As Libya looks to its future, one chapter from its past already has reared its head, one that could touch on everything from finances to future relations, if any, with Israel: the fate of the country’s former Jewish population. The highly publicized return to his native land made by Rome-based Jewish psychoanalyst David Gerbi in October 2011 helped bring the question of Libyan Jews, and the fate of their property confiscated in 1970, into the open. The preceding July, Gerbi was appointed as the representative of the Israel-based World Organization of Libyan Jews (WOLJ) to the rebel Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), headed by Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil. Gerbi then traveled to Tripoli in a bid to reopen the long-shuttered Dar al-Bishi synagogue. His presence soon prompted demonstrations and negative publicity, however, and he was forced to leave the country. But that was not the end of the matter. Will Libyan Jews in exile begin calling on the international community to help them seek compensation from the new regime for property confiscated by the government of Muammar Qaddafi? Events not only suggest that they will, but that Libyan Jews are not in agreement about the best way to go about the task. Nor do international Jewish groups and the Israeli government seem to agree.

The creation of Israel in 1948, coupled with anti-Semitic attacks in Libya in the mid- and late 1940s, prompted 33,000 of the country’s 40,000 Jews to leave for Israel from 1948 to 1951. Ten years later, the Libyan monarchy enacted Law 6 of 1961, “Concerning the Sequestration of the Properties of Certain Israelites.” [1] This law sequestered the property of anyone who left for Israel or who remained in the country and was “working on her [Israel’s] account,” and turned it over to a custodian general to administer. Another 6,000 Jews — virtually all of the remaining community — emigrated following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. A number of these people ended up in Italy and other European countries. Three additional laws affecting Jewish emigrants’ property were enacted by the new Qaddafi regime that seized power and overthrew the monarchy in 1969. One of these, the “Law Concerning the Restitution of Certain Assets to the State,” of July 21, 1970, formally expropriated all Jewish property that had been sequestered under previous legislation and turned over to the custodian general. The law stated that the new revolutionary government would pay compensation for this property in the form of bonds, although the payments never took place.

How much property is at stake? Various figures as to the value of Jewish property confiscated in Libya have been floated over the years. Starting in 1949, the Israeli government began recording its citizens’ claims against Arab countries. By 1950, it recorded 203 claims against Libya, worth $1,065,927. [2] By the twenty-first century, it estimated the value of lost property in Libya at approximately $200 million, although it is unclear on what basis these calculations were made. [3] Groups representing Libyan Jews have developed various figures as well. In 1973, the Association of the Jews of Libya estimated the losses at $350-400 million. [4] Others place the amount much higher. Ya‘akov Haggiag-Liluf, head of the Institute for the Study of Libyan Jewry and a member of the WOLJ, put the figure closer to $1 billion. [5]

In the mid-2000s, Qaddafi’s government began exerting efforts to bring Libya out of international isolation. These efforts even included exploring normalization with Israel. In August 2003, Israeli Labor Party official Efraim Sneh and Shinui Party member Ilan Shalgi met with Qaddafi’s son, Sayf al-Islam, at a conference in Europe. Ron Prosor, senior official in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and top adviser to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, then followed up by traveling to Paris in December 2003 to meet with a Libyan official. The story hit the Israeli press, prompting a quick Libyan denial that the meeting took place. Yet momentum toward Israeli-Libyan reconciliation continued when, according to Kuwaiti news reports, senior officials from both countries met at the American embassy in Vienna in early January 2004. [6] In March 2005, the Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli of Libyan origin as saying that a Libyan official secretly visited Israel the previous February. [7]

Discussions about compensation for former Libyan Jews were interwoven with this quiet diplomacy. Just days before the Vienna meeting, in an address to Libya’s Popular Committee for Public Security and Justice, Muammar Qaddafi stated that Libya was ready to compensate its former Jewish citizens, as called for in the July 1970 confiscation law. Three months later, Sayf al-Islam told the Al Jazeera network that Libya “will open the file of compensation for Jews who lost their property and money.” Then the elder Qaddafi again announced his country’s willingness to pay compensation on August 31, 2004. [8] Some kind of action seemed afoot, and Libyan Jewish expatriate organizations began mobilizing to deal with compensation claims.

