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The Jews of Libya

Coexistence, Persecution, Resettlement

Maurice M. Roumani, born in Benghazi, Libya, is a Professor in Political Sociology and the Middle East at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel where he is also the founder and Director of the J.R. Elyachar Center for the Study of Sephardi Heritage. A graduate of Brandeis University, the University of Chicago and the University of London, he has held teaching and research positions at American, Italian and Israeli universities.

In this revised edition Prof. Roumani presents new and original material on the deportation of Libyan Jews to French North Africa, offering new insights and aspects of the consequences of the Racial Laws and of anti-Semitism as rooted in Fascist ideology. He reveals one the unknown incidents (accidents) of the war, the bombing of La Marsa, and the resulting massacre of many Libyan Jews. The end of the war witnessed the complicated negotiations among the Allied forces in the repatriation of the deportees and the mediation of the AJDC in aiding the resettlement of the deportees in their native countries.

Reviews and endorsements of the original publication are available on the Press website. They include: “He uses a wide range of archival and oral sources, many of which have never been used before. Throughout the book, he reveals a mastery of the social and political history, and a fine understanding of the lives, hopes, fears and aspirations of Libyan Jews,” From the Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert; and: “An impeccably researched, richly documented, and keenly insightful survey of Libyan Jewry’s social and political evolution in the twentieth century. He achieves an admirable balance of overall scholarly dispassion with the intimate poignancy of personal engagement,” Norman A. Stillman, University of Oklahoma.

This book investigates the transformative period in the history of the Jews of Libya (1938–52), a period crucial to understanding Libyan Jewry’s evolution into a community playing significant roles in Israel, Italy and in relation with Qaddhafi’s Libya. Against a background of a reform conscious Ottoman administration (1835–1911) and subsequent stirrings of modernization under Italian colonial influence (1911–43), the Jews of Libya began to experience rapid change following the application of fascist racial laws of 1938, the onset of war-related calamities and violent expressions of Libyan pan-Arabism, culminating in mass migration to Israel in the period 1949–52. By focusing on key socio-economic and political dimensions of this process, the author reveals the capacity of Libyan Jewry to adapt to and integrate into new environments without losing its unique and historical traditions.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-78976-138-2
Paperback Price: £29.95 / $44.95
Release Date: September 2021
Page Extent / Format: 380 pp. 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations
Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert
Preface and Acknowledgments
Prologue of Revised Second Edition


1 The Changing Fortunes of Libyan Jews under Italian Colonialism
The Development of Zionism in Libya
The Beginning of Zionist Activity
Zionism in the 1920s
Zionism in the 1930s
Mussolini, Fascism and Libyan Jews
The Appearance of Anti-Jewish Incidents in Libya in the 1920s
The Sabbath Crisis
The “Racial Laws” and their Impact on the Libyan Jewish Community
Second World War and the Plans to deport Libyan Jews to Concentration Camps
The Deportation of Cyrenaican Jews to Tunisia
The Expulsion of Libyan Jews of British Nationality to Italy and Bergen-Belsen
Labor Camps in Libya
Conclusion The Deportation of Libyan Jews and Bombing of La Marsa

2 The British Military Administration: Hopes and Disillusion
The Dawn of the British Administration
The Arrival of the Palestinian Jewish Units
Strained Relations between Jews and Arabs
The Pogrom of 1945
British Reaction to the Riots and the Compensation Debate
Attempts to Repair Arab–Jewish Relations
The Anti-Jewish riots of 1948
The Emergence of Libyan Nationalism and its Impact on the Country’s Political Development
A Reassessment of the British Occupation

3 The Role of International Jewish Organizations: Rehabilitation and Protection of Minority Rights
International Jewish Organizations in Libya
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Medical Operations
Welfare Services and Education
Approaching Libyan Independence
The United Nations, the AJC and the Libyan Jewish Community
The Structure of Transitional Institutions and the Minority Debate
Approaching Libyan Independence in Resignation
End of an Era: Jews in the Independent State of Libya

