any notions that  Qaddafi was Jewish or Italian as “dangerous” and “ignorant,” saying that “he was  one of us.”

Through Mustapha, I interviewed Antar Abdul Salaam al-Beiri, commander of the  300-strong group Amir Katibat Misratah, one of Misrata’s militias. Al-Beiri had  a good grasp of Libya’s fluid dynamics. He spoke of the need for democracy, for  closer relations with the international community and for a return to normalcy  after Qaddafi s 42 years of eccentric rule. He was sharp and reasonable, someone  I could envision assuming a position of authority in the new Libya. As the talk  ended I turned the tables on him, asking if he had any questions for me, curious  to see if I would receive a question more revealing than his answers. He  immediately asked, “Did you know that Qaddafi was originally not Libyan?” Mustapha grimaced, but then asked with a knowing grin, “Where was he from?” Beiri proudly responded, “He was originally Jewish.”

Many of the Libyans I met reminded me of missionaries committed to spreading  the word that Qaddafi was and always would be alien to Libyan soil. It was  almost as if the taxi driver, Mohammed and the brigade commander — by invoking  two of the Arab world’s greatest evils, Zionism and colonialism (by the hands of  the Italians) — had accomplished an amazing feat of disassociation between  themselves and the man who ruled them for most of their lives, as if they were  saying: “You know, Qaddafi was not one of us. A Libyan could not have done what  he did.” It was a refusal to come to terms with Libya’s own past. Even a  dictator, after all, requires popular support from some segments of society to  rule for more than four decades.

Benghazi, our final destination and epicenter of the revolution, was Libya’s  first liberated city and, as a result, felt the most normal. My contact there,  Wahbi Kwaafy, a man in his late 20s, was married to a French woman and had  worked with journalists on the front lines. He arranged interviews with members  of the brigade that found Qaddafi. Kwaafy adamantly wanted to make it clear that  a Benghazi brigade had found Qaddafi while members of a Misrata brigade were  responsible for his abuse and death, a distinction lost in the frenzied  reporting following Qaddafi’s capture.

Kwaafy drove me around Benghazi as we chilled out to local rap music. He  spoke highly of the emerging hip-hop scene, noting that “before the revolution,  it was dangerous to rap and no one could live off of it. Now, it is possible.” The music contained similar epithets directed toward Jews. Kwaafy took me to  Liberation Square (formerly Martyr’s Square), where, on October 23, Mustafa  Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Libyan Transitional National Council, declared  Libya’s liberation. Kwaafy explained that large flags belonging to NATO  coalition forces had been flown there, but the Islamists objected. They instead  attempted to fly an Al Qaeda flag, but then the locals objected. Now the square  is populated with smaller coalition flags and hundreds of pictures of the dead.  But next to the square is the courthouse, where at the beginning of October,  Islamists successfully flew Al Qaeda’s black flag.

Opposite the courthouse, on a building belonging to the February 17  Revolution Coalition, as the alliance that converged against Qaddafi is known,  was considerable graffiti related to the ousted dictator, with Stars of David  and swastikas abounding. One drawing depicted him stealing the people’s money.  Just as Kwaafy was explaining that Libyans had no problem with Jews, only with  Zionism, I glanced at a wall that was sprayed with the words “Moammar ibn  Yehudia,” “Moammar is the son of Judaism.” Anti-Semitism, widely recognized as  politically incorrect and morally untenable, is often replaced with anti-Zionism  for cover, but the writing on the wall was clear.

When I raised the unsuccessful return of Libyan Jew David Gerbi, Kwaafy said: “Right, I’ve heard about him. I think he was a crazy Tunisian Jew or something.” In fact, Gerbi’s family fled Libya following the 1967 War. Gerbi, who was 12 at  the time, eventually settled in Italy with his family. But he never forgot his  native land. When the rebellion broke out, Gerbi, a Jungian psychologist,  lobbied on the rebels’ behalf with South Africa, which had a frosty view of the  rebellion and a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council that made  its view important. South Africa eventually voted for the resolution passed by  the Security Council authorizing NATO to protect citizens in Libya. Later, Gerbi  treated rebels suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in a Benghazi  hospital.

In October, Gerbi returned to Tripoli to reopen the historic Dar Bishi  Synagogue. In response he was nearly lynched while praying there. Hundreds of  Libyans protested his presence in Tripoli and Benghazi on the eve of Yom Kippur,  with placards that read, “There is no place for Jews in Libya.” His endeavor  ended under threat of death and with a return flight to Rome on an Italian  military plane.

“It’s easy to get rid of Qaddafi the person, but much more difficult to get  rid of the Qaddafi within,” Gerbi told The Jerusalem Post.

Even if Qaddafi had Jewish ancestry, his completion of the ethnic cleansing  of Libya’s Jews, his support for terrorism against Israel and Western targets  and his backing for Palestinian fighters against Israel during the Lebanese  Civil War (my driver to Benghazi from Misratah was in fact stationed in Lebanon  to provide military assistance) defies any claim that he identified or practiced  as a Jew.

Libyans today may find it convenient to participate in an act of collective  scapegoating and denial, a refusal to admit that one of their own could rise to  such power only to demean and dominate his own people. But a country unable to  come to terms with its history may find itself incapable of building the  successful, inclusive democracy it has promised the world. While Libyan interim  government officials have said that Gerbi’s timing was too soon, a simple  cross-country trip tells me that, at least in my generation, there never will be  an appropriate time for Libyan Jews.

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