Finding Zion in Libya

As I watched a streaming video of 56-year-old David Gerbi hack away at a wall of brick and mortar surrounding his childhood synagogue in Tripoli, Libya, I couldn’t help but facepalm. To me, his tears and apoplectic breakdown seemed to be a cleverly placed advertisement for maintaining a stalemate in Israeli-Arab diplomacy. Could the timing possibly have any relation to the recent Palestinian bid for statehood? Nah.

Earlier this month, Gerbi, a Libyan Jew in exile following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (the one that made it even less okay to openly practice Judaism in the Middle East), attempted to return to and restore his, now-run-down former place of prayer. The post-Gaddafi Libyan response: a police summons and a flock of Libyan protestors demanding Gerbi’s removal from the country. Currently (as far as I can tell from the strange Skype conversations he posts on YouTube), the man is confined to his upscale hotel due to the potentially violent crowd that awaits him outside with all plans of restoration on hold.

But don’t let your tears of sympathy spill out yet; Gerbi’s premature timing appears to be taking advantage of the still-settling Arab world’s volatility. Did anyone really expect Middle Eastern states (aside from Israel) to suddenly develop Western ideals as soon as the Arab peoples ditched their iron-fisted, pro-Western leaders? When I was in Egypt last year, there was a clear consensus amongst Cairene taxi drivers that the person riding shotgun was either Christian or Muslim (don’t worry, I didn’t tell them I’m Jewish), and Obama was the most amazing thing to ever happen to America. Yeah, of course it feels a little icky when you realize that the Arab Spring you supported so strongly a half a year ago has some sketchy undertones, but this is a contradiction of the Middle East that still has to be resolved.

Gerbi acknowledges the controversial timing of his return to Tripoli, but suggests another purpose. “I want to contribute to, not obstruct, the building of a new democratic and pluralistic Libya,” he said. A noble goal, but will one Jew assisting in the construction of a new Libya end anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism? I really don’t think it’s possible that he even sees himself as a Libyan anymore. He’s been an Italian psychoanalyst for the last 40 years. He might as well be an Israeli ambassador to Libya, and at this point, I don’t think listening to the Israeli or Libyan ambassador is at all a priority on Libyans’ to-do list.

But of course, this is one of the more ugly realities of the new Middle East and something that needs to be dealt with in the coming years. I suggest to Gerbi — and to the rest of you who consider now a good time to “join in and help” by setting the pressure cooker back on high — another method. If you want to be a Libyan and bring freedom of religion to Libya, why not show that you can integrate yourself into the society and actually be a citizen that Libyans can relate to? Why do you have to come in as an outsider and expect everyone to think of you as one of them? I told taxi drivers that I was Christian in Egypt — yes, that was a little too far in terms of assimilation — but if you are already prepared to endure death threats (you’ve already had many) just be a Jewish Libyan, don’t be a Zionist living Libya right now; that’s just bad sense.

Over time other Libyan Jews may join you, and as you gradually practice your religion more publicly, Libyans will be more likely to accept Judaism in the country. Trying to make a point about the instability and lack of political correctness just sets you against your people and your people against you. You aren’t Theodor Herzl, trying to convince Britain to support a Jewish state in an area of supposedly uncivilized Palestinians. Don’t talk to the world; talk to the Libyans.

Zachary Babtkis is a Middle East studies and film and media studies major.