Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Benghazi, Libya

Benghazi is a port city in the district of Cyrenaica (see *Cyrene ), Libya. In ancient times it was called Hesperides, but was later renamed Berenice. After 74 B.C.E., it was part of Roman Cyrenaica, but according to an inscription of 13 B.C.E. found at Benghazi, the Jews of Berenice were considered citizens (as in the rest of Cyrenaica) but were ruled by their own Jewish archons and not by an ethnarch as in other parts of the Diaspora. Furthermore, they are described as a "municipal community," and appear from the inscription to be observant of the festivals (CIG 3:2, no. 5361). Another inscription found in 1938, gives thanks to certain donors for helping to dedicate a synagogue in Berenice in 56 C.E. In both this and the previous inscription, the majority of the names mentioned are non-Jewish, testifying to a fair degree of Hellenization, as in Egypt. During the revolt of the Jews of Cyrene in 115 and during the Byzantine era, the Jews of Berenice suffered the same fate as those of Cyrene in general. After the Arab conquest in 660, Berenice was mostly deserted. In the 14th century, it was called by its Arabic name Benghazi (Bin Ghāzī). At the beginning of the 16th century, many Jews from Tripoli helped to repopulate it, earning their livelihood by trade with North Africa and the Mediterranean area, or as smiths or tailors.

Following the Ottoman occupation of 1640, Jewish families from Tripoli were attracted to the city. In 1745 epidemics and poverty drove out the inhabitants, but about 1750, some members of the previous Jewish community returned and reorganized the community, which began to flourish about 1775 with the arrival of Jewish families from Italy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Benghazi had 400 Jewish families divided into two groups: those of the town and the surrounding region (Kahal Bengazi) and those who were born in Tripoli and Italy. Although both groups recognized the authority of one rabbi, each had its own synagogue.

The Muslim Brotherhood of the Sanusiya, whose influence was considerable in Cyrenaica from the 1840s onwards, was well disposed toward the Jews of Benghazi, appreciating their economic-mercantile contributions and peaceful attitude. The Jews enjoyed complete freedom and were not forced to live in a special quarter. They lived in affluence, and because of their commercial activity, the town became an important trading center for Europe and Africa. Several wealthy families occupied high positions in the service of the Ottoman authorities. Among scholars of this community were Elijah Lavi (1783–1883), author of Sefer Ge'ullot Adonai (1864) and other works written in Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic; Moses Ḥakmon; and Isaac Khalfon. A modernized talmud torah was organized under the leadership of Elia Juili (1890), Ḥai Teshuba, and others. In 1909 when a large fire broke out in the bazaar, the Ottoman soldiers, who were supposed to extinguish it, looted and attacked the population, especially the Jews. Because of this, several families moved back to Tripoli. From 1911 Italian rule attracted more Jews from the interior of the country, as well as from Italy to Benghazi, and in 1935 the Jewish population numbered 2,236. Until 1936 life under Italian rule proceeded peacefully for the Jews. In 1936, however, the Italians began to enforce fascist legislation aimed at modernizing social and economic structures based on conditions current in Italy. With the implementation of anti-Jewish racial legislation in late 1938, Jews were removed from municipal councils, public offices, and state schools, and their papers were stamped with the words "Jewish race."

When Benghazi fell to the British on February 6, 1941, the Jews were overjoyed but suffered in attacks by hostile Muslim youth when the Italians recaptured the city on April 3, 1941. On December 24, 1941, the British retook the city, but Italian-German forces once again conquered it on January 27, 1942. This again resulted in anti-Jewish attacks, the systematic plunder of all Jewish shops, and the promulgation of a deportation order. Almost all the Benghazi Jews were deported to Giado, 149 miles (240 km.) south of Tripoli, a camp in the desert where they lived under severe climatic, health, and living conditions. Consequently, 562 of them died of starvation and typhus. Forced labor, however, was not general, and food distribution was not conditional upon it.

The condition of the Jews in Giado improved only when the British entered the camp in January 1943. In November 1945 and June 1948, the Jews of Benghazi did not suffer anti-Jewish pogroms at the hands of Arabs, similar to the Jews of Tripoli, though small-scale incidents did occur. Several Jews were beaten up in mid-June 1948, a shop was looted, and a fire broke out in a synagogue, but the local police introduced order, and there was no need for the British Army to intervene. Emergency measures were introduced, demonstrations and gatherings were forbidden, and a curfew was instituted. Still, the Jews felt unsafe and feared for their life and property. Violence against individuals as well as cases of kidnapping and forced Islamization of young Jewish women took place, especially in the countryside. As a result, once emigration to Israel was permitted in early 1949, the majority of the community of 2,500 persons emigrated to Israel through the end of 1951, with approximately 200 Jews left in Benghazi in 1967.

During the Six-Day War of 1967, unlike other areas of Jewish settlement in Libya, the authorities reacted fairly rapidly to protect the Jews in Benghazi. Almost immediately after word of Israel-Arab fighting came, the Jews were rounded up and put into protective custody in army barracks outside the city. Subsequent to the Six-Day War, most of the remaining Jews in Benghazi emigrated, mainly to Italy.

[David Corcos / Rachel Simon (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.