Lors d’un colloque passionnant organisé, le 5 octobre, au collège catholique des Bernardins sur la vie de Jacques Berque, la pensée de l’ancien professeur au Collège de France a été totalement dénaturée par un ancien ambassadeur de France en Israel.
Le 5 octobre, un public nombreux est venu participer à un colloque sur Jacques Berque (1910-1995) organisé au collège des Bernardins. Les participants se sont déplacés en nombre à cause de l’impression de censure de l’oeuvre du grand arabisant par des néo-orientalistes, des islamologues auto-proclamés et des orateurs musulmans en mal de médiatisation. Ainsi la citation du nom de Berque a été soigneusement évitée dans les discours prononcés à la leçon inaugurale d’une chaire au Collège de France sur les manuscrits du Coran, où furent mentionnées toutes les chaires d’arabe depuis Guillaume Postel.
Il y a eu pire. Grisée par les soutiens politiques qui en firent la bénéficiaire du détournement du projet d’Ecole des Hautes Etudes de l’Islam présenté par Chevènement en 1998, la directrice de l’ISSMM croyait pouvoir améliorer sa valeur scientifique en critiquant Berque, à qui elle reproche surtout ses écrits favorables aux Palestiniens.
L’émission « islamique » elle-même, qui doit sa création en 1983 à Berque en contact à l’époque avec Mitterrand, a laissé un éditeur l’accuser de « radicalisme » au motif qu’il avait prévu l’échec des accords d’Oslo.
« Il reste un avenir »
A l’ouverture du colloque, Charles Saint Prot a lu un message chaleureux adressé par Chevènement, en tant que président de la nouvelle Fondation des œuvres de l’Islam qui cherche à prévenir les radicalisations en faisant connaître les grandes figures de l’Islam en France et les islamologues dont l’œuvre peut être utile pour l’éducation musulmane.
Jean Sur et Mustafa Chérif qui, pour avoir connu Berque de près, sont des familiers de son œuvre, ont rappelé les grands axes de sa pensée et ses prises de position en faveur d’ « une cause jamais »-Ils paraphrasent le titre d’un ouvrage posthume regroupant des articles dont les plus anciens remontent au début de la guerre d’Algérie et les plus récents à « la guerre américaine contre l’Irak ». Les intervenants ont puisé aussi dans « Il reste un avenir », un livre paru à la fin de la vie du grand arabisant qui, malgré les difficultés de l’heure, ne perdait jamais espoir.
Thierry Rambaud de l’université Paris V a souligné l’actualité des propositions sur l’Islam en France et l’enseignement de la langue arabe. Ces propositions datent de trente ans, mais elles gardent leur pertinence surtout après la découverte, suite aux attentats de 2015, de la nécessité de remédier aux carences éducatives des organisations islamiques, des fédérations et des grandes mosquées réunies.
Un professeur de l’université d’El Azhar a analysé les controverses suscitées par la traduction du Coran par Berque. Il nous apprend que la professeur de littérature de l’université du Caire qui avait critiqué Berque avec véhémence a commis un grand nombre d’erreurs quand elle a traduit le Coran à son tour. La traduction de Berque est sortie, en janvier 1991, en même temps que celle d’André Chouraqui qui a bénéficié d’une grande couverture médiatique. L’ancien maire-adjoint de Jérusalem s’était fait accompagné à la télévision par Mahmoud Azeb, un professeur du département d’hébreu d’El Azhar détaché en France. La présence d’Azab aux côtés de Chouraqui a fait croire que la prestigieuse université islamique l’aurait chargé d’approuver la traduction. La même semaine, un chroniqueur religieux publiait à la Une du Monde un compte rendu dithyrambique faisant état d’une approbation comparable du grand érudit musulman de Paris, Muhammad Hamidullah. Celui-ci a envoyé un démenti formel que le journal du soir n’a jamais publié. Le professeur égyptien invité au colloque sur Berque, en démentant l’approbation de la traduction de Chouraqui par El Azhar, a mis fin à une légende qui aura duré un quart de siècle !
