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Bittersweet Trail Through Benghazi

Yair Wasserman and Binyamin Rose

Forty-three years after the Luzon family was expelled from Libya and forced to abandon the land of their birth and family fortune, Raphael Luzon, his sister Rita, and their eighty-six-year-old mother made a triumphant return as official guests of the Libyan authorities. For four days, they visited old haunts, met with members of the Libyan government, and tried to solve the mysterious murder of their extended family. In a conversation with Mishpacha, Raphael and Rita share the highlights and frustrations.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For forty-three years, the Luzon family held on to a fragile hope. Like most of Libya's Jews, they had been transformed overnight into hunted animals when rioting masses overtook the streets during the Six Day War. Forced to leave their home, business, and the grandeur of almost 2,000 years of Jewish life in Libya, the family still nurtured a sentimental feeling for their lives in Benghazi. Last week, they actualized a small part of their dream, when they accepted a surprise invitation of the Libyan government to revisit their childhood haunts as official guests of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi.

The Luzon family's brush with terror began, ironically enough, at a time of elation for world Jewry. It was on the third day of the 1967 Six Day War, just as Jerusalem was being recaptured. That same day, however, turned into one of mourning and grieving for the Jewish communities in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya.

With the outbreak of the war, riots broke out in the Jewish areas of Tripoli and Benghazi. Jewish stores and property were burned and looted. Residents of Jewish neighborhoods locked themselves up in their homes, fearing their neighbors who had suddenly turned into bloodthirsty rioters.

The rioting was concentrated primarily in the capital city of Tripoli, on Libya's western Mediterranean coast. Tripoli's Jewish community of about 40,000 before Israel's war of Independence in 1948 had dwindled to just 7,000 by 1967 as most Jews had already left the country. In Benghazi, 400 miles to the east where only 500 Jews lived, Arab neighbors enraged at Israel's stunning military successes in a three-front war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan took to the streets.

“A mob started to burn all of the Jewish property and shops in Tripoli,” said Mr. Raphael Luzon in a telephone interview with Mishpacha from his home in Europe. Though he was just thirteen at the time, he describes those bloody days with chilling clarity. “They killed sixteen people. Nine of them were members of my family, including my uncle, his wife, and their seven children.” Unlike the victims, who made their home in Tripoli, Mr. Luzon and his immediate family were living in Benghazi. “My father was an importer of pharmaceuticals. They burned all of his shops. They tried to burn our house too, but at the last minute the police came and stopped them. They collected all of the Jews and put us in a refugee camp for a couple of weeks.”

Fortunately for the Jews, Libya's King Idris I, who was deposed in a coup d'etat two years later by current Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, decided to grant the Jews passports so they could leave the country, says Yoram Lunn, a son of Libyan exiles. “There were those in the regime that argued that Jews should not be given passports because they would emigrate to Israel and from there, they would join the fight against Arab armies. But the king decided that he was giving them passports.”

The passports came with a significant caveat, however: Anyone who exercised their right to leave the country was permitted to take just one suitcase and twenty pound sterling worth of currency, or about $30. “My father had been very rich but within a few hours, after the pogrom, he became very poor,” said Mr. Luzon.

Most Libyan Jews initially settled in Italy, and many subsequently made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. “When we came to Israel we looked for a city similar to Tripoli, where we had lived,” says Chaim Arbiv, a former Tripoli resident. “That's why we chose to settle in Bat Yam. The sea and the boardwalk there reminded us of those back home.”

Raphael Luzon set out to build himself a new life. He earned a degree in political science at the University of Rome and held several diplomatic and media positions, serving as a correspondent for Israeli media outlets such as Maariv and Army radio. He lived in Israel for six years, where he worked as director of a geriatric hospital in Tel Aviv and as senior producer for RAI, Italy's public service television station. He currently lives in Europe, where he manages a Judaica company. Still, despite the geographical distance, he is still linked to Libya and its Jewish refugees on many fronts. Luzon is well known as a champion of Libyan expatriates, having established an organization on behalf of Libyan Jewry to preserve the unique Libyan traditions and culture.

“Jews had been living in Libya for 1,300 years consecutively and 600 years before the Arabs came,” he says. “There were no poor Jews in Libya.”


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