Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Berber Muslim looks after Libyan synagogue

This Jewish Chronicle article repeats the common myth that Muslims - in this case Libyan Berbers - are waiting 'to welcome Jews home'. Not a single Jew now lives in Libya - 90 percent left for Israel in 1948. In the mid-20th century, however, one in five Libyans was a Jew.

In Yefren, high in Libya's Nafusa mountains, a 2000-year-old shul is guarded by Muslims.

It is one of the seven Ghriba - "wondrous" - synagogues of the Maghreb. The most famous, in Djerba, Tunisia, attracts thousands each year to its magnificent 19th century building. By contrast, the tiny ancient Yefren shul is barely visited.

Its quiet simplicity exudes a timeless mystery, a deep holiness. There are beautiful ceiling inscriptions. Six arches and six windows echo the Star of David. Tradition says it contains a stone from the Second Temple itself. And although Yefren's Jews are long gone, now that Gaddafi has fallen their former Muslim neighbours look forward to welcoming them back.

The history of the Jews of Libya is a long book, stretching back to the third century BCE. An important, often thriving community - in 1941 one in four of Tripoli's population were Jews - the recent chapters are darker, including the Italian colonists' antisemitic laws, the Tripoli pogroms of 1945 and 1948, the 1967 exodus, and the Gaddafi regime.

Mohamed Madi, guardian of the Yefren synagogue

Mohamed Madi, guardian of the Yefren synagogue

Yet a different and precious tale threads through this narrative: the Berbers - who prefer to be called Amazigh, or "free people" - whose culture and language long pre-date Arab colonisation. The close friendship between the Amazigh and the Jews lies in a shared, ancient history, a chiaroscuro of joy and persecution.

Mohamed Madi is the latest of three generations who have secured the Yefren shul. His grandfather protected Yefren's Jews with a rifle in 1948. Under Gaddafi, his father secretly tended to the synagogue. The Madis also look after the rabbi's house. Such guardianship, he says, is about "honour and respect for our neighbours, and for their religion".

"We have a very good relationship with the Muslims of Yefren," says Jakov Guetta, grandson of Yefren's last rabbi, now living in Israel. "The Amazigh are special people, good people. They protected the Jewish people from the Nazis in the war. We have had a very good relationship for hundreds of years." He recalls Yefren's Jewish history as one featuring "powerful things, miracles, everything".

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Jews were 4% of the Libyan population in 1931: (with thanks: Michelle-Malca)

The Jewish Press has an article about Libya:

"In 1931 the Jewish population consisted of some 3,000 souls, versus a general population of 165,000. In great part they lived in humble circumstances.

"There are Jewish settlements farther away in Dschebel-Jeffren and Dschebel-Nefussa; there are also a lot of Jews scattered about the land. In 1931 there was a count of 21,342 Jews versus a general population of 552,663, of whom about 20,000 were Europeans."

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Rebels claim 'ancient synagogue destroyed'

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