L’enthousiasme suscité par le message de Chevènement et ces communications de qualité a été contrarié par les propos du dernier intervenant, M. Bennouna. Ce bon spécialiste marocain de droit international , qui a été directeur général de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, a provoqué des réactions hostiles. Après avoir reconnu n’avoir pas bien connu Berque, Bennouna a surtout parlé de lui-même. Sa communication improvisée aura porté sur des sujets éloignés de Berque. Il a réitéré son soutien à la revendication de l’égalité homme-femme en matière successorale, sans s’aviser que des féministes tunisiennes ont dénoncé l’usage de cet alibi féministe visant surtout à défaire l’alliance entre la Nahda tunisienne et « Nida Tounès » de Bédji Caïd Essebsi. Bennouna réagissait avec susceptibilité à la moindre objection.
Selon de bons connaisseurs du Maroc, la susceptibilité de Bennouna est à mettre en rapport avec son ancienne ambition de devenir secrétaire d’Etat aux affaires étrangères qui a été contrariée par les succès électoraux du PJD dont les chefs ne l’admettent pas comme technocrate siégeant dans leur gouvernement…
Petits arrangements signés Huntzinger
La clôture du colloque échut à Jacques Huntzinger qui n’a pas trouvé mieux que de voler au secours de son « ami » Bennouna. L’ancien chargé des relations internationales du PS, promu ambassadeur en Israël, a revendiqué une vieille « amitié » avec Berque qu’il a dû solliciter dans les années 80 pour lui emprunter quelques éléments de langage. Mais il prétend avoir continué à voir le grand arabisant après 1991.
Or, après cette date, Berque a mis fin à toute relation avec les socialistes. Ses sujets préférés étaient : la fourberie de Mitterrand, irrémédiablement atlantiste ; le recensement des crises majeures avec l’Islam provoquées par l’arrivée au pouvoir de la social-démocratie : cela va du Cartel des Gauches (qui expulsa l’émir Khaled, intensifia la guerre dans le Rif marocain et réprima en Syrie), jusqu’à la participation française à « la guerre américaine contre l’Irak », en passant par le Front populaire (qui rejeta le projet Blum-Violette proposant l’éligibilité à des catégories d’Algériens « évolués ») et l’expédition de Suez de 1956 déclenchée juste après l’acte de piraterie aérienne contre l’avion de Ben Bella et ses compagnons.
Le malaise des auditeurs qui avaient continué à voir Berque dans sa retraite de Saint-Julien-en-Born, a été aggravé quand Huntzinger voulut établir une parenté entre l’idée berquienne d’ « ensemble islamo-méditerranéen » et le défunt projet d’Union pour la Méditerranée qui permit à l’ancien ambassadeur en Israël et grand ami de l’Etat hébreu, ’être maintenu Quai d’Orsay par Sarkozy.
L’ancien ambassadeur s’est livré à une singulière réécriture de l’histoire tendant à faire de Berque une sorte de socialiste sarko-compatible…
En fait, le collège des Bernardins n’a loué une de ses salles pour la tenue du colloque Berque qu’à la condition de laisser Huntzinger le clôturer. Car l’ancien ambassadeur en israël semble chargé de promouvoir un « islamiquement correct » déduit de la singulière « islamologie » du cardinal Lustiger.
Des islamologues auto proclamés
Pour se donner une légitimité islamologique, Huntzinger a signé un livre paru aux éditions du Cerf intitulé « Initiation à l’islam ». Or, ce titre est celui d’un ouvrage archi-connu publié en 1963 et réédité une dizaine depuis par le professeur Muhammad Hamidullah, un ami de Massignon et de Berque. Le traducteur allemand de Hamidullah, la branche américaine de sa famille et des organisations musulmanes de France sont mécontents et comptent donner des suites, y compris judiciaires à ce mécontentement. C’est d’autant plus étonnant que les éditions du Cerf sont connues pour le sérieux des livres sur l’Islam publiés sous l’égide des Dominicains. L’un d’eux, le regretté père Jacques Jomier, avait pensé à publier un livre de « vulgarisation » de l’Islam. Il a renoncé à l’intituler « Initiation à l’islam » parce qu’il connaissait le livre de Hamidullah et l’importance de l’auteur musulman. Jomier a intitulé son livre « Connaissance de l’Islam ».
