Exiled Libyan Jew says synagogue efforts blocked

KIM GAMEL - Associated Press
October 3, 2011
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David Gerbi gestures during an interview with The Associated Press in Tripoli, Libya, Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. A Libyan Jewish man who returned from exile to try to restore Tripoli's main synagogue says he has been blocked from the building a day after knocking down the wall that was blocking its entrance. Gerbi says he went to clean garbage from the synagogue on Monday only to be told by men at the scene that they had warnings he would be targeted by violence. Gerbi, who fled with his family to Italy in 1967, says he was surprised because he had permission from the local sheik. (AP Photo/Abdel Magid al-Fergany)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A Libyan Jewish man who returned from exile in Italy to join the revolution against Moammar Gadhafi was blocked Monday from trying to restore Tripoli's main synagogue.

David Gerbi said he went to clean garbage from the synagogue on Monday, a day after he broke through the entrance with a sledgehammer to great fanfare. A messenger at the scene warned him, however, that armed men were coming from all over Libya and would target him if he did not leave the area.

Gerbi said he was told a mass anti-Jewish demonstration was planned for Friday in the capital's central Martrys' Square, which used to be named Green Square under Gadhafi's regime.

Breaking down in tears, he criticized Libyan authorities for withdrawing their support, calling his efforts a test of the post-Gadhafi regime's commitment to democracy and tolerance.

"If they want to prove that it's different from Gadhafi ... they need to do the opposite," he told reporters after leaving the synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Tripoli's walled Old City.

The head of the National Transitional Council that is governing the country was dismissive of the issue when asked about it at a news conference, saying it was too early to worry about rebuilding a synagogue when revolutionary forces were still fighting supporters of fugitive leader Gadhafi.

"This matter is premature and we have not decided anything in this regard," Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said. "Everyone who holds Libyan nationality has the right to enjoy all rights, provided that he has no other nationality but Libyan."

Libya's new leaders have promised to lead the oil-rich North African nation to become a democracy after ousting Gadhafi in a civil war that began in mid-February. Abdul-Jalil and the de facto prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, promised Monday to step down after the country is fully secured in a bid to reassure the public they will not suffer under another dictatorship.

But Jews are widely despised in the Arab world because of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The NTC has taken Libya's seat at the Arab League, which doesn't sanction normalization with Israel without a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians.

Libyan-born Gina Bublil-Waldman, president of the San Francisco-based JIMENA, or Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, agreed it was too soon to try to return.

"I really do not believe that the Libyan people are ready to reconcile with the past and their history and the wrongs that they have done to the Jewish community," she said, although she called Gerbi's efforts sincere and honorable.

Gerbi, who fled with his family to Italy in 1967, said he was surprised because he had permission from the local sheik and verbal permission from NTC representatives. Gerbi's colleague Richard Peters said several men armed with assault rifles later appeared to guard the building, although none was visible later Monday.

It was not clear who was ultimately behind the warnings of violence against Gerbi, although he said the man who gave him the message said there was a Facebook and YouTube campaign against him.

It was a bitter disappointment for Gerbi, coming a day after he had taken a sledgehammer to a concrete wall and entered the crumbling Dar al-Bishi synagogue, which has been filled with decades of garbage since Gadhafi expelled Libya's small Jewish community early in his rule.

He and a team of helpers carted in brooms, rakes and plastic buckets to begin clearing the debris. But on Monday, the wooden door was again closed with a chain and padlock. Gerbi said people who had supported him were now distancing themselves.

The 56-year-old psychoanalyst appealed to the new leadership to set an example of tolerance, saying that while Gadhafi "wanted to eliminate the diversity, they need to include the diversity."

Gerbi's family fled to Rome in 1967, when Arab anger was rising over the war in which Israel captured large swaths of territory from Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Two years later, Gadhafi expelled the rest of Libya's Jewish community, which at its peak numbered about 37,000.

Gerbi returned to his homeland this summer to join the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi, helping with strategy and psychological treatment.

He said his fellow rebels called him the "revolutionary Jew" and that he was thrilled when he rode into the capital with fighters from the western mountains as Tripoli fell in late August.

Gerbi refused to give up, saying he would stay in Libya and press his case with the government.

"I don't want to be a hero, I don't want to play martyr, I just want to be here to support the new Libya and the democracy and to build this," he said.