Jewish History

Brief Biography

The history of the Jewish people in Libya dates back to the 3rd century BCE.  In 1911 under Italian rule, Jews were treated relatively well.  Approximately 21,000 Jews were living in Libya, with the majority residing in Tripoli.  However, in the 1930’s the Fascist Italian regime initiated anti-Semitic laws which barred Jews from government jobs, government schools and required them to stamp “Jewish race” into their passports.  However, this was not enough to deter Jews from Libya, as 25% of the population in Tripoli was Jewish with over 44 synagogues in existence.

In 1942, the Jewish Quarter of Benghazi was occupied by the Nazi’s and more than 2,000 Jews were deported and sent to Nazi labor camps.  By the end of WWII, about one-fifth of those who were sent away had perished.  Even with the end of WWII, the situation for the Jews in Libya did not improve.  In 1945, more than 140 Jews were killed and even more injured in a pogrom in Tripoli.  The rioters not only destroyed and looted the city’s synagogues, but they also ruined hundreds of homes and businesses as well.  Again in 1948, coinciding with the declaration of the State of Israel, anti-Semitism escalated and rioters killed 12 Jews and destroyed 280 homes. This time, though, the Jews fought back and prevented even more deaths and injury.  As a result of the rampant anti-Semitism, 30,972 Jews immigrated to Israel.

A new law in 1961 required a special permit to prove Libyan citizenship.  Virtually all Jews were denied this permit.  By 1967 the Jewish population decreased to 7,000.  When anti-Semitic riots commenced following Israel’s Six Day War, King Idris and other Jewish leaders urged Jews living in Libya to emigrate.  An Italian airlift saved 6,000 Jews and relocated them to Rome.  Evacuees were forced to leave behind homes, businesses and possessions. When Muammar al-Gaddafi came to power in1969, there were only 100 Jews remaining in Libya. His government confiscated all Jewish property, cancelled Jewish debt and made emigration for Jews legally prohibited.  Some Jews still managed to get out.  By 2004 there were no Jews left in Libya.

Thanks to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries for contributing this summary to the JIMENA Libyan Experience website:

“Discriminatory Decrees and Violations of Human Rights
(Intended merely as a sampling and not an exhaustive compilation)

· Article 1 of Law No.62 of March 1957, provided, inter-alia, that persons or corporations were prohibited from entering directly or indirectly into contracts of any nature whatsoever with organizations or persons domiciled in Israel, with Israel citizens or their representatives. Provision of this article also enabled the Council of Ministers register residents in Libya who were relatives of persons resident in Israel.[1]

· Law of December 31, 1958 was a decree was issued by the President of the Executive Council of Tripolitania, which ordered the dissolution of the Jewish Community Council and the appointment of a Moslem commissioner nominated by the Government.[2]

· On May 24, 1961, a law was promulgated which provided that only Libyan citizens could own and transfer real property. Conclusive proof of the possession of Libyan citizenship was required to be evidenced by a special permit that is reliably reported to have been issued to only six Jews in all.[3]

· Royal Decree of August 8, 1962 provided, inter-alia, that a Libyan national forfeited his nationality if he had had any contact with Zionism. Forfeiture of Libyan nationality under this provision extending to any person who had visited Israel after the proclamation of Libyan independence, and any person deemed to have acted morally or materially in favour of Israel interests. The retroactive effect of this provision enabled the authorities to deprive Jews of Libyan nationality at will.[4]

· With the first law No. 14 of February 7, 1970, the Libyan Government established that all property belonging to “Israelis” who had left Libyan territory “in order to establish themselves definitely abroad” would pass to the General Custodian. In spite of the precise wording of the law (“Israelis who had left Libyan territory in order to establish themselves abroad definitely”), the Libyan Government started to take possession of property belonging to “Jews” without bothering about the fact that these Jews could not be considered as “Israelis” and had not “established themselves definitely abroad.”[5]

· The Government decreed the law of July 21,1970, wherein it states that it wanted to control “the restitution of certain assets to the State.” The “Law relative to the resolution of certain assets to the State” asserted that the General Custodian would administer liquid funds of the property of Jews as well as the companies and the company shares belonging to Jews.[6]


1. Confidential memorandum to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, dated May 8, 1970.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Note to File, UNHCR Archives, dated August 24, 1970.

6. Ibid.”