La légèreté de Huntzinger et des nouveaux dirigeants du Cerf en dit long sur l’empressement des « islamologues » autoproclamés qui, en voulant surtout à vendre du papier,assument le risque de porter gravement atteinte à l’image des instances religieuses dont on attendait mieux en matière de dialogue interreligieux, qui suppose plus de loyauté et de considération pour les intellectuels musulmans du niveau de Hamidullah. La méditation de l’œuvre de ce grand érudit attaché à l’orthodoxie sunnite est autrement plus utile pour la prévention des radicalisations que la lecture des islamologues auto-proclamés. Et la Fondation de l’islam présidée par Chevènement gagnerait à favoriser sa réédition.
1As is well known, immigration more than doubled the Jewish population of Israel within three-and-a-half years of its founding. About half of the approximately 650,000 newcomers arrived from countries across North Africa and the Middle East, where in three cases, close to the total Jewish population migrated within a short time: Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. Each of these countries, however, and the Jewish communities within them, experienced different patterns of history and contact with Europe, in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, Jews in Iraq were formally citizens of an independent state from the 1930s, while the status of dhimmi remained intact in Yemen until the large-scale exodus of Jews from there beginning in 1949 (Goldberg 1996).
2Libya was conquered by the Italians in 1911, but energetic colonial penetration began in the region of Tripolitania only after World War I, and in Cyrenaica after the “pacification” of interior regions in the 1930s. The sociological study of Middle Eastern Jewish groups in Israel has tended to lump the Jewries of the large-scale immigration together, but I argue that it is also important to attend to specific historical and cultural processes within each group. This brief paper proposes to tap into such specificity by following two routes: 1) an examination of some of the labels applied to Jews from Libya and the evolving terminology used by them in reference to themselves, and 2) a presentation of the development of a cultural center, or “heritage house,” that has achieved a salient place in the effort of Jews from Libya in Israel to represent themselves and their past, and also to point to their future.
Labeling Jews from Libya
Libyan Jewish Heritage Center
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3Outside of Tel Aviv, in the town of Or Yehudah that had its beginnings as a ma’abra or “immigrant transit camp,” there stands a building with a Hebrew sign: The Heritage Center of Libyan Jewry.1 The notion of “Libyan Jewry,” however, is not one to take for granted. In mid-twentieth century, about 38,000 Jews lived in Libya: approximately 32,000 in Tripolitania and the rest in Benghazi and other coastal towns of Cyrenaica. When Israel gained its independence (May 1948), and close to 90 percent of the Jews from these regions migrated there between April 1949 and the end of 1951, Libya was not yet an independent entity (this took place at the end of 1951). In the international arena, it was not a foregone conclusion that a single nation-state would arise in the territory between Egypt and Tunisia (Wright 1989; Vandewalle 2006). Neither was it known that the Sanusi leadership from Cyrenaica (which was smaller in population than Tripoitania while larger in area), would emerge as the central authority in the yet-to-be country of Libya (Evans-Pritchard 1949). While perceptions of Libya as a unified, or better, a unifiable region go back to Ottoman times, and were furthered applied under Italian colonial rule, the formal establishment of a state named Libya clearly preceded the emergence of a Libyan national identity, and certainly before “Libyan Jews” became the self-defining label.
4Jews lived in Cyrenaica in antiquity through the 2nd century C.E. (Haggiag-Liluf 2005). In the Jerusalem Talmud (Kilaim 8:31c), the current Hebrew term for Libya, Luv, first appears, with a clear link to Egypt. There is no continuity between that ancient set of communities and the more recent Cyrenaican population, which began to grow in the 16th century, made up mostly of Jews from Tripolitania. The most common way that Jews from both these regions presented themselves in the mixture of ethnic categories in Israel during its first years was as “Tripolitanians.” This designation also fit the technical fact that the large-scale emigration entailed Jews throughout the country, including Cyrenaica, moving to Tripoli where boat travel to the port of Haifa was arranged by the Jewish Agency in the period before Libyan independence. The emergence of such general categories also was a way of simplifying the cognitive overload from the burgeoning diversity of cultural expression and labels that characterized Israel at the time (Willner 1969:200).
