Our Zionist policy must now pay attention to the Jewish population groups in the Arab countries. If there are diasporas that it is our obligation to eliminate with the greatest possible urgency by bringing those Jews to the homeland, it is the Arab diasporas. The main thing is absorption of immigrants. This embodies all the historical needs of the state. We might have captured the West Bank, the Golan, the entire Galilee, but those conquests would not have reinforced our territory as much as immigration. Doubling and tripling the number of immigrants gives us more and more strength. This is the most important thing above all else. Settlement – that is the real conquest.*
It is estimated that around 40000 Jews lived in Libya in the late 1940s. Between 1948 and 1951, over 30000 of them emigrated to the newly founded state of Israel. Rising tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Libya, and specifically the 1945 and 1948 pogroms in Tripolitania are often cited as major triggers behind the mass exodus of the Jewish population during the post war period. While these factors likely contributed to the determination of some Jews to leave the country, the large scale migration of Jews from Libya should be considered in the context of the larger Zionist project.
Following the occupation of the Libyan provinces by Allied Forces in 1943, some suggest that antisemitic sentiment amongst the Muslim population was widespread. There were incidences of extreme violence against the Jewish community during this time, most notably the pogroms in Tripolitania in 1945 and 1948. One hundred and forty Jews were murdered, among them thirty six children, in anti-Jewish riots in November 1945. Thousands more Jews were displaced, with homes, commercial buildings, and synagogues plundered and destroyed. The rioting began in Tripoli, but spread over three days to Amrus, Zanzur, Tajura, Zawia, and Qusabat. A widely held belief amongst Libyan Jews at the time was the British Military Administration, who were reportedly slow to respond to the violence, had themselves instigated the riots to demonstrate the Libyans were not fit to govern themselves independently. Others suspected that the violence was instigated by the administration to serve as a warning to Zionists in Libya who supported the ongoing Jewish insurgency which militantly opposed the British Mandate for Palestine. Other members of the Jewish community in Libya, as noted by Harvey Goldberg, believed the Jewish Agency for Israel, an operative branch of the Zionist Organization, was behind the riots, which appeared to serve the group’s motivation of fostering the aliyah or immigration of Jewish populations to Israel.
American diplomat and State Department employee John Utter suggests that while the British response to violence appeared slow, it was only because they were caught unaware, and that blame for the troubles “lay with both sides- Jews primed for provocative behaviour by Zionist propaganda, and Arabs stirred by anti-Jewish riots in Cairo”. Arab nationalism that had taken hold of Arabs in Libya is likely to have been provoked by reports that outlined proposals to reappoint Italy or another European colonial power to occupy the Libyan territory. While Cyrenaica, where the Sanusi forces had actively abetted the Allied effort, was expected to become an independent Emirate, among the post-war proposals for Tripolitania was a return Italian rule and a trusteeship under the Soviet Union. British officer Duncan Cummings writes: “It would seem that reports of the situation in Palestine of anti-Jewish disturbances in Egypt finally touched off the pent-up excitement in the direction of the virtually defenceless Jews rather than against Italians”. Fractious Muslim-Jewish relations and a general sense of discontentment at the time has also been attributed to worsening economic conditions. The large number of unemployed in Tripoli “was ripe to enter into any disorder which might furnish an opportunity for looting”, according to Utter who goes on to suggest that “the Jews were the richest target”.
The end of the British Mandate for Palestine was followed by the First Arab-Israeli War in May 1948, and another pogrom in Tripoli. In June 1948, anti-Jewish rioters murdered twelve Jews and destroyed hundreds of Jewish homes. The Jewish community were more prepared on this occasion and defended themselves against the attacks, causing the death of four Muslims. It is worth noting that according the reports by the British administration, the Arabs of Tripolitania appeared to demonstrate much less interest than had been anticipated on the proclamation of the state of Israel the previous month. However, since May 1948, and despite frontier control by French authorities, Tunisian and Algerian volunteers were travelling in increasing numbers through Tripoli en route to training camps at Mersa Matruh. Simultaneously, Tripoli became a thoroughfare for many ardent young Zionists heading to Palestine via Italy. Also of note here is the repatriation of a large number of Libyan political exiles by the Italians during the occupation. These men had been educated in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo and returned to Libya well versed in the language and techniques of nationalist agitation. Francis Rennel, a British intelligence officer suggests that the pogroms in Tripoli were a spillover from political protests and demonstrations organised by these repatriated groups.