4 Exodus: The Choice of Israel
Israeli Policy toward Middle Eastern Jewish Immigration
Ben-Gurion’s “One Million Plan”
Illegal Immigration between 1943 and 1948
Palestinian Jewish Soldiers Immigration Assistance
Immigration to Israel via other Countries
Immigration through Benghazi
Immigration through Italy
Immigration through Tunisia
Legal Immigration between 1949 and 1952
Preparation for Aliyah
The Aliyat Hanoar Movement
The Emissaries
Aliyah during Barukh Duvdevan’s Term
Yitzhaq Rafael and his Influence on Libyan Immigration
The Period of Max (Meir) Varadi
Meir Shilon and Haim Solel
The Period of Meir Shilon
The Period of Haim Solel
A Profile of the Aliyah from Libya

5 Settlement in Israel: The Pains of Displacement and the Difficulties of Absorption
The Pains of Displacement
The Hardships of Resettlement
Upon Arrival
The Elements of Adaptation among Libyan Jews
The Integration of Libyan Jews: An Assessment
Demographic Data
Family Size
Ethnic Intermarriage
Occupations and Status
Distribution of Libyan Jews in the Professions
Army and Police
Professions and Academic Institutions
Other Professions
An Evaluation of the Integration of Libyan Jews in Israel

6 Closing the Circle in 1967: The Final Exodus and its Challenges
Creeping Sanctions and Denial of Basic Civil Rights
The Outbreak of Hostilities in 1967
The Beginning of the End
The Evacuation: Air and Sea Lift and Italian Hospitality
Between Libya and Italy: Attempts to Recover Funds and Obtain Citizenship
1969: Qadhafi’s Coup
The Struggle for Citizenship
Recovery and Integration: A Fractured Identity
The Pilgrims Incident

The Deportation of Libyan Jews and Bombing of La Marsa

Appendixes: Documents

In this pioneering work, examining the crucial period from the Italian racial laws of 1938 to the final Jews exodus from Libyan soil in 1967, Dr Maurice Roumani builds on the foundations laid by the scholars of the Jewish communities of the Maghreb – H.Z. Hirschberg, Shlomo Dov Goitein and Michel Abitbol – giving us for the first time a full, clear and remarkable picture of what is now a lost community, alive and flourishing only as a world-wide diaspora, with Israel as its centre. ... The extent of Dr Roumani’s scholarship illuminates the story of Libyan Jewry in its final five decades: its early Zionism, its period under Italian monarchist and then Italian Fascist rule, its torments during the war years, its literal liberation and mass emigration under the British, and its final years under Arab and Muslim rule. He gives the reader an impressive account of the workings of the Jewish community, its personalities, its strengths and its achievements. ... There is much in Dr Roumani’s final chapters that is dramatic, much that is tragic; yet the extraordinary efforts to secure the emigration of Libyan Jews is an inspiring story. In telling it, as in each phase of this book, Dr Roumani uses a wide range of archival and oral sources, many of which have never been used before. Throughout the book, he reveals a mastery of the social and political history, and a fine understanding of the lives, hopes, fears and aspirations of Libyan Jews. His book is a testimony to their suffering and their fortitude.
From the Foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert

This is a significant contribution to the modern history of the smallest and, regrettably, least studied Jewish community of North Africa. It is an important case study of Jewish modernization in an Islamic land under colonial rule and national independence, and while exhibiting certain parallels with the diaspora communities in the French Maghreb, it also exhibits no-less-important differences due not only to nature of Italian rule, but to the distinct character of the Libyan Jewry itself. Maurice Roumani has given us an impeccably researched, richly documented, and keenly insightful survey of Libyan Jewry’s social and political evolution in the twentieth century. He brings to the study not merely the observations of a trained scholar with all of the requisite linguistic and methodological skills, but also the real life experience of someone who lived through the turbulent events of the period and was an actual witness to some of them. It is to Roumani’s great credit that he is able to achieve an admirable balance of overall scholarly dispassion with the intimate poignancy of personal engagement. The Jews of Libya will surely take its place alongside the pioneer studies of Renzo De Felice and Harvey Goldberg.
Norman A. Stillman, Schusterman/Josey Professor of Judaic History, University of Oklahoma

Roumani examines the modern history of Libyan Jews from ca. 1911 to ca. 1969 with chapters chronologically covering the Libyan Jews under the Italian colonialism, the British military administration, the role of international Jewish organizations in the rehabilitation and protection of minority rights between the end of British occupation and the independent Libyan state, the exodus to Israel, settlement in Israel, and the final exodus following the outbreak of hostilities in 1967. An appendix includes copies of historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, and others pertinent to the topic. Roumani writes in a clear voice, and the book will prove valuable to students and scholars of modern Jewish history.
Reference & Research Book News

