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Back to Benghazi

James Marlow, London

Nearly five decades after Libya’s Jewish expulsion, expat and international rights advocate Raphael Luzon still had faith in restitution — until he found himself with a gun at his head

Thursday, October 27, 2016

 Mishpacha image

MOMENT OF TRUTH Facing 20 militiamen armed with Kalashnikov rifles, it suddenly hit Raphael that this was it. Fearing the worst, he began to say the Shema Yisrael prayer and asked Hashem to have compassion on him. Then he noticed he was being driven out of Benghazi (Photos: Blend Video and Photography)

A lone in a cell in the scorching Libyan summer surrounded by the stench of urine is what Raphael Luzon recalls of his incarceration in July 2012, when he was thrown into a Benghazi jail by a radical militia. With nothing but a tattered brown leather armchair, and the Saharan heat penetrating through the window cracks, he had little to distract him from the whimpering of prisoners tortured under interrogation and the ominous barking of a dog in the distance. “Shall we behead you or just shoot you?” his tormentors threatened.

During every one of those eight long days he was held, Mr. Luzon expected to be killed. He says now that the thought of death in that hole seemed surprisingly calming. “I was all alone with my thoughts” he said. “They’d taken everything from me — even my watch so I wouldn’t even be able to hold on to time. I was obsessed with worry for my wife, daughter, and two sisters [then safe in London].”

Raphael Luzon, a resident of England and chairman of the Union of Jews of Libya, had just been to the country two months before, in May 2012, at the request of local opposition forces — half a year after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had been killed by Sunni Islamists with the help of a devastating air bombardment by NATO forces against his loyal supporters.

“I felt very honored to be invited by the new government officials and security team” he said, but added, “On the one hand I was very happy to see Libya free, but when I arrived in Tripoli, I saw no law and order. Vehicles were driving without license plates and no police were in the street — it was the beginning of anarchy.”

Moderate opposition groups wanted to include Luzon in discussions on the future of post-Gaddafi Libya, which was then in the midst of a fierce civil war. Still, they gave him an assurance he would be protected, and he was assigned special security during his trip, which essentially passed peacefully.

“I really believed in re-establishing a Jewish community in Benghazi and Tripoli and wrote about it in a number of Libyan publications,” Luzon says. “There was also enormous support from Muslims and politicians to permit Jews exiled after the pogroms of June 1967 to return to their communities and synagogues.”

It wasn’t Mr. Luzon’s first trip back to his native land since the Jewish community was exiled nearly five decades ago. Even though the Libyan Jews were expelled in utter humiliation and many were left virtually penniless, the exiles somehow still preserved a warm corner in their hearts for their native country. Having been active in Libya’s Jewish expatriate community and having met with Libyan government officials in various European locales over the years, Mr. Luzon was not altogether surprised that the Libyan government tendered the invitation to him to come back for two separate visits in 2010.

“I was told that the invitation came from Gaddafi himself, on the condition that I would bring along my elderly mother, so that the visit could be seen as humanitarian,” he told Mishpacha in an interview six years ago following that historic visit.

On that first visit in June 2010, Mr. Luzon did not personally meet Gaddafi, though the Libyan leader did send his visitor a written greeting. Mr. Luzon met with Libya’s minister of intelligence, Abu Zaid Omar Dourdaa and Suleiman el Shehoumi, head of international relations for the Libyan parliament, whom he had previously met at European conferences. Luzon was invited again in September, when he was brought to Gaddafi’s presidential palace, surrounded by guards and soldiers.

Dourdaa announced each guest as they lined up to greet the leader. When he announced Raphael’s name, Dourdaa added a title: “Union of the Jews of Libya.” Gaddafi asked Dourdaa to tell Raphael to wait on the side. After greeting all the other guests, Gaddafi turned to Raphael: “What do you ask of me?”

Luzon replied “The right to return to my home country.”

Gaddafi asked “Don’t you want compensation and the return of your property?”

Luzon explained that would be taken care of by a committee, but added: “I want justice for my family murdered in Tripoli.”

Gaddafi replied “I never killed any Jews. King Senussi committed those crimes.”

Luzon, his confidence boosted, replied: “But you did destroy the Jewish cemeteries of Tripoli and Benghazi.”

Gaddafi asked: “What are your immediate demands?” to which Raphael replied firmly: “I want a plaque remembering the Jews who lived in Libya for more than 2000 years.” Gaddafi told Luzon to create the text before turning to Dourdaa to make sure it would all be taken care of.

The Libyan leader then expressed a willingness to allow the Jews to return to Libya.

Death Trap

After three successful trips — two in 2010 and again in May 2012, seven months after Gaddafi was killed — Luzon returned to Libya again in July of 2012, despite the raging war that was worsening every day between radical Islamists and the moderate Muslim groups.

Only this time, the Israel Channel 2 News crew asked if they could join him in order to make a documentary about the former Libyan Jewish communities that were now confined to the history books.

Making sure the two Israelis had European passports, Mr. Luzon agreed to take them along. They all met in Rome early one Monday morning as they lined up to show their European passports on their way to Tripoli. The Libyan opposition parties, who guaranteed Luzon’s security two months earlier, offered the same security assurances on this trip, but pointed out to him that the fighting was intensifying in many parts of Libya and it definitely was not danger-free.

For Raphael Luzon, a nostalgic walk through the Benghazi shuk evokes memories of what his family left behind

But that didn’t deter Raphael, who still remembered how to get around the land of his birth 45 years after his family’s exile. The travelers arrived in Tripoli and were met by security who accompanied them to their hotel. Within half an hour Raphael, the journalist and the cameraman set out to film the Jewish quarter of Tripoli; interviews had already been set up, including one with a Jewish woman who had converted to Islam.

“Truthfully, I was quite scared that people would find out my companions were Israeli,” Raphael admitted. But it was not long before he discovered that he was the problem, as people recognized him as a Jew as soon as he stepped outside the hotel.

A bearded man dressed in a kaftan asked Luzon aggressively, “Who are you and where are you from?” He replied in Arabic, “I am here to accompany two journalists for a documentary on Tripoli.”

Raphael Luzon had already become a well-known face — he had regularly appeared on Libyan television and had penned multiple articles and opinion pieces in the Libyan daily newspapers. “The new Libyan chief of intelligence, who is a religious Muslim and someone who I’m in regular contact with, said to me, ‘I swear in the name of Allah, after the name Colonel Gaddafi, you have the most popular name in the country.’”

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