Libyan Jew David Gerbi on Sunday hammered down the brick wall blocking the entrance to the rundown Dar Bishi Synagogue in Tripoli on what he called a “historic day.”
Flanked by journalists and curious residents from the neighborhood, Gerbi, dressed in an “I love Libya” T-shirt, collapsed as he yelled, “This is for all those who suffered under Gadhafi."
With a U.S. security contractor accompanying him, Gerbi continued to strike the wall until it was destroyed.
“I could not have done it without the permission of three local sheikhs living in the neighborhood and the protection of the rebels,” Gerbi told CNN as he pointed to the faded Hebrew letters meaning “Hear, O Israel" engraved on the wall above the Torah scroll.
The dusty floor of the scarred building was littered with dead pigeons, clothes, flea-ridden mattresses and syringes that may have been left behind by drug users and prostitutes who used to take refuge in the abandoned building, according to the testimonies of the local residents.
“I will paint the walls and restore the building, but will keep it simple and functional because it’s a place for God and prayers,” Gerbi said as he mopped the floor.
“I feel proud. My smile is back and my dream is fulfilled, and I want tourists to come see this place in a month’s time,” Gerbi told a room full of journalists.
Gerbi fled Tripoli with his family when he 12 years old in 1967. After 44 years of exile in Italy, he returned this year as a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews.
Gadhafi had expelled the remaining 38,000 Jews in 1969 and converted most of the synagogues to mosques.
“I am the only Jew in Libya, but I have the support of the 200,000 Libyan Jews and their descendants living abroad,” Gerbi told CNN.
In 2007, Gadhafi invited Gerbi to Libya, but he claims that he was tricked, questioned and detained for attempting to restore the synagogue.
During the revolt against Gadhafi that started in February, Gerbi assisted the injured in Benghazi and promoted the National Transitional Council in South Africa until it was recognized in August.
Gerbi’s years of experience as a psychotherapy professor in Italy and Israel may come in handy in his difficult mission of winning the hearts and minds of the Libyans in a society known for its anti-Semitism.
“I don’t know what is behind this move, but I don’t trust the Jews, and there will be problems if they come back,” said Ayaad Mohamed, a man living across from the synagogue.
Gerbi and residents of the neighborhood said Gadhafi had visited the old city and fired two bullets at the Ten Commandments inscribed on the exterior of the synagogue.
Gerbi may face challenges in his return to Libya, but he remains defiant and insists on inviting more Jews in the near future.
“To those who don’t welcome me, I tell them, I am not leaving. My parents were not buried here because Gadhafi razed the Jewish cemeteries, but I will be buried here.”