Bloomberg News

Libyan Jew Wages Own Revolution to Clean Up Tripoli Synagogue

October 04, 2011

Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- David Gerbi, a member of the Libyan Jewish diaspora who was driven from the only remaining synagogue in Tripoli earlier this week, says he may soon be permitted to return and finish his cleanup efforts.

Wearing an “I Love Libya” T-shirt and a necklace with a Star of David pendant, Gerbi said he is working with local officials to get authorization to return to the Dar Bishi synagogue. He was advised to leave the religious site earlier this week, a day after opening it for the first time in years.

“What I am asking is to just take the garbage out,” Gerbi said in an interview in the capital late yesterday. “I cannot see the name of God with garbage.”

The National Transitional Council, which is trying to unite the factions that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi and restore stability in Libya after eight months of fighting, has vowed to forge a democratic, moderate Muslim nation that respects human rights. Its handling of the synagogue cleanup will test these promises, said Gerbi, a 57-year-old psychoanalyst.

Jalal Galal, a spokesman for the NTC in Tripoli, said he couldn’t predict whether Gerbi would be permitted to return.

“The fact that he can move around freely is an indication of how Libya has changed,” Galal said. “The NTC is a temporary body and isn’t prepared to deal with this sensitive issue right now.”

Safety Risk

Gerbi, whose family fled the country for Italy during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, said he arrived in Tripoli with rebel forces at the end of August, shortly after Qaddafi’s rule in the city collapsed.

Two days ago, he visited Dar Bishi with cash to pay a cleanup crew and managed to get some work done at the rubble- filled synagogue before being advised to leave by a group of people who previously blessed his efforts, including a local Islamic sheikh. He said he was told his presence was a sensitive issue and that his safety was at risk.

The 200-year-old crumbling synagogue was abandoned when Qaddafi came to power in 1969, according to Gerbi. Two other synagogues in the city were turned into mosques, he said.

Gerbi said he flew to Benghazi in May to support the revolt against Qaddafi that broke out in February. He stayed for eight days, working in a hospital, before flying back to Italy after being told Qaddafi loyalists threatened his life.

His return to Libya this year wasn’t his first. He traveled to the North African country in 2002 to retrieve his aunt, the last Jew still living in Libya, he said. He returned in 2007 to restore the synagogue, only to be interrogated and deported a few days after arriving.

The 2,000-year-old Jewish community in Tripoli numbered about 38,000 before Israel was established in 1948, he said. About 7,000 Libyan Jews remained in 1967 when his family fled, leaving a business and home.

“It’s a revolution to get Qaddafi out of people’s minds,” Gerbi said. “This time, I am not running away.”

--With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London. Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Andrew Atkinson

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Tuttle in Tripoli, Libya, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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