5Relative to the other immigrations from North Africa, which first peaked around the time of of Moroccan and Tunisian independence in 1956, the immigrants from Libya, going through the rocess of bureaucratic immigration and settlement, concentrated in Israel’s geographic center rather than being dispersed in development towns in the North and South. There are concentrations of “Tripolitanians” in Netanya, half an hour north of Tel Aviv, and in Bat-Yam, a city that may be considered part of “Greater Tel Aviv” extending southward. Other concentrations are in smaller towns like Ashkelon, or Or Yehudah, already mentioned. The latter grew out of three adjacent ma`abarot, two of them mainly inhabited by Jews from Iraq and a third by Tripolitanians (Cohen and Katan 1966). The presence in Or Yehudah of the Libyan Jewry Heritage Center is not unrelated to the establishment there, in the early 1980s, of the first successful initiative of this nature: the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center of Jews of Iraqi origin.2 Below, our discussion will benefit from a brief comparison of the two institutions.
6Jews from Libya also settled in over a dozen agricultural cooperatives – moshavim: about half were almost “transplanted communities” from small market towns in the Tripolitanian hinterland. They constituted about one quarter of all immigrants from Libya, but the societal accent placed on agricultural settlement in those years gave them greater public visibility, and have been the subject of more research.
7My first research contact with Jews from Libya was in such a setting: a moshav inhabited by Jews from the Gharian plateau south of Tripoli, a distance of two-and-a half days in pre-motorized times (Goldberg 1972). During my time in the moshav (late 1963-Spring 1965), I learned that the terms used by these immigrants to describe where they came from took into account the ignorance of their interlocutors. Often they said they were “from Tripoli,” adding that they were not from the capital (birah), which they sometimes would refer to as Luv, signaling the central status of the city. This may reflect language conventions in North Africa. Many names appearing on maps of Tripolitania as small towns along the major routes also referred to the surrounding regions. In the local speech when wanting to indicate the town itself, one simply said: the suq. It took a special effort to get my interviewees to relate to locales and the names attached to them in greater detail. Eventually, I learned that Gharian referred to a region, and to the market town in its center. The “town” did not have many permanent inhabitants (although this changed somewhat with the Italian administration), but was full of people on market days. Jews,3 from the Gharian (and elsewhere), were active in the market, but in fact resided in two hamlets several kilometers outside of the center. This pattern was common elsewhere.
Jew selling wheat in Gharian market
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8Even this knowledge was only a partial step forward in understanding the local terminology that might be used to identify people. During a wedding celebration in the moshav, with guests arriving from elsewhere, I heard some of those attending referred to as `Amrusi. I assumed that they were people who abroad had lived in the small town of `Amrus, also known as Suk el-jum’a (Friday Market), which was only a few kilometers to the east of Tripoli (and today is probably part of the capital). This assumption may have been correct, but not necessarily, for I later gathered that ‘amrusi was also an epithet for a “hick,” someone unfamiliar with urban and urbane ways. Perhaps the very closeness to Tripoli accounts for ‘Amrus in particular to have absorbed this invidious association and label.
9It thus became evident that among the immigrants local identities continued to play a role, even when most outsiders were not cognizant of them. Broader categories like “North Africans” or “Sephardim” had little meaning in daily life in the village (Goldberg 1972:86). How then did they, and other Tripolitanians, come to see themselves as Libyans? Recent scholarship has stressed the power of governmental structures, and the knowledge they process, to impose categories on those under their sway (Goldscheider 2001). This may be part of our story, but Jews depicting themselves in terms of “Libya” pre-dates the Israeli state, and evolved gradually. To illustrate this, I turn to Mordecai Ha-Cohen of Tripoli, and the book he wrote about the Jewish community there (Ha-Cohen 1978; Goldberg 1980, 2004).
10Ha-Cohen, born in 1856 to a family with origins in Genoa from early in the nineteenth century, produced a manuscript on the Jews of his native land during the first decade of the twentieth century. Both the terms Tarablus el-gharb (along with “Tripoli of Africa” and “Tripoli of Barbary”), and Libya are used by him as general categories. Libya appears mostly in addressing outsiders. Ha-Cohen grew up speaking both Arabic and Italian. His manuscript, in Hebrew, was oriented to an audience of Europeans, including Jews and Christians. In the last decade of his life (Ha-Cohen died in the mid or late 1920s; see Goldberg 2004, note 45), he moved to Benghazi to serve on the rabbinical court there. His view of the country thus extended beyond Tripolitania, and the term Libya was appropriate to that view.
Flag of Jews from Libya, Maccabiah, 1935.
