The Jews of Libya during World War II
In 1911 Libya came under direct Italian rule, after which the conditions for Jews improved in all spheres of life. The community grew demographically, the status of Jews improved, and Jews learned Italian and integrated into Italian social systems. Their situation began to deteriorate following the creation of the Rome-Berlin Axis, the alliance agreement between Mussolini and Hitler. Although Italy did not adopt the Nuremberg laws, it issued its own anti-Semitic edicts under the “Manifest of the Italian Race,” which caused hardships for the Jews and their ability to continue integrating into the Italian walks of life within Libya.
Mussolini’s imperialist aspirations in combination with the course of the war led him to launch a military campaign against the Allies’ troops that were stationed in Egypt. Therefore during the years 1940-1942 there was war on Libyan soil. Libya was subjected to bombing by the Allies as well as a large-scale, land-based military campaign. This was a difficult and bloody war with no decisive military outcome until November 1942.Most of the fighting took place in the region of Cyrenaica, whose largest district city was Benghazi. Five thousand Jews resided in this region. The Jews suffered greatly during the war period. Beyond the hardship endured during the military operations that made life very difficult for the Jewish community, as well as for the other residents, Jews were accused by the Italians of collaborating with the Allied Forces and thereby contributing to Italy’s defeat. Indeed, during their recurring conquests of the region, the Italians inflicted hardships on the Jews. This process peaked with the expulsion of the majority of the region’s Jews to the Jadu concentration camp in southern Algeria. This was an unprecedented logistical operation in the context of the war and a severe blow to the Jews of the region. Life in the Jadu camp, which was under Italian administration, was very difficult. A dysentery epidemic that broke out in the camp caused the death of approximately 600 Jews. For them this was a true tragedy.
Unable to sway the course of the war against British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, and other forces, Mussolini turned in desperation to Hitler, who sent German forces in an effort to gain the upper hand. The AfrikaKorps under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel fought a hard battle against the forces of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The fighting between them concluded only in 1942 in the region of El Alamein. The German-Italian defeat led the Allied Forces to conduct a large-scale conquest that resulted in the final defeat of Italian-controlled Libya at the hands of the British forces on 30 January 1943.
Thus, 30 January 1943 also marks the end of Italian rule in Libya and the onset of a British military administration that continued until Libya achieved independence. The British, who understood that the era of colonialism was over, worked towards a United Nations resolution regarding the status of Libya. The presence of Jewish soldiers in the British army contributed significantly to the revival of Libyan Jewry. Jewish soldiers assisted in rebuilding the educational system, raised the morale of the community, helped smuggle Jews from Libya to Israel, and encouraged the Zionist efforts.
The years between Libya’s liberation and its independence were difficult for the Jews. In November 1945 the Jewish community suffered devastating pogroms at the hands of Muslims, during which 135 Jews were killed. These pogroms and uncertainty about the future of Libya’s Jews led to a wave of illegal immigration during the course of which approximately 10% of all Libyan Jews immigrated to Israel, marking the beginning of the end of Jewish presence in Libya.