Jews first arrived in what is now Libya some 2,300 years ago. They settled mostly in coastal towns like Tripoli and Benghazi and lived under a shifting string of rulers, including Romans, Ottoman Turks, Italians and ultimately the independent Arab state that has now descended into civil war.
Some prospered as merchants, physicians and jewelers. Under Muslim rule, they saw periods of relative tolerance and bursts of hostility. Italy took over in 1911, and eventually the fascist government of Benito Mussolini issued discriminatory laws against Jews, dismissing some from government jobs and ordering them to work on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.
In the 1940s, thousands were sent to concentration camps in North Africa where hundreds died. Some were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Austria.
Their troubles didn’t end with the war. Across the Arab world, anger about the Zionist project in Palestine turned Jewish neighbors into perceived enemies. In November 1945, mobs throughout Libya went on a three-day rampage, burning down Jewish shops and homes and killing at least 130 Jews, among them three dozen children.
After Israel was founded in 1948, it became a refuge for Jews of ancient Middle Eastern communities, including those of Libya. Barel’s father fled in 1949, and her mother soon after. Most were gone by the time Gaddafi seized power in 1969. The new dictator expelled the rest, who were ordered to leave with one suitcase and a small amount of cash.
Jewish properties were confiscated. There was no way to determine how many. Debts to Jews were officially erased. Jewish cemeteries were turned into dumping grounds or built over, and most of the dozens of synagogues around the country were either demolished or put to different use. Some became mosques. A community that numbered about 37,000 at its peak vanished.