Community in Libya - World Jewish Congress

Even though Jews lived in Libya for over three thousand years, nothing remains today of that Jewish community.  Following the country’s independence, its Jews were forced to leave, losing their homes and their property.

WJC Affiliate


The Jewish community of Libya traces its origins back to the third century, before the Common Era. Under Roman rule, Jews prospered in the region, which was then called Cyrenaica. In 73 C.E., an Israeli zealot, Jonathan the Weaver, incited the poor of the community in Cyrene to revolt, but the Romans killed him and his followers and executed other Jews of the community who were not involved in the revolt. Over time, the Libyan Jewish community was increased by Berbers who converted to Judaism. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Jews escaping Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions arrived in Cyrenaica, as did Jews from Italy.

Together with other North African countries, Libya was invaded first by the Muslims and then by the Ottoman Empire, and the Jews lived as “dhimmi, that is, protected non-Muslims. In 1911, when Ottoman rule over Libya ended and Italian control began, the Jewish population there numbered 20,000 people. It had nearly doubled to 40,000 by 1945. In 1948, Libyan nationalists incited a pogrom to demand their independence from British rule. A quick British response and Jewish self-defense limited the damage, but still, 15 Jews were killed and hundreds were left homeless. Although emigration was illegal, more than 3,000 Jews succeeded in leaving Libya, with many settling in Israel. In 1949, when finally the British authorities allowed the emigration, more than 30,000 Jews fled from Libya.

In 1951, Libya became an independent kingdom. Ten years later, a new law required a special document to certify Libyan citizenship, but practically all Jews were denied this document. By this time, Libyan Jews had been deprived of many civil rights: they could not vote, could not hold public office, could not serve in the army, could not obtain passports or purchase real property, could not obtain majority ownership in any new or old business, and were not even allowed to manage their own communal affairs.

After the June 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, Libyans too took to the streets and attacked the Jewish community, which had decreased to 7,000. When these antisemitic riots began, King Idris himself and other international Jewish leaders urged Jews still living in Libya to emigrate. Eighteen Jews were killed, and the death toll might well have been greater but for the Italian ambassador to Libya, who instructed all Italian diplomatic missions to offer their assistance and protection to Libya’s Jews. Subsequently, an Italian airborne operation relocated 6,000 Jews, mainly to Rome. These refugees were forced to leave behind their homes, businesses, and possessions. When Muammar al-Gaddafi came to power in 1969, there were only 100 Jews left in Libya. Even though his government confiscated all Jewish property and prohibited Jews from emigrating, some Jews still managed to leave. By 2004, there were no Jews left in Libya.

The Years of the Holocaust

Libyan Jews enjoyed mostly positive conditions under the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911 until the late 1930s. At that time, most of the community was in Tripoli. In the late 1930s, fascist antisemitic laws were progressively applied in the colony. Nevertheless, in 1941, the Jews still made up a quarter of the population of Tripoli and maintained 44 synagogues throughout the country. In 1942, Nazi German troops occupied the Jewish quarter of Benghazi, looted stores, destroyed Jewish homes, and deported more than 2,000 Jews to concentration camps, where more than one-fifth of them perished. Many Jews from Tripoli were sent to the Giado concentration camp, approximately 240 km (150 mi) south of Tripoli.

Conditions did not greatly improve following the liberation. During the British occupation, there was a series of murders, the worst of which, in 1945, resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Jews in Tripoli and other towns and the destruction of five synagogues. At the end of World War II, Libya came under British rule. Until this point, it should be noted that Muslim-Jewish relations in Libya were moderately friendly for the most part. Beginning in 1945, however, the Arab League’s pan-Islamic movement increased its activities, and anti-Zionist propaganda provoked the flames of antisemitic hatred in Libya, resulting in anti-Jewish rioting that left 130 people dead and nine synagogues destroyed. An increasing sense of insecurity, combined with the founding of the State of Israel, pushed many Jews to leave the country.

Community Life

In 1936, Representatives of the Jewish Community of Libya were delegates at the founding plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva. In June and July of 1947, respectively, the Jewish communities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica affiliated with the WJC. The following year, these two communities merged, and in November 1951, the Council of Jewish Communities of Tripolitania authorized WJC to act for the Jews in Libya before the United Nations.

Relations with Israel

Israel and Libya have no diplomatic relations.

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