The WOLJ reportedly began working on compensation in conjunction with the Israeli Justice Ministry, which was at that time the Israeli ministry in charge of Jewish property claims against Arab countries. WOLJ chair Meir Kahlon also tried to take a group of his fellow Israelis to Libya, although he did not succeed. But another group of former Libyan Jews, living outside Israel, was involved in compensation talks of their own. In early 2004, representatives of the Libyan Jewish community in Italy secretly met Libyan intelligence officials in Rome. According to reports in the Israeli press, Muammar Qaddafi agreed to compensate 623 families now residing in Italy, the United States and Israel for properties confiscated in 1970. A milestone in these talks was reached in October 2004, when a delegation of six former Libyan Jews, including Scialom Tesciuba, president of the Welfare Committee of the Jews of Libya, flew to Tripoli to meet with Qaddafi. The Libyan leader canceled his meeting with them at the last minute, but the delegation did meet with Foreign Minister ‘Abd al-Rahman Shalgham and other officials. The various meetings, which included no discussion of compensation, were arranged by another of Qaddafi’s sons, Saadi, who played professional soccer in Italy. Long-time Libyan Jewish activist Raffaelo Fellah, who lived in Italy and who co-chaired the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, apparently played a role in the meeting as well. [9] Finally, in December 2004, a group of former Libyan Jews around the world announced the formation of an international committee to engage the Libyans in compensation “dialogue,” according to group spokesman Paolo Giovannelli. [10]

As Libya’s overall relations with the world and the United States in particular began to deteriorate, so did Libya’s commitment to paying the Jewish claims, and nothing concrete emerged from these various Jewish-Libyan initiatives. But efforts continued. On a public level, an individual named Shlomo Naim filed a class-action lawsuit against the Libyan government in the US, according to a 2004 State Department document published by WikiLeaks. Quieter diplomacy continued as well. The WOLJ’s Kahlon told the Israeli press that he and two other members of his group traveled to Jordan several times between 2005 and 2007 for secret talks on the compensation issue with Libyan officials. [11] Kahlon also sent a letter to Muammar Qaddafi in 2008 asking that the Libyans pay compensation using some of the reparations Libya received from the Italian government that year. [12]

Libya’s civil war and the eventual downfall of the Qaddafi regime have revived talk of Jewish property compensation from a variety of quarters, just as they have ignited disagreement among Libyan exiles and other Jews about the best way to proceed. In Israel, some seemed to advocate direct action to bring up the issue. Kahlon claimed that it was he who sent Gerbi on his short-lived mission to Libya in October 2011 to investigate the situation facing Jewish property. Another group in Israel, the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage, similarly dispatched people in recent years to photograph abandoned Jewish cemeteries and houses of worship surreptitiously. One of them, an Israeli of Tunisian Jewish descent named Rafael Haddad, was arrested and imprisoned by Libyan officials in March 2010. But some Libyan Jews outside Israel have urged caution and a more measured approach. Raphael Luzon, a prominent Libyan Jewish leader in Britain, was allowed to visit his homeland in 2010 for the first time since he left in 1967. In August 2011, Luzon received an invitation from NTC leader ‘Abd al-Jalil to return to the country and participate in its new future. Luzon opposed Gerbi’s dramatic trip to Libya, noting that “this is not a one-man show.” [13]

Elsewhere in Britain, however, other Jews agreed on the need for a more direct approach. Saul Zadka, an Israeli journalist residing in London, decided to press for Jewish compensation by seizing the luxurious London home (reportedly worth $16 million) that Saadi Qaddafi bought in 2009 through a British Virgin Islands-registered company he owns, Capitana Seas. Zadka, who lives in the same Hampstead Garden neighborhood, helped organize the occupation of the house in early March 2011 by a group of anarchist activists called “Topple the Tyrants.” Libyan expatriates later took over the occupation. Zadka also began urging the British government to hold onto Qaddafi family property frozen by the British government in February 2011 pending an arrangement to compensate Libyan Jews. [14]

