The Arab Spring and the Jews: The Necessary Litmus Test
The Arab Spring and the Jews: The Necessary Litmus Test

Throughout the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, endless streams of ink have been poured over the issue of what is to come in countries like Libya, which has recently witnessed the ousting of Qaddafi. Will Libya be another Iraq, an Islamist-dominated nation, or a stable liberal democracy?

So these questions have been asked innumerable times. Perhaps now we should be wondering: What might be a good indicator or litmus test of the direction in which Libya is going?

Luckily, a useful answer lies in the recent case of David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who has spent most of his life in exile in Italy but returned to his native land in the summer to assist the rebels in overthrowing Qaddafi’s regime. As numerous outlets have reported, he was initially enthralled at the prospect of building a new post-Gaddafi Libya, yet his hopes were quickly dashed once he was subject to death threats on account of his attempts to restore the crumbling synagogue in Tripoli.

He was further told by a man claiming to represent the new Libyan authorities that a mass anti-Semitic demonstration was being planned for that Friday in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, formerly known as “Green Square” when Qaddafi was in power.

Gerbi appealed to the National Transitional Council (NTC), urging them to convey the message to the people that “we are pluralistic,” yet the NTC did not respond kindly to Gerbi’s reasoned pleas, ostensibly dismissing the matter as “premature,” in the words of NTC leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil.

Like other nations in the Middle East and North Africa, the exodus of Libya’s Jewish population was in great part due to attacks by Muslim mobs and government-sponsored persecution.

As Alex Joffe reports, in the case of Libya, in 1945 (at that point under British occupation) pogroms organized by Muslims killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed many Jewish-owned shops and synagogues, leading to the departure of some 30,000 Libyan Jews for Israel between 1949 and 1951.

Just before Libya became independent in 1951, the Prime Minister Mahmoud Muntasser affirmed that there could be “no future” for Jews in Libya, and the 8,000 who remained suffered numerous restrictions, including a ban on having passports and serving in public office.

After the Six Day War, a series of pogroms led to the expulsion of all remaining Jews in Libya.

For many Mizrahim [Jews from North Africa, Iraq, etc. ed.] now living in Israel and the West, it has been their dream to return to or at least visit their countries of origin without restrictions.

If the new emerging governments from the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East and North Africa- along with the populations at large- have a problem with Jews who desire to return to their homelands, on what basis should it be presumed that these nations will adopt the values of appreciation of tolerance and diversity that are the hallmarks of a liberal democracy?

Another case in point is that of post-Saddam Iraq. Following the American-led invasion in 2003, many Iraqi Jews longed to return, reclaim their property or at least receive compensation from the government for confiscation by the Iraqi authorities. However, to this day, the Iraqi government refuses even to provide compensation, claiming that the exodus of Jews from Iraq was entirely a matter of free choice and willingly selling property, a claim that is far from the truth.

Far from seeing even a marginal influx of Jews into the country, Iraq has witnessed a decline in its already tiny Jewish remnant community since 2003, with at least one kidnapped and killed by al-Qa’ida militants.

There are now just seven Jews remaining in Baghdad, and the Meir Taweig synagogue in the capital has been closed, while in Basra, the last synagogue was ransacked and converted into a warehouse after the city’s only Jew left following the invasion. A proposal was raised among a few residents of the city to restore the synagogue, but did not come to fruition.

Despite an American expenditure of well over $1 trillion on the war effort (including some $53 billion allocated for reconstruction projects), Iraq today cannot be classified as a true electoral democracy.

As Freedom House notes, the country conducted generally free and fair elections in 2010, but genuine democratic decision-making is severely impeded by corruption, excessive bureaucracy that is a legacy of what Daniel Pipes terms the “Stalinist nightmare” of Saddam Hussein, sectarianism and personal power struggles among the political elite. It is therefore no surprise that Freedom House still designates Iraq as “Not Free.”

By contrast, Morocco, which still has a protected Jewish community of several thousand, appears to be faring well in the present unrest, having made Tamazight an official language (any emphasis on a Berber national identity in this manner can only serve as a bulwark against Islamism: and it is of note that in Libya the Berber community has been generally supportive of David Gerbi’s efforts) in light of largely peaceful demonstrations and introducing pragmatic reforms that stand a reasonable chance of leading towards true liberal democracy at a gradual and steady pace. Such measures will result in both short and long term stability.

Nonetheless, the persistent and virulent anti-Jewish attitudes elsewhere do not bode well for prospects of liberal democracy taking hold of the Middle East and North Africa anytime soon.