David Gerbi, a Jew whose family fled Libya more than four decades ago, visited Tripoli's old Jewish synagogue on Monday with big plans. He went to pray and to clean up garbage from a building long empty, though still grand with its soaring arches and butter-colored walls.
Gerbi, a 56-year-old psychoanalyst who has lived in Italy, said he had permission for the restoration from the local Muslim cleric and members of the Transitional National Council, the force that ousted Moammar Gadhafi back in August.
But two days into his effort, it came to an abrupt end.
"The building is not safe. The area is not safe. There are a lot of people armed. We don't know what happens. So the best thing for him is to leave," said Hadi Belazi, one of many people in a crowd that gathered outside the synagogue in the city's old Jewish Quarter.
The atmosphere was tense, and Belzai's son Haitham agreed with his father.
"It's not the right time for this," he said. "It's a very sensitive matter. We appreciate having different religions in our country. We want that. But not at this time."
Long Jewish History In Libya
The Jewish community in Libya dates back thousands of years. Most of the Jewish population immigrated to Israel after the Jewish state was established in 1948. But several thousand still remained in Libya. They ultimately left after the 1967 Mideast War — as did Gerbi's family — in response to the heightened tensions in the region. After Gadhafi came to power in 1969, he expelled the remaining Jews and confiscated their property.
For more than 40 years there was virtually no Jewish presence in Libya, though there was anti-Semitism. Calling someone a Jew in Libya is considered a serious insult.
Despite this, Gerbi came back to Libya to help the rebels as they ousted Gadhafi in a six-month uprising. Gerbi, who assisted with psychological treatment, earned the nickname "the revolutionary Jew."
He was widely believed to be the first Libyan Jew to return, though he hoped he would not be the last.
But his prayers were interrupted at the synagogue, and he emerged to the commotion outside.
"They told me that if I am not leaving now, they are going to come and they are going to kill me because they don't want Jews here," he said.
As he was talking, his security guard whisked him away, afraid for his life.
"My intention was to clean the synagogue and take the garbage out of there," Gerbi said. "I am scared only of God. If I have to die in this moment, I die."
As he walked down the street, people turned to look at him. Wearing a yarmulke and a Star of David pendant, he's was hardly inconspicuous. One Libyan man confided he had never seen a Jew before.
Test For New Libyan Leadership
Gerbi's presence and his quest to re-establish the synagogue is a test for the nascent Libyan leadership whose sponsors in the international community will be watching to see how a Jewish Libyan is treated.
A spokesman for the Transitional National Council, Jalal el-Galal, said that contrary to Gerbi's claims, he did not have authorization from the TNC to restore the synagogue.
"It's an illegal act because he has not [received] permission from anybody," he said. "I think it's a very sensitive issue at a very critical time. You are inciting something by not going through the proper channels."
Back on Tripoli's streets, Gerbi said he wouldn't be leaving.
"Enough of this," he said. "This is the old persecution. This is thousands of years that they always needed to kick out the Jew. And now they throw me out again. I don't accept this anymore."
He entered his hotel, with the synagogue he hoped to restore out of his reach for now.
GUY RAZ, Host:
Now back in his homeland, Gerbi is receiving death threats, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA: So I'm standing in front of the old synagogue in what was the old Jewish quarter of Tripoli. And right now, a crowd has gathered outside. There are armed men and they say that they are here for David's protection. But they are going to be asking him to leave.
HADI BELAZI: The building is not safe. The area is not safe. And there's a lot of people armed. And you don't know what happens. So, the best thing for him is to leave.
GARCIA: Hadi Belazi is among those outside the synagogue. It's tense. His son Haitham, who's there with him, agrees.
HAITHAM BELAZI: It's not the right time for this.
BELAZI: Because, you know, it's a very sensitive matter. We appreciate having different religions, Jews and everything, in our country. We want that. But not at this time.
GARCIA: He emerged from the synagogue today, his prayers interrupted.
DAVID GERBI: They told me that if I'm not leaving now, they will come and they are going to kill me, because they don't want the Jewish here.
GARCIA: As he's talking, his security guard hustles him away, afraid for his life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, let's go right now.
GERBI: I'm scared only of God. If I have to die in this moment, I die.
GARCIA: But a spokesman for the National Transitional Council, Jalal el-Galal, says that contrary to what David Gerbi claims, he did not have the authorization of the NTC to restore the synagogue and he blames him for what happened.
JALAL EL: It is an illegal act because he has not taken any permission from anybody. I think it's a very sensitive issue at a very critical time. You are inciting something, going about it through improper channels. And it's obviously - you're going to incite a reaction.
GARCIA: Back on Tripoli's streets, David Gerbi says he won't leave.
GERBI: It's enough of this. This is old. This is the old persecution. This is thousands of years. They always - they need to kick out of the Jew. And now they throw me out again. I don't accept this anymore.
GARCIA: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tripoli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.