There are conflicting accounts of the actual events of June 12th 1948. Some indicate that while rioting broke out spontaneously, a faction of the Jewish population demonstrated much preparedness, including grenades and signs in Hebrew which read: “It is good to die for one’s country”. Officers in the British administration also reported that on several occasions “determined parties of young Jews” battled with the police in efforts to break out of the Old City in order to attack Arabs. After tensions had subsided and the Jewish shopkeepers outside of the Old City reopened their shops, they were “threatened by small gangs of Jewish hooligans and forced to close again”. Officers in the French Consul too reported “an air of toughness and truculence among his Jewish proteges and officers” and a “hardening of moral as compared with 1945”. A few months after the riots in November 1948, Orray Taft Jr, the American consul in Tripoli affirmed that the Jewish community in Tripoli had become more aggressive as a result of Jewish victories in Palestine, but also suggested that the community was “receiving instructions and guidance from the state of Israel”.
It is thought that the violence began with a argument between a Jew and an Arab in central Tripoli. ُThey were quickly joined by other Jews and Arabs and within thirty minutes the Arabs had gathered and began marching, sticks and stones in hand, towards the Jewish Hara, or Jewish quarter of the Old City. Jewish units retaliated by throwing bombs into the crowd. The rioting continued for an hour, during which time police forces were also attacked with bombs, stones and small arms fire. The following is an account of events of that day from the British Public Information Office:
The Saturday morning and afternoon of June 12th were completely normal until 16.10 hrs. At this latter time a Jewish youth in the vicinity of the junction of Via Leopardi and Corso Sicilia became involved in an argument with an Arab. Some Tunisian Arabs, believed two, in the vicinity, also joined in and words led to blows and a running fight down the Via Leopardi in which other Tunisians from the vicinity of the Cafe Pasquale and Jews from the Mercato Rionale joined. The argument between the original Jew and Tunisians was forgotten and the cry was taken up by Arabs, presumed to be Tunisians, of “If we can’t go to Palestine to fight the Jews lets fight them here”. A crowd of Arabs quickly gathered and made for the Jewish quarter of the Old City via the Bab el Horria, Via Manzoni, Via Leopardi areas. Bombs were thrown by Jews at these Arabs who were themselves armed with sticks and stones. By 16.40 hrs a crowd of about 500 Arabs, mostly young boys, had taken up positions on the high waste ground to the immediate West of the Via Leopardi and were throwing rocks at Jews making for the Old City and others living in houses between Via Leopardi and Via Manzoni. The Jews were retaliating and had taken up positions on rooftops. Looting had started in houses nearby to the Arab crowd. A police officer and a party of police from Market Police Station turned out and on approaching the Jewish quarter from the Via Leopardi came under stone throwing from Jews on the city walls. A bomb was thrown at the police party from the rooftops manned by Jews. This was followed by several shots from small arms. The police party opened fire and succeeded temporarily in clearing an area between the opposing factions. A general stand-to of police was ordered at 17.40 hrs and a curfew ordered from 19.00 to 06.00hrs.
This violence, the massacre of 1945 in particular, is often described as the trigger that would, within an incredibly short space of time, mark the start of the mass exodus of the Libyan Jewish community. While it is likely that the Jews in Libya would have eventually left the country, perhaps more gradually and under different circumstances, Goldberg suggests that along with the persecution the Jews suffered by the Axis powers in Libya during World War II, the riots became a central factor in the emigration of the Jewish population between 1948 and 1951.
But there are suggestions that Jews were on relatively good terms with Muslims on the whole during the post-war period, that these violent riots were isolated incidents, and other factors should be considered when understanding the motivations behind the mass emigration of the Jewish population from Libya. Interviewed for the Jerusalem Post, Haim Saadon of the Hebrew University recalls how many Jews in Tunisian and Libyan cities, fearing persecution by German Nazi Forces in the early 1940s, fled inland to live with Muslim communities in rural areas where they were well treated. He highlights the stark contrast in the treatment of Jews in much of Europe during the war, where they were hunted by locals and annihilated by nationalist militias independent of Nazi Forces. He reports:
There was no violence towards Jews during the war from Muslims. Even between 1911 when Libya was occupied by the Italians, until 1943, there was a lot of tension between the Italians and the Jews, but the Jews were relatively on good terms with the Muslims. The question is how to explain this difference: Muslims gave shelter to Jews during the war during the bombardment of Libya. For instance, Jews lived in Arab villages. They paid money, but their lives were saved.