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11Another instance of Libya being used by Jews to refer to themselves appears later, in the midst of the colonial period. In a photo taken during the second Maccabiah Games in Mandate Palestine in 1935, in which a delegation of Jewish athletes from Libya participated, they hold a sign with the Italian name Libya rendered, as it is pronounced, in Hebrew letters.4 Another picture, from the first Maccabiah to take place after Israeli independence in 1950, is parallel, but uses the Hebrew term, Luv, instead.
12These examples of “Libyanness” do not mean that other identities vanished rapidly. This may be seen in a picture taken only a year earlier in Tripoli, at one of the memorable occasions of the intense period of large-scale immigration. A critical moment in this effort was a visit to the city, and discussions with the British Military Administration, by Yitzhak Raphael who headed the Immigration Division of the Jewish Agency. The picture shows Jews from the Tripolitanian villages (who tolled about 8,000), gathered in an area where they “greeted” Raphael as he stood high on a balcony to address them. On the signs, in Hebrew, are the names of individual towns where Jews had lived. These particular localities cum identities are given expression precisely at a moment when members of these communities were becoming acutely conscious of a wider collective identity on a national scale.
13Yitzhak Rafael was a leader of the religious Po’el Mizrahi party (Goldberg 1972:53). After arrival in Israel, many Jews from Libya were mobilized as voters and in some cases activists of this party. In order to gain loyalty among newcomers from Middle Eastern countries, the Po’el Mizrahi developed cadres within these groups, several of whom were elected to the Knesset. Among the Tripolitanians, Rabbi Frija Zuaretz (1907-1993), who had been active in Hebrew and Zionist education abroad, was elected in 1955 and served as a Knesset member until 1969. Within the successor National Religious Party, an ethnic organization was set up called Va’ad Qehillot Luv Be-Yisrael (the Committee of Libyan Jewish Communities in Israel). In addition to meeting the practical needs of immigrants, already in 1960, Zuaretz and colleagues edited a book to document the cultural past of Jews from Libya (Zuaretz et al 1960). Entitled Yahadut Luv, and published under the auspices of “the Committee,” it is significant that the plural – communities – was retained in the title of that organization.
14This may be contrasted with a later effort, undertaken by a younger generation of individuals, to create a publication documenting and “preserving” the past. Starting in the 1980s, in the form of mimeographed sheets, it now has an up-to-date format of a pamphlet called Aada. This term, in the Arabic of Jews from Tripolitania, may be translated “custom,” but bears the weighty connation of an obligatory custom. Keeping a practice while citing aada means that a person wishes to maintain her or his place within a line of family or of tradition. The term is significant to those socialized within the life-ways of Tripolitanian Jewry, and would not be appreciated by most non-Libyans (except some other Maghribi groups). When I say the term would not be recognized by “outsiders,” my implied foil is other ethnic markers, like foods, that are now familiar within wider Israeli culture such as the Sabbath morning jahanun of Jews from Yemen or the spicy fish –hraimi– of Tripolitanians. At the same time, while accenting the past, Aada represents a shift in calling itself the newsletter of The Community of the Jews of Libya (singular: ‘Alon Qehillat Yehudei Luv). The importance of particular communities of origin understandably has waned in the second and third generations.
15In addition to internal matters, the evolution of the terms through which Jews from Libya in Israel speak of themselves also reflects external developments. I first spent two extensive research periods among them: a year and a half in a single moshav, and again during 1968-69 visiting many such villages (Goldberg 1974). Muammar Qadhdhafi engineered a revolution in September 1969, and Libya became more salient in international discourse than it had in the past. When I moved permanently to Israel in 1972, I had the impression that the term Luv – Libya – was on the lips of Jews originating from there more often than in the past. This may appear paradoxical in the context of Israeli society, but, at approximately the same time, a book in Israel celebrating the heritage of Jews from Kurdistan appeared and featured a picture of the Kurdish leader, Mustafa Mullah al-Barzani, on the frontispiece. The case of Libya is not identical, because Qaddafi’s rise to power resulted in an exodus of all the Italian nationals and all the Jews from the country, but it highlights the mixed perceptions and emotions entailed in such developments. I now add the perspective of an individual who directly experienced that transformation.
16Raffaello Fellah (1935-2008), was among the approximately 4,000 Jews who remained in independent Libya in 1952. He became an active businessman, working along with Arab partners as required by Libyan law. When the 1967 broke out, the situation of Jews became untenable, and most Jews left as soon as the government led by King Idris made it possible. Two-and-a-half years later, Qaddafi came to power. The following year, his government confiscated the property of Italians and of Jews living in Libya. These groups then totally emigrated from the country (De Felice 1985; Roumani 2008).
