Libya’s Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. They are rebuilt online.

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During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says is still haunting him almost 20 years later.
“I was horrified to see children playing on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli, hopping over debris with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya for Italy many years ago, told the Behdrei Haredim in Israel news site last week.

The experience made Gerbi an advocate for what is known as heritage in his old community. But over the years his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews live anymore, have failed.

So Gerbi started thinking about alternatives. And now the Rome-based psychologist has announced a new attempt to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish cemeteries that were devastated in his native land.

311_Libyan Jews (credit: courtesy)

“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were wiped out,” he told the news site. “So I decided to create a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”

The virtual cemeteries will be areas for prominent rabbis and memorial pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps in National Socialist Italy – as well as other pages commemorating the victims of three waves of pogroms in 1945. 1948 and 1967, he said.

Site users will be able to virtually light memorial candles and dedicate kaddic funeral prayers through the site’s user interface, he said. “It will be a way to remember the dead of an extinct community,” said Gerbi.

The initiative is a cooperation of ANU: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which aims to document the experiences of Jews around the world and over time. Together they ask people with information about Jews buried in Libya to report.

Their efforts are in line with other initiatives aimed at rebuilding extinct Jewish communities online, as their former homes are as inhospitable to restoration efforts as Diarna, a huge website that allows users to see the cities of North Africa and the Middle East to explore where Jews lived.

Gerbi’s efforts are tighter and focused solely on the cemeteries of Libya, where 40,000 Jews lived in communities with centuries of history during World War II.

The Holocaust and the subsequent anti-Semitic policies of the independent Libyan government, as well as the hostility to Jews of the local population, drove them all out. According to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, there was not a single Jew living in Libya in 2004.

Gerbi’s family was part of this migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them one of the last Jews to leave the country. In 1969 the country only had 100 Jews.

The following decades under the rule of the dictator Muammar el-Gaddafi with an iron fist offered few options for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the past decade has been marked by intermittent clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.

Although these conditions were harsh for the Libyans, Gerbi hopes the restructuring could eventually lead to a government ready to deal with the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalize relations with Israel, as other Arab nations do in the region in the region did last year. But he knows this could take many years, and he’s essentially given up hope that officials will assist with the physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.

And the situation of these sites was bad even before the civil war broke out in Libya, he said.

It has been 19 years since his visit to the Tripoli Jewish Cemetery, but “I will not let go of the gruesome sights and terrifying images that I have seen,” he said. In 2007 Gerbi visited the site again, he said, “and I was shocked to find that even the rubble had been removed. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and skyscrapers. There is no scrap left. “

In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes into which human remains were randomly stuffed. They were collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.

Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, which represents the interests of people whose families are rooted in Libya.

Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and old synagogue in Tripoli was being converted into an Islamic religious center without permission.

The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities (read: militias) as there are no Jews living in Tripoli now, ”he told Moked, the Italian-Jewish news site.

“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan is clearly to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”


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