Crowd Forces Libyan Jew Out Of Synagogue The last remaining members of the Jewish community in Libya were driven out more than 40 years ago. Despite this, David Gerbi came back to Libya to help the rebels as they ousted Gadhafi in a six-month uprising. Gerbi hopes to re-establish the Jewish community, but he has run into problems.
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Hostile Crowd Forces Libyan Jew Out Of Synagogue

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Hostile Crowd Forces Libyan Jew Out Of Synagogue

Hostile Crowd Forces Libyan Jew Out Of Synagogue

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GUY RAZ, host: We turn now to Tripoli, where we're going to hear about the first Libyan Jew to return from exile after the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. David Gerbi is a 56-year-old psychoanalyst. He fled to Italy with his family when Gadhafi expelled Libya's Jewish population after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Now back in his homeland, Gerbi is receiving death threats, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Gerbi went to the old Jewish synagogue today to pray and organize its clean up. The still grand building with its soaring arches and butter-colored walls is filled with garbage and rubble.

He said he'd been given permission by the local cleric in the area and by members of the National Transitional Council to undertake restoration of the house of worship. But his two-day-old attempt ended abruptly.

So I'm standing in front of the old synagogue in what was the old Jewish quarter of Tripoli. And right now, a crowd has gathered outside. There are armed men and they say that they are here for David's protection. But they are going to be asking him to leave.

HADI BELAZI: The building is not safe. The area is not safe. And there's a lot of people armed. And you don't know what happens. So, the best thing for him is to leave.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hadi Belazi is among those outside the synagogue. It's tense. His son Haitham, who's there with him, agrees.

HAITHAM BELAZI: It's not the right time for this.


BELAZI: Because, you know, it's a very sensitive matter. We appreciate having different religions, Jews and everything, in our country. We want that. But not at this time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Jewish community in Libya dates back thousands of years. Most of the Jewish population, though, left after the State of Israel was established. Several hundred were still living here until Gadhafi expelled them and confiscated their property in the late 1960s. There were no Jews left in Libya and there is widespread anti-Semitism here. Calling someone a Jew is considered a serious insult.

David Gerbi came back to Libya, though, fighting with the rebels and earning the nickname the Revolutionary Jew for his efforts. He's the first Libyan Jew to return here, but he had hoped he wouldn't be the last.

He emerged from the synagogue today, his prayers interrupted.

Dr. DAVID GERBI: They told me that if I'm not leaving now, they will come and they are going to kill me, because they don't want the Jewish here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As he's talking, his security guard hustles him away, afraid for his life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, let's go right now.

GERBI: I'm scared only of God. If I have to die in this moment, I die.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As he walks down the street, people turn to look at him. Wearing a yarmulke and a Star of David pendant, he's hardly inconspicuous. One man confides he's never seen someone Jewish before.

David Gerbi's presence here and his quest for recognition is a test for the nascent Libyan leadership, whose sponsors in the international community will be watching closely to see how a Jewish Libyan is treated.

But a spokesman for the National Transitional Council, Jalal el-Galal, says that contrary to what David Gerbi claims, he did not have the authorization of the NTC to restore the synagogue and he blames him for what happened.

JALAL EL-GALAL: It is an illegal act because he has not taken any permission from anybody. I think it's a very sensitive issue at a very critical time. You are inciting something, going about it through improper channels. And it's obviously - you're going to incite a reaction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back on Tripoli's streets, David Gerbi says he won't leave.

GERBI: It's enough of this. This is old. This is the old persecution. This is thousands of years. They always - they need to kick out of the Jew. And now they throw me out again. I don't accept this anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He enters his hotel, the synagogue he hoped to restore, again out of his reach.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tripoli.

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