Such efforts managed to raise the question of expropriated Libyan Jewish property in Britain. On November 1, 2011, Robert Halfon, a member of Parliament who is himself of Libyan Jewish descent, called on the British government to consider compensating Jews from Libyan funds frozen by the British government, including Saadi’s house. The efforts of Zadka and Halfon at connecting Saadi’s house with Jewish compensation failed, however, at least in the short run. The new Libyan government took legal action in Britain to have the house turned over to it, arguing that Saadi had purchased it with funds stolen from the Libyan treasury. On March 9, 2012, the High Court in London agreed that the house had been “wrongfully and unlawfully purchased,” and ordered Saadi, who is believed to be in exile in Niger, to hand over the property within two weeks, as well as pay the Libyan government’s court costs. [15]

Beyond the specific case of Libya, the question of Jewish property claims against Arab countries generally has surfaced in recent years due to the efforts of non-governmental organizations like the US-based coalition Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC). But rather than pushing to compensate Jews who were dispossessed when they left Libya and other Arab countries during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, these efforts have focused instead on using the claims of Jews who left the Arab world for Israel (who are described as “refugees”) as a way to counter Palestinian refugee claims — the right of return foremost among them. Groups like JJAC argue that a wide-scale Jewish-Arab population and property “exchange” has taken place in the Middle East since 1948, and that both Jews and Arabs suffered losses that must be addressed. The Israeli government came to bring this logic to a certain degree of fruition when, on April 3, 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it henceforth would campaign for international acceptance of this narrative of two refugee experiences as an important dimension of final peace talks with the Palestinians — despite the fact that the dispossession of Jews from Arab countries came at the hands of those respective governments, not the Palestinians. As the Foreign Ministry’s statement noted, “The issue of Jewish refugees should be raised in every peace negotiation framework whether it is opposite the Palestinians or Arab governments.” So while raising the profile of Libyan and other Jewish claims for property compensation, this discourse about two sets of refugee exoduses and property losses has not led to official Israeli government support for monetary compensation for aggrieved Jews from Libya.

Whether through such actions, by filing lawsuits against other frozen Libyan property in Britain and Western countries, by lobbying the US and the EU to demand movement on Jewish claims as part of future development aid, or by quiet dialogue with the new Libyan government, the world could well hear more discussion of Jewish property claims against Libya. What is less certain is how far such talk will go. Given what has occurred with similar Jewish claims against Iraq in the post-Saddam era, one should not hold one’s breath.

Endnotes

[1] In Arabic, the term was “Isra’iliyyin.” While this word translates as “Israelis,” British and other Western sources felt that it was referring to Jews, not Israelis, and therefore translated the term as “Israelites.”
[2] Israel State Archives (130) 1848/hts/9, “Overall Summary of the Work of the Foreign Claims Registration Office as of December 31, 1950.”
[3] Jerusalem Post, March 3, 2005.
[4] Renzo De Felice, Jews in an Arab Land (trans. Judith Roumani) (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), pp. 284, 396 fn 48.
[5] Jerusalem Post, September 1, 2004.
[6] Telegraph, January 8, 2004; Sunday Telegraph, January 11, 2004; Michael R. Fischbach, “Will Libya’s Jews Get Back What Gadhafi Confiscated?” Daily Star, May 17, 2005.
[7] Jerusalem Post, March 3, 2005.
[8] Sunday Telegraph, January 11, 2004; Jerusalem Post, September 1, 2004; Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2004; Globes (Israel), September 1, 2004.
[9] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 15, 2004; Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 14, 2004; Jerusalem Post, March 3, 2005.
[10] Associated Press, December 20, 2004; Raphael Luzon, “In Libya Now,” Jewish Renaissance (April 2005).
[11] Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2011.
[12] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, September 16, 2008.
[13] Jerusalem Post, October 4, 2011.
[14] Hampstead and Highgate Express, October 27, 2011.
[15] Guardian, March 9, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Michael R. Fischbach "Jewish Property Claims and Post-Qaddafi Libya," Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).
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