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As of 11:11 p.m. EDT Monday, July 9, 2007
Kudos to Journal reporter Lucette Lagnado for her poignant account of the bustling, cosmopolitan Egypt she and her family, as Jews, were forced to leave in 1963 and the country’s anemic condition today (“Searching For My Father’s Lost City, June 30, 2007). I could recount a remarkably similar story about Libya, my native country. It was exactly 40 years ago this month that more than 2,000 years of the Jewish presence on what is today Libyan soil came to an end. That presence, incidentally, predated by centuries the Arab conquest and occupation. At its peak, the Jewish community numbered 40,000 and was particularly active in the country’s thriving commercial life. Most left after deadly attacks against Jews in 1945 and 1948, but several thousand remained, including my family, hoping against hope that the 1951 constitution, which formally protected the minority rights of Jews, Italians, Maltese and Greeks, would ensure our well being. But we were wrong. Jews could not vote, hold public office, obtain Libyan passports, acquire majority ownership in any new business or even supervise their own communal affairs.
In the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, when Jews once again became targets of locally inspired violence, we were compelled to leave, never to return. We, and hundreds of thousands like us in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, became the “forgotten” refugees of the Middle East. Unlike generations of Palestinians who have languished in camps that are incubators of hatred and violence, we moved on and established new lives in Israel, Europe and North America. But the scars have not healed. How could they? Our properties were seized. But more importantly, our presence was extinguished. There is no trace today of the rich legacy of Jewish life in Libya. Cemeteries have been destroyed, synagogues converted to other purposes. It is as if we never existed in a country that we called home for two millennia.
To understand the current deficits of political, economic and cultural dynamism in much of the Arab world, it is critically important to grasp the patterns of discrimination and exclusion against non-Arab, non-Muslim minorities and the outflow of these groups to this very day. But alas, apart from Ms. Lagnado’s superb article, far too little attention has been paid to this critically important dimension of the region.