In Libya people have long speculated about Gaddafi’s ancestry. While Gaddafi claimed to have been born in a tent in Sirte to the son of a poor Bedouin sheepherder and his wife, this story has been in doubt.
Now that Gaddafi has fallen, many feel that they are finally able to talk freely about Gaddafi. And what many of them are now saying is that he was a Jew.
In March, NBC‘s Richard Engel reported from Libya that one in five rebels was fighting Gaddafi because of the belief the Libyan dictator was Jewish.
More recently, Middle East analyst Andrew Engel reported from Libya in the New York Forward that throughout Libya he saw Graffiti depicting Gadaffi as a Jew and that many people he met were eager to tell him that Gaddafi was Jewish:
“‘Did you know that Qaddafi was a Jew?’ the Libyan driver we hired to take us to Tripoli from Tunis smugly asked me somewhere on the road close to the Tunisian Island of Djerba, which still has a small Jewish population. ‘No,’ I responded, though I had heard this claim before. ‘Yes, his mother was a Jew, and on his father’s side he was Italian,’ the driver said matter-of-factly.”
Andrew Engel also heard antisemitic music, which rapped in Arabic: “I’m sorry for Algeria because their leader is Bouteflika, who supports every Jew with his soldiers and weapons. Leave, oh Gaddafi… Go out, you Jew!”
Another song rapped: “From the north to the south, from the east to the west, let’s rise up, let’s rise up! The anger won’t die, the one who will die is Qaddafi, his supporters and the Jews.”
Rumours that Gaddafi was Jewish have been given renewed ‘credibility’ following an interview on Israel’s Channel Two News with two elderly Israelis of Libyan descent who claim to share a relative with Gaddafi’s grandmother. Though those claims remain unproven, the interview is widely cited in Libya as proof of the suspicions about his orgins, according to Engel.
There are also other conflicting stories in the rumour mill. One had Gaddafi’s mother converting to Judaism at age nine. In another, Gaddafi’s grandmother was Jewish but left her husband for an Arab sheikh. A more specific claim, backed up by a Libyan historian, is that Gaddafi was born out of wedlock to a Jewish woman and an Italian soldier in a village east of Tripoli. Because of the shame surrounding the birth, the baby was given to a Catholic cardinal who in turn gave the child to the shepherd and his wife.
Irrespective of Gaddafi’s real ancestry, Gaddafi would be turning in his grave to know that he is now being labelled a Jew, having spent decades ‘cleansing’ Libya of Jews.
Jews had lived in Libya since the third century BCE, predating the Arab conquest of Libya in the seventh century. Most of Libya’s 38,000 Jews left during the anti-Jewish riots following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The remaining 4,000 to 7,000 Jews fled following the 1967 Six Day War. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969 he helped ensure that Jews stayed out by cancelling all debts owed to Jews, confiscating their properties, and bulldozing Jewish cemeteries.
Gaddafi spent decades conditioning Libya to hate Jews and to see them as responsible for the evils of the world, in order to further his own popular support. Now, this Jewish scapegoating appears to have come back to bite him, because in the end he himself is being labeled a ‘Jew’, perhaps because it more convenient than blaming their own people for his evil ways.
As Andrew Engel wrote in the Forward:
“Many of the Libyans I met reminded me of missionaries committed to spreading the word that Qaddafi was and always would be alien to Libyan soil. It was almost as if the taxi driver, Mohammed and the brigade commander – by invoking two of the Arab world’s greatest evils, Zionism and colonialism (by the hands of the Italians) – had accomplished an amazing feat of disassociation between themselves and the man who ruled them for most of their lives, as if they were saying: ‘You know, Qaddafi was not one of us. A Libyan could not have done what he did.’ It was a refusal to come to terms with Libya’s own past. Even a dictator, after all, requires popular support from some segments of society to rule for more than four decades…
Even if Qaddafi had Jewish ancestry, his completion of the ethnic cleansing of Libya’s Jews, his support for terrorism against Israel and Western targets and his backing for Palestinian fighters against Israel during the Lebanese Civil War…defies any claim that he identified or practiced as a Jew.
Libyans today may find it convenient to participate in an act of collective scapegoating and denial, a refusal to admit that one of their own could rise to such power only to demean and dominate his own people. But a country unable to come to terms with its history may find itself incapable of building the successful, inclusive democracy it has promised the world.”
Similarly, veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon noted that the prevalence of antisemitic conspiracy theories can only damage the prospects of Arab states like Libya:
“People who consistently blame an outside agency for their problems – whether it’s Jews, Western colonialism or anything else – are incapable of building any kind of decent society. You can’t fix a problem if you consider it beyond your control, and if it’s someone else’s fault, it is beyond your control. Only when people acknowledge that they have contributed to their own problems can they begin to seek solutions.
That’s why Arab anti-Semitism matters so desperately – not because of the threat it poses to Israel, though that is real, but because of the threat it poses to Arab countries’ own development.”
While many things may change in post revolutionary Libya, it appears that the prevalence of antisemitism is not one of them. Moreover, this likely bodes poorly for the countries future.