Saadon recalls the story of Khaled Abdul Wahab, a Muslim who owned a dye factory in Gafsa, Tunisia. He sheltered a large number of Tunisian Jews in his factory when they feared the Germans were approaching to kill them. Saadon suggests that the situation in Libya and North Africa “is not the case of the Middle East”, and while there were notable exceptions to the relatively good Jewish-Muslim ties in North Africa, these were not widespread compared with the mass murders of Jews by locals in parts of Europe and the Arab world, some of which continued after the war such as in Kielce in 1946. Goldberg also affirms that good relations existed between the Jewish and Muslim Libyan communities during the Italian occupation and in the immediate post-war period. He suggests that the war generally, but the bombings of Tripoli by French and British Forces in 1940 in particular led to a “special form of Jewish-Muslim cooperation”. He reports that this period is one that is recalled by Libyan Jews as an era of working together with Muslims, and is in contrast to the tension and tragedy of the 1945 and 1948 riots. The period immediately following the war is described by Renzo De Felici as one of “euphoria” in which the Jewish-Muslim relations were “characterised by a sincere desire to work together peacefully”. For the first time since before the Italian occupation, Jews were able to join the police force and worked alongside Muslims in other roles. It is the period of uncertainty that arose once this euphoria subsided and the reality of the post-war economic devastation became apparent that the violent riots occurred.
A tradition exists of Jewish shlichim, or emissaries travelling from Palestine to Jewish communities, including to the Libyan provinces. Historically shlichim were rabbinic and were sent to collect donations and assist in religious activities. With the rise of Zionism however, their character and function widened, and came to include preparing the Jewish communities to emigrate to Israel. The earliest of these modern emissaries to visit Libya was a Abraham Elmaleh, a representative of the Jewish National Fund, who visited the country in 1923. In addition to fundraising, spreading news and propaganda, and appointing local representatives to local branches, Elmaleh helped establish the Zionist Federation of Tripolitania. During this period, the emphasis of activities was on fundraising and not on aliyah. These visits continued during the interwar period and followed the same general characteristics. Following the start of the Second World War however, the emissaries’ activities in Libya began to change.
Special training courses preparing emissaries for missions in Middle Eastern and North African countries took place in Palestine in the early 1940s. The first of these was organised by Mosad la-Aliyah Be (The Institution for Immigration B) and took place in May 1942 in Mikveh Yisra’el. The course lasted for forty days and had forty participants. Two other courses took place in the years 1942-1943. Shlichim who came to Libya between the years 1943 and 1947 were graduates of these courses. The first post-war shlichim, Ya’ir Duer, Ze’ev Katz, and Naftali Bar Giyora entered Libya through Egypt in September 1943 under false identities. This new type of Zionist emissary’s objective was to organise aliyah from Libya, but on their arrival came to realise that after the country’s return to normalcy, decreasing numbers of local Jews were interested in emigration. Duer and Katz instead focused on establishing a youth movement and training a small number of trusted Tripolitanian Jews in matters pertaining to emigration, defence, and youth activities. Once they realised it was not the time for large scale (and at the time illegal) Jewish emigration, the emissaries placed pressure on institutions in Jerusalem to allocate emigration certificates to Palestine for Libyan Jews in an attempt to arrange small scale, legal migration. Following an unsuccessful attempt to send Jewish orphans from Libya to Palestine, an Aliyah Committee was established in Tripoli. The emissaries left hastily in July 1944 when the British, who opposed the strengthening of Jewish nationalist aims which competed with British-sponsored Arab nationalism, became increasingly intolerant of their clandestine activities. Although only small numbers of Jews left Libya during this period, these emissaries played a crucial role in preparing the infrastructure for aliyah; an immigration infrastructure which Roumani suggests would later facilitate the mass exodus of Jews out of Libya.
It was in the aftermath of the November 1945 pogrom that a new emissary visited Tripoli in May 1946. Yisra’el Gur was sent by Mosad la-Aliyah to organise self-defence and illegal emigration. Gur trained the Jewish community in defence, including the use of light weapons and grenades. He also acquired passports (some forged) for emigrants, some of whom travelled in small fishing boats to Palestine through Tunisia and France.
