The Man Bringing Jews Back to Libya | OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because Jews were a prominent part of Libya's past and could help shape its future.

Raphael Luzon was a terrified little boy when angry mobs surrounded his home in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi. As a Jewish Libyan, he remembers Arab nationalists attacking his people and setting fire to his father’s pharmacies after Syria, Jordan and Egypt began fighting a war against Israel on June 5, 1967.

That day, Luzon thought he was going to die, but the Libyan army managed to intervene before the mob stormed his home. Later, the soldiers warned the Jews that “they wouldn’t defend us if riots broke out again,” says Luzon.

Like most Jewish families, Luzon and his relatives left Libya for Italy and were allowed to bring just one suitcase and $20. Other families migrated to Australia, Israel, the U.S. and Canada. By 2004, not a single Libyan Jew — of a reported 30,000 before World War II — remained in the North African country.

Memory of Libya’s Jewish population gradually vanished under the authoritarian rule of Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who denied Jews civil rights, confiscated their assets and forbade them from ever returning. But Luzon never forgot his homeland. And as the chairman of the Committee for Libyan Jews, the 65-year-old is now keeping the history of his people alive by fighting for their right to return home.

He’s not asking for compensation for confiscated assets, but merely fighting for Libyan Jews to be recognized.

Luzon’s fight started when he assumed the position of chairman after moving to London in 2004. Right away, he began lobbying Gadhafi’s regime to recognize the rights of his people. Gadhafi didn’t budge until he allowed Luzon to return to Libya with his mother in 2010. Luzon suspects that Gadhafi’s decision had more to do with improving his image in the West than making any sincere concessions to Libyan Jews.

Luzon was still grateful, but he wasn’t under any illusions. He knew Gahdafi erased the history of Libyan Jews while jailing, torturing or killing anyone who defied him. That’s why Luzon quickly began soliciting donations from Libyan Jews to support protesters and hospitals on the ground when the Arab Spring erupted in Libya in February 2011.

Despite supporting the uprising, Luzon remains a polarizing figure in his native country. Most recently, he met with the United Nations peace envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, on Feb. 6. Luzon alleged that Salamé promised to give Libyan Jews an official seat at the table in future negotiations.

Raphael Luzon, the President of the Liby

Luzon visiting Tripoli in 2010.

Source MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty

Neither Salamé nor the U.N. has confirmed or denied making that promise. But Luzon’s announcement quickly sparked controversy across Libya, with 70 parliamentarians from the internationally recognized government in Tripoli claiming they would boycott U.N. negotiations if Jews were invited to participate. The following week, protesters began burning pictures of Luzon in Benghazi’s Kish Square, a central park in the city.

Luzon brushed off the incident, claiming that those angry about bringing Libyan Jews to negotiations are fundamentalists and Salafists. “Salafists have little influence in Libya,” he assures me. “But they make a lot of noise.”

That’s not exactly true. Militias that consist mainly of Madkhalists — who adhere to a strain of Salafi thought that believes in being subservient to a ruler — are increasingly imposing their will across Libya. Still, Luzon says that he is on good terms with the two main opposing camps in Libya: Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli and the septuagenarian general Khalifa Haftar.

In talks with both leaders, Luzon insisted that he’s not asking for compensation for confiscated assets but that he’s merely fighting for Libyan Jews to be recognized as minority citizens. And with Libyan Jews across the globe — numbered at more than 100,000 — rallying behind him, Luzon is confident that his people will be able to return to their homeland once the quagmire ends.  

“All of us have our own lives now and we have settled elsewhere, but Raphael is succeeding in building a close relationship with our native land,” stresses Simon Bedussa, a member of the Committee for Libyan Jews who lives in Italy.

“Raphael is persistent, and many people in his position would have given up a long time ago,” adds Lucky Nahum, a member of the committee living in the U.S. “His efforts have caused many Libyans to reach out to us to discover something they never knew: that Jews once existed in Libya.”

While that may be the case, anti-Semitism remains a widespread issue in Libya, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in open hostility. Some Libyans have told him that the country has been cursed since the day it kicked out the Jews. Others believe that including Jews in Libya’s future will make the country politically stronger due to the global Jewish lobby — a long-standing anti-Semitic trope.

Luzon, for his part, can’t shake his emotional connection to Libya. And though the Libyan war isn’t winding down anytime soon, Luzon believes that most Libyans would welcome him back. They just don’t broach the topic publicly, he says, for fear of reprisal.

When Luzon isn’t advocating for his people, he spends time with his wife and checks in on his 28-year-old daughter in London. He also writes about Middle Eastern politics for Italian, Arabic and Israeli news outlets to earn a meager living. Beyond that, Luzon simply takes refuge in his childhood memories.

Those were the days he felt most at home.