In 1948, 36,000 Jews lived in Libya. Today, none do. Roumani, a Ben-Gurion University political scientist born in Libya, has created a masterful account of the last decades of this vanished community. … In 1911, the Italian army conquered Libya. The resulting Italian administration approached the Libyan Jewish community through its experience of Rome's positive relations with its Jewish community. There were marked differences between the two communities, however, leading to tumultuous relations for the ensuing two decades. Libyan Jews resisted both Italian rabbis and the reforms they sought to oversee as they fought to preserve their identity. Italian society did influence Libyan Jewry, however, catalyzing Zionism, for example. Hebrew classes became a fixture in Libyan Jewish communities in the 1920s and 1930s. Bad accompanied good, though; as anti-Semitism grew in Italy during the fascist period, anti-Jewish incidents increased in Libya, and as the Axis oriented its foreign policy toward the Arabs, Italian leaders privileged Libya’s Arabs over its Jews. As the Axis solidified in the late 1930s, Rome imposed anti-Semitic race laws on both Italy and Libya. Libyan Jews were interned in local labor camps, deported, and, in some cases, transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
... As postwar Arab nationalism grew, anti-Jewish rioting and pogroms worsened. Arab hostility increased as independence neared, forcing Libyan Jews to choose between emigration to Israel or Europe or life under a hostile Arab government. Most chose the former, but a hardy core remained. Here, Roumani's detail is stellar. Exploring archives from Jerusalem to Rome to New York, as well as contemporary Arabic and Hebrew newspaper accounts, he recounts the organizational involvement of international Jewish agencies comprehensively and without sacrificing readability.
... Roumani’s final chapter, tracing the Libyan Jews who chose to remain in their country after Israel's independence, is one of the best case studies of Arab nationalist intolerance. Tripoli closed Jewish schools, forced Jews with relatives in Israel to register, and even placed the Jewish community's administration under Muslim trusteeship. Jews could not vote, serve in public capacities, or purchase property. Violence was commonplace. On the first day of the Six-day War in June 1967, Libyan mobs destroyed 60 percent of Jewish communal property. The Libyan government placed Jews in protective custody in a detainment camp from which they were quickly evacuated by air and sea. With Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi's rise two years later, the final nail was put into the community's coffin.
... Libya had a Jewish community for millennia. Within a matter of years, it collapsed. The Libyan Jewish community may not have been the Arab world's largest or most prominent, but The Jews of Libya, nevertheless, should become standard reading not only for students of Jewish history but for those professing expertise in modern Arab or North African history as well.
Middle East Quarterly

Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, Libyan Jewry received relatively little attention from researchers on North African Jewry for two reasons: its population (36,000 in 1948) was much smaller than that of Morocco (250,000), Algeria (130,000), and Tunisia (90,000), and available documentation was scarce. Roumani recognizes and builds on the work of previous researchers: scholarly works of the Maghreb by H. Z. Hirschberg, Shlomo Dov Goitein, and Michel Abitbol, scholarly works of Libyan Jewish life by Mordekhai Ha-Cohen, Nahum Slouschz, and Harvey Goldberg, and recent scholarly works from Italy and Israel. Sir Martin Gilbert notes in the Foreword, however, that Roumani brings the research up to date in this pioneering detailed work of “what is now a lost community, alive and flourishing only as a world-wide Diaspora, with Israel as its centre” (p. xii) …
... Twenty-eight years ago I reviewed Harvey E. Goldberg’s The Book of Mordechai: A study of the Jews of Libya, and it is a pleasure to again review an outstanding book on the vibrant Jews of Libya. They had a rich history of over two thousand years including many good years, but then the community, within a few turbulent decades, was forced to undergo tremendous persecution, including Nazi detention and concentration camps, and anti-Semitic riots and attacks from Arab nationalists that forced them to leave their homeland. But they established successful lives in Israel and other places. Roumani has produced an outstanding detailed, sensitive, and accurate history, including social, religious, economic, political, and personal analyzes. The inclusion of over 900 footnotes, 70 photographs of people, places, events, documents, or newspaper headlines, and a good writing style make this book easily understood by both lay people and academicians. Roumani’s The Jews of Libya is highly recommended to both academicians and lay people.
Shofar – An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies

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