Emissaries sent to Libya following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 focused primarily on emigration. Rachel Simon reports that these shlichim in their background and characteristics were selected to reflect “to a large extend the political and bureaucratic structure of Israel”. By 1948, the main Israeli bodies operating in Libya were the Ministry of Immigration and the Department of Immigration of the Jewish Agency. Both these organisations were headed by leaders of the Zionist religious party, Mizrahi. Britain agreed to allow Jewish emigration from Libya to Israel in January 1949, and from March 1949, Israel sent four emissaries representing the Ministry of Immigration and the Department of Immigration who organised the immigration of around 30000 Jews from Libya. Officers were assisted by local Jews who helped in the transfer of rural Jews to Tripoli in preparation for their departure from the country. The Immigration Office in Tripoli became a centre and an official Israeli institution whereby the Israeli flag was hoisted on top, and Israel’s Independence Day was formally celebrated. While the Libyans did not object to the presence of the Jewish Agency in the country, which they regarded as an international body, they did not agree to an official representation of the state of Israel, and the office was shut in December 1952.
Once the extent of the Jewish loss of life in the Holocaust became known, a plan was devised for the immigration and absorption of one million Jews (the initial ambition was two million) into Palestine within eighteen months. Revisions were also made to include, for the first time, Jews from the Middle East and North Africa as a single category within their target. Of these 750000 Jews in Muslim majority states, the head of Department of Immigration of the Jewish Agency, Eliyahu Dobkin declared in July 1943:
Many of the Jews in Europe will perish in the Holocaust and the Jews of Russia are locked in. Therefore the quantitative value of these three-quarters of a million Jews has risen to a level of a highly valuable political factor within the framework of world Jewry. The primary task we face is to rescue this Jewry, and the time has come to mount an assault on this Jewry for a Zionist conquest.
Officials often cited the risk to Jews in these regions following the Holocaust, but Esther Meir-Glitzenstein notes that these forecasts proved false. She indicates that while the status and security of Jews in Arab countries worsened significantly following the war, incidents against the Jewish population, such as in Tripolitania, were “not as a result of a government policy or initiative”, and suggests that there “was no danger to Jewish survival” in these lands.
The One Million Plan became the official policy of the Zionist leadership. David Ben Gurion described the plan to foreign officials as the “primary goal and top priority of the Zionist movement”. There was opposition to this immigration policy within the Israeli government, and Deborah Hakohen suggests that many felt there was “no justification for organising large-scale emigration among Jews whose lives were not in danger, particularly when the desire and motivation were not their own”. Such was Ben Gurion’s determination to realise the ambitions of this plan however, details of which were completed in the summer of 1944, that he suggested that soup kitchens be set up if needed to feed the large number of Jewish immigrants.
Although the smallest community in North Africa, in less than three years, over 90% of the Libyan Jewish population had left Libya and settled in Israel by 1951. Rising tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities is one factor that contributed to this movement. Other factors include economic devastation and hardship, and the uncertainty around the future of the Libyan territories. However the mass exodus of the Libyan Jewish population could also be considered as the eventual culmination of the activities of Zionist emissaries, and decades of Zionist education in Libya following the genocide of Jews in Europe.
Arbib, L., 2019. Libya 1945. Trauma and Memory, 7(1).
*Ben Gurion in Segev, T., 2018. 1949 The First Israelis. New York: Simon & Schuster Audio.
Chernick, I., 2019. Nazi Persecution Of North African Jews To Be Included In 12Th Grade Exams. [online] The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Available at: <https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/nazi-persecution-of-north-african-jews-to-be-included-in-12th-grade-exams-598993>
Felice, R., 2014. Jews In An Arab Land. Austin, Tex: University of Texas Press.
Goldberg, H., 1990. Jewish Life In Muslim Libya. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr.
Hakohen, D., 2003. Immigrants In Turmoil. Syracuse New York: Syracuse University Press.
Rennel, F., 1948. British Administration Of The Occupied Territories Of Africa. London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office.
Roumani, M., 2009. The Jews Of Libya. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Shefler, G., 2011. ‘Jewish-Muslim Ties In Maghreb Were Good Despite Nazis’. [online] The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Available at: <https://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Jewish-Muslim-ties-in-Maghreb-were-good-despite-Nazis>
Shenhav, Y., 2006. The Arab Jews. Stanford (Calif.): Stanford University Press.
Simon, R., 1994. The social, cultural, and political impact of Zionism in Libya. Jewish Political Studies Review, 6(3/4).
Simon, R., 1997. Shlichim from Palestine in Libya. Jewish Political Studies Review, 9(1/2).
Simon, R., 2001. Jewish Defense in Libya. Jewish Political Studies Review, 13(3/4).