The Divergence of Judaism and Islam. Interdependence, Modernity, and Political Turmoil

(Joyce) #1


Jewish-Muslim Relations in Libya

Rachel Simon

Jews have lived in Libya since time immemorial, long before the Arab
conquest that brought the region into the realm of Islam. Since then, Mus-
lim law regarding non-Muslim monotheists has become a major factor
in determining the status of Libyan Jews and their relations with the au-
thorities and the society at large. This religiously defined attitude toward
Jews remained prevalent in Libya during the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, even though the region underwent four regime changes, in-
cluding two non-Muslim ones: Ottoman 1835–1911, Italian 1911–43, Brit-
ish Military Administration (BMA) 1943–51, and independent Arab since
At the beginning of the twentieth century, 20,000 Jews lived in Libya
amid about a million Muslims. At its peak, in the late 1940s, the commu-
nity numbered some 35,000 Jews, amid a million and a half to two million
Muslims. Most Jews lived on trade and crafts. About a tenth of the Jews,
mostly the rich merchants and big contractors, held a foreign nationality,
mainly Italian.
During the Ottoman period, the authorities treated the Jews as dhim-
mis.^1 The population at large often despised the Jews, but the Ottoman
military and officials usually tried to protect them, as did local chiefs, rec-
ognizing their economic importance. During most of the Italian period,
the status of individuals and communities was based on Fascist ideology,
which regarded the interest of the state as paramount. Thus Jewish-Mus-
lim relations during this period were not based on the relations between
the Jews and the state. During the BMA, many Muslim political exiles
returned to Libya, increasing local awareness of political developments

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