Highest Jewish population: c. 40,000 in 1930s
There is historical evidence of a Jewish community in the area that now constitutes Libya going back 2,300 years. The area was conquered by Spain in 1510 and Jews were subjected to the Spanish Inquisition. Fifty years later, in 1551, Tripoli was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, soon after extending to Benghazi. The Jews who had previously fled returned, and they were joined by many more Spanish and Italian Jews fleeing persecution.
During the Ottoman period, Jews in the area that would come to be defined as Libya were subject to dhimmi status and laws; their fortunes fluctuating with various rulers of the age. However, the community continued to grow and enjoyed relative stability and prosperity, especially towards the end of the 19th century.
1911 Libya was invaded by Italian forces. At this time, Jews made up about 4% of the Libyan population, the majority of whom lived in and around Tripoli. Many members of the community quickly learned Italian, helping them to integrate into life under the new regime. In 1938 the Fascist Italian government brought in a series of so-called ‘Race Protection Laws’, inspired by the Nuremberg laws in Germany.
Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews became illegal, Jews were barred from state employment, skilled professions (such as medicine), and from state schools. In addition to this, all Jewish passports were required to be stamped, identifying their holders as Jews. In 1940 British troops entered Libya and these laws were repealed. However, Axis forces soon regained the territory and over the course of the war, the area exchanged hands five times.
Each time Allied forces invaded Libya the Race Protection Laws were repealed, and each time Italian troops re-entered the country, Jews were further persecuted. In 1942 the Italian regime began a programme of dispersal, or removal, of Jews from the country. The fate of Libya’s Jews at this point largely depended on where they lived and the nationality they held. In the area surrounding Benghazi, French or Tunisian Jews were sent to concentration camps in Algeria or Tunisia.
Jews holding British citizenship were sent to Italy and then, in 1943, on to Bergen-Belsen. Jews holding Libyan citizenship were sent to concentration camps in Libya, the most infamous of which was Giado. In the area surrounding Tripoli, British and French Jews were sent to Giado, whilst Libyan Jews were sent to labour camps, where they were forced to build the infrastructure needed to support the Axis war effort. In 1943 Allied forces conquered and retained Libya, repealing the Italian Race Relation Laws permanently. The country remained under British rule until its independence in 1951.
Conditions for Libya’s Jews did not immediately improve under British rule. In 1945 a pogrom in Tripoli resulted in the murder of 130 Jews, with many more injured, homes and businesses looted and at least five synagogues razed to the ground. In 1948 a second pogrom resulted in the murder of fourteen Jews. During this period, the British governors made immigration to what was then British Mandated Palestine illegal. It was not until 1949 that Jews were permitted to legally leave Libya, which they did in their thousands.
Libya gained independence in 1951, by which time the Jewish population of the country had diminished to no more than 7,000. From 1952 a series of progressively discriminatory laws against Jews were passed. First, Jews were barred from emigrating. Jews homes were randomly searched for ‘Zionist’ material, Jewish sports clubs were closed, and in 1958 the Jewish Community Council was forced to dissolve. In 1961 citizenship laws changed and a new permit was required to prove, and retain, citizenship – this was denied to all but six Jews in the whole country. At the same time, laws were put in place denying the rights of all non-citizens to buy property, work in the civil service, serve in the Army, or vote.
In 1967 when the Six Day War began, further riots broke out in both Tripoli and Benghazi. Twenty-four Jews were murdered. In Benghazi, Jews were protected from the mob by the Army on the orders of King Idris. Libyan Jews were urged to leave the country by the King and other officials and an Italian airlift was organised. More than 6,000 Jews were airlifted and taken to refugee camps outside of Rome. They were each allowed no more than one suitcase and twenty Libyan pounds.
In 1969 Muammar al-Gaddafi came to power. By this time there were no more than 100 Jews left in Libya. Property belonging to Jews living outside of Libya was sequestered and Jewish emigration was once again made illegal. Despite this prohibition on travel, by the early 2000s, there were no more Jews living in Libya.