17Upon settling in Rome, Raffaello became active in organizing a refugee group of Libyan Jews, and laid the groundwork for claims against the Libyan government. While always a “man of action,” he also was keen to press the cultural side of his economic plans and political convictions (Goldberg 1992, 1997). While Italy remained his home, he began to mobilize Jews from Libya in Israel to join him in this effort (Goldberg 1989). Among his accomplishments was “Libyan Jewry Week” in 1980. It involved a photo exhibit at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, and an academic symposium there. There were also plans that Raffaello did not realize. One was establishing a heritage house, inspired by the one organized by Jews from Iraq. With time, in 2000, such a center did emerge in the form of the Or Yehudah heritage house, through the efforts of those living in Israel including an Israeli nephew of Raffaello, Yacov Haggiag-Liluf.
18The center is housed in a refurbished structure provided by the Or Yehudah municipality. The then mayor, Yitzhak Bukhabza, was born there to parents from Libya. In a newspaper interview, he emphasized his own “ethnic” experience, saying that in his early years he spoke Tripolitanian Arabic and learned Hebrew only after entering school. Today, many of the original Libyan families in Or Yehudah have moved elsewhere, so its link to its ethnic base is not direct. Activists involved in the center reside in locations like Beersheba, Herzliyah, Raananah, and Netanya. They vary in their personal histories. Many are solidly middle class, including a few married to Ashkenazi spouses, and some began devoting their energies to the center after formal retirement. All work for the center voluntarily.
The Heritage Center and its Activities
19Before proceeding with a description and discussion of the Libyan heritage center, a brief comparative perspective based on a glance at the center featuring the heritage of Babylonian (Iraqi) Jewry is in order. Not only did the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center precede and partially provide a model for the project of Jews from Libya, but it also has been the subject of academic analysis. One perspective, adopting a stance of cultural criticism (Azulai 1993), has stressed how the museum in the Babylonian heritage house has internalized a hegemonic Zionist narrative within Israeli society, rather than reflect the variety of cultural-political trends that existed historically among Jews in modern Iraq. Zionism definitely played a role in modern Iraqi Jewish history, but there were also other positions, such as those analyzed by Kazzaz (1991) as the “Iraqi orientation.” Historian Esther Meir – Glitzenstein (2008:361-368), has continued the direction of Azulai’s analysis, but also has shown that the cultural dynamics of the museum’s “texts” are more complex than an analysis that stresses hegemony alone. Over time, a rich ethnographic exhibit of daily life as it existed among Jews in Baghdad took shape in the museum, becoming one of its most attractive features. Without announcing any polemic opposition to Zionist rhetoric, the practice of compiling this exhibit, and the enthusiasm of its “audience,” indicate a loosening-up of what is too easily seen as an over-determining hegemony. With regard to Jews from Libya in Israel, the organization of their heritage house had a popular aspect from its outset, distinguishing its history somewhat from the Iraqi project which was led by a prominent national-level politician.5 In various ways, Zionism percolated into the popular culture of Jews in Libya in the years preceding their emigration, as illustrated in the following incident.
20At a Hanukkah event at the Center in 2005, oriented to the community itself, the conclusion and supposed high-point of the evening was the performance of traditional songs by women in Judeo-Arabic. Immediately after this was concluded and it was announced that the festivities were over, the audience stood up and sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. I have seen this happen on other occasions, prompted by the audience rather than being signaled by the “master of ceremonies” or by accompanying music. Indulging in nostalgia for their North African past, and simultaneously celebrating their presence in Israel, blend easily for most Jews from Libya that I have met.
21As for the Center itself, most of the space within it constitutes a museum. The items on exhibit run from mundane documents, household items, artisanal tools, clothing, photographs, a section devoted to “the Libyan (Jewish) woman,” books on Jews in Libya, ritual items, and texts. A room off the main hall memorializes three episodes in the 1940s in which Jews from Libya were implicated in violent conflicts: the deportation of those holding European passports to forced labor camps in Tunisia and also to Europe, the deadly anti-Jewish riots in Tripolitania in 1945, and the death of soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence. In the main hall, the exhibit materials are well organized, but during the initial years, they had a hodge-podge quality testifying to the rapid inflow of objects, and a combination of lack of space and lack of policy in how to deal with them.
