TRIPOLI (Reuters) - In the walled old city of Tripoli, Libya’s independence flag pokes through crumbling buildings and a gang of children wielding toy pistols tear through dusty alleyways.
In these run-down streets stands the empty, faded peach-colored Dar Bishi synagogue.
The interior can only be seen by climbing up the rubble of a collapsed house and the ark, which would normally shelter the sacred Torah scroll, is instead stuffed with a mattress.
The Hebrew inscription above it “Hear, O Israel” is barely perceptible from wear, and empty paint cans are strewn across the floor. The site of the Mikve baths, used once for ritual cleansing, is now a trash dump where stray cats scour for food next to a discarded washing machine as veiled women look on.
Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi said he has dreamed of restoring this synagogue for 10 years, when smoke from New York’s burning twin towers evoked one of the most powerful memories of his Libyan childhood.
The 12-year-old Gerbi and his family fled Tripoli in 1967 when an Arab-Israeli war stoked anger against the Jewish state and led to attacks on Jews in his neighborhood.
Gaddafi expelled the rest of Libya’s 38,000 Jews two years later and confiscated their assets. Most Tripoli synagogues have since been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries have been razed to make way for office blocks on the coast.
Gerbi says he is the first Jew to return to Libya since the revolt that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in August.
He said he knows this because he negotiated the extraction of the last one — his aged, dying aunt who stayed behind to protect the family treasures — from a hospice in 2002.
Now that Gaddafi is gone, Gerbi wants to help interim Libyan leaders rebuild the lost Libya of his childhood and foster the type of religious tolerance between Jews and Muslims that exists in other parts of the Maghreb such as Morocco.
And he wants the Dar Bishi synagogue to be the symbol of reconciliation between Jewish and Muslim Libyans.
Talking over the Muslim call to prayer one evening last week, he told Reuters: “Some tell me I need to accept it’s over. I say no, it’s our shop, it’s our synagogue and it’s not over.”
“There is something unresolved, unfinished. That is why I am here.”
A Jungian psychotherapist who lives in Italy, Gerbi is also a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews.
He sports an “I love Libya” T-shirt with a giant red heart in the Tripoli hotel lobbies where he seeks meetings with officials of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) about Jewish prospects in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Since the revolt against Gaddafi started, Gerbi has been working with NTC officials to promote their cause in South Africa, which only recognized the interim body in late August, and by helping war victims in Benghazi hospitals.
“People called me the ‘rebel Jew’,” he said smiling proudly.
Gerbi’s contribution to the revolt was not risk-free — he said Gaddafi supporters had threatened to kill him and attempted to break into his hotel room earlier this year.
Gaddafi authorities detained and questioned him on a previous visit to Libya in 2007, when he also sought to restore the synagogue.
Now, Gerbi says he is applying to become a member of Libya’s NTC to represent the as yet non-existent Jewish population. An NTC spokesman declined to comment.
The issue of Jews returning to Libya and of Gerbi’s inclusion in the NTC are likely to be sensitive issues in a Muslim country whose former leader had for decades been one of Israel’s most outspoken critics on the international stage.
In a sign of the tensions, an Israeli photographer was detained for five months as a suspected spy while traveling in Libya last year.
Casual slurs against Jews are still common here, some of them now ironically directed against Gaddafi in graffiti across the capital.
Gerbi says he uses tricks learned as a psychotherapist to try to bond with the Libyan people.
“I have to fix them in the eyes. It (anti-Semitism) has been so ingrained by Gaddafi that the people need to get it out. I try to transform them with my behavior,” Gerbi explained, greeting residents of his former neighborhood in Arabic.
Not all Libyan Jews share Gerbi’s curiosity about his former homeland or his desire to return. Even some of his own family do not support his project.
“(NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel) Jalil was an inspiration because he was the first to disagree by going against Gaddafi. What I am doing is the same. I am disconnecting with my community. I want to show them it is possible and that we can come back,” Gerbi said, referring to Jalil’s decision to break with the Gaddafi government ahead of the February revolt.
One of Gerbi’s goals is to reclaim properties confiscated by the state, including his own family apartment in a resplendent open-air white stucco arcade once known as the Galleria de Bono.
Now deserted, it echoes with celebratory music drifting over from Martyrs’ Square and a barefoot man prays on the tile floors where small plants have taken root.
It is unclear how Gerbi’s ambitions will be received by Libyans — and other returning exiles who may also feel entitled to recover properties confiscated by the former authorities.
Gerbi worries that his aspirations could simply be sidelined in a country faced with the immense and pressing challenges of winning a war, kickstarting the economy and rebuilding.
“My worst fear is that the government puts this on a list in order to be forgotten,” he said.
“I don’t want to become again the forgotten refugee.”
Additional reporting by William MacLean in Tripoli, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Rania El Gamal in Benghazi; Editing by Alistair Lyon