22Most of the items have been contributed by families in Israel, and some have come from abroad. The success of the museum reflects the generational juncture at which it was created. In earlier years, when ideas for establishing such a center came up, the comment was typically made that people from Libya are holding on to all sorts of things that they are not willing to give up. This first generation has dwindled, and many of their children, who only partially appreciate some of the items (or texts or photos), but do not want to discard them, have adopted the Museum enthusiastically as a way of both preserving the family past, gaining recognition, and relieving themselves of clutter.
23One room in the building is an education and research center, headed by Yacov Haggiag-Liluf (Raphaello’s nephew). He has written, in Hebrew, a comprehensive book on the Jews of Libya which has been translated into Italian (Haggiag-Liluf 2005). There are rumors that an Arabic translation is being used in universities in Libya. Some support for the Center comes from the Ministry of Education, and Yacov encourages organized visits from schools, and guides high school students who select topics concerning Jews in Libya as special projects. There also is a continual search to bring the Center to the attention of a variety of groups such as the Executive of the Sephardi Federation, the Italian Conuslate in Israel, or organizations striving to strengthen the collective memory linking Sephardi Jewries with the Holocaust. Hosting such groups typically includes a “traditional Libyan meal” and a tour of the museum.
24Across the main museum is a conference room, on whose walls are changing photo exhibits. Several years ago the theme was scenes from contemporary Tripoli, which most Jews had not seen since around 1950. Some shots showed well-known “ancient” sites, such as the fort called Il Castello during the Italian period. The photos were quite recent, taken at the request of people linked to the Center by un-named and discrete visitors whom they knew would be traveling in Tripoli. With this guidance from afar, visitors brought back shots of specific buildings that had been important in Jewish life in the past.
Interior of former Jewish School - Dar Serusi, now a museum
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25Some now appear as plain structures, but others had been converted to new purposes. The building housing the school that the Jews had called Dar Serusi was turned into a museum (Goldberg and Segrè 1990), and Sla li-kbira – The Great Synagogue – had become a mosque. For most visitors, only the captions on the photographs explained this background and transformation. What sense may be made of this intense interest in a place, from which they have been absent for decades, by people who have successfully fit into a new social and cultural environment? The pictures, some of which now feature on the Center’s website,6 represent both absence and presence. Absence is more palpable, but might it be that presence is not only a matter of the past, but still lingers in a vaguely hoped-for future? For some viewers, the images may implicitly raise the dual question: are we still part of these scenes, or are they still part of us? Also, what is the envisioned significance of these pictures to visitors to the museum who are not from Libya? One message may be “Don’t think we came from nothing; we have a significant past and background.” Or “Just as these urban pictures are beautiful, modern, and developed, we too carry this potentiality!”
26Many of those linked to the Center sense that the ability to positively display and gain recognition of their heritage has been overdue. Even as visibility and recognition were extended to other Maghribi groups, Jews from Libya often felt they were on the sidelines. There are objective reasons for this. They were the smallest Maghribi group, and in North Africa, Libya, as an Italian colony, was a residual category, worthy of attention only as being different from the norm. More subtle processes may have been at work as well. The integration of Jews from Libya in Israeli society was relatively successful, or more precisely, relatively quiet (Roumani 2008).7 They underwent all the hardships of immigration, such as the transit camps, but their early arrival (in comparison to immigrants from French North Africa) meant that they were closer to the geographic center of the country, and thus also were quickly taken up in the developing economy.
27I have never witnessed a formal protest by Jews from Libya that their culture has been squelched, but have occasionally heard quiet expressions of this sentiment, even, and perhaps particularly, from people who otherwise appear to have integrated smoothly into Israeli society. One woman residing in Kfar Saba was born in Israel to a Tripolitanian family, and is now married with a very Ashkenazi family name – Stern. Many years ago she told me how she felt good when, finally, she saw a name on a rabbinic book, recognizable by the color and style of its jacket and lettering, that was “one of ours.” Jews from Libya often speak of themselves as an immigrant group “that did not make problems,” but at the same time the sense of pride in their belated recognition is palpable. The Or Yehudah Center thus expresses sentiments and quiet cultural currents that slowly have gained strength in Israeli society over the decades.