Story from PRI's The World. Listen above to the full audio report.
Libya once had a large Jewish community. It fled persecution and discrimination starting in the 1940s. In the Israeli town of Bat Yam, one Israeli man’s trying to preserve Libya’s Jewish cultural relics, a mission that has turned out to be dangerous at times.
Pedazur Benattia – everyone calls him Pedi – has a trim white beard and eyes that light up when he reminisces about his parents’ life in Libya. Or when he talks about his Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage. Or when he shows off the enormous collection of manuscripts and Torah scrolls he has collected from Libyan immigrants who brought them to Israel fifty-odd years ago.
Pedi has never been to Libya himself; Gaddafi never allowed Israelis in. So ten years ago, Pedi started asking others to go there for him, to see how Jewish properties were holding up.
That’s how this jolly man started his very own freelance espionage ring — though he’d never call it by that name.
“I don’t think I cooperated with spies…Kind of,” Pedi said.
It started off as an innocent quest. In 2000, Pedi contacted a Muslim man in Tripoli, through a Libyan web forum. He told the man he was the son of Libyan Jews, and really wanted to see the condition of the old synagogue there.
“So he went out of his house, took a picture with a digital camera, and sent it,” Pedi recalled.
Pedi wanted more. So he sent Belgian student Daniel Greenberg to Tripoli to take photos of Jewish properties. But then, Pedi said, “he was caught by the mukhabarat, the secret police. He was jailed for 9 days. They told him, ‘You are a Mossad messenger. You are taking pictures for the Israelis.’”
No, Greenberg wasn’t an Israeli spy. But whether he liked it or not, if he wanted to document Jewish history in Libya, he had to do it secretly. Like a spy.
When they confiscated his film and kicked him out of the country, he still took out four rolls of film.
“That was the first time we got about 100 pictures of other places we haven’t had before,” Pedi said.
Pedi was on a roll. Recruit number three was an Israeli journalist who flew to Libya on his German passport and shot video of Jewish properties. Recruit number four was a French man who went to look for the old Jewish cemeteries of Khoms, the seaside town where Pedi’s parents grew up.
“From an Internet café, he sent me picture after picture of broken gravestones,” Pedi said. But the French messenger, too, was caught by the secret police and thrown out of the country.
It didn’t stop Pedi from sending his fifth recruit. This one, however, paid a heavy price. In 2010, Rafram Chaddad, a Tunisian-Israeli photographer, agreed to go to Libya, on Pedi’s dime and traveling on his own Tunisian passport.
“I went all over Libya,” said Chaddad from a Tel Aviv café. “I had a list of places. I had to make some investigations there, talking to old people: ‘Where is the graveyard? Where are the Jewish schools?’”
Chaddad ended up making international headlines: The secret police rounded him up.
He told them that Pedi had sent him; his interrogators knew all about Pedi. Chaddad said he was tortured for twenty days, with electric shocks, beaten with an iron pipe, and deprived of sleep.
They accused Chaddad of spying for Israel, and threw him in a dark cell, alone, for five months, until secret talks were held to secure his release.
And still, he wasn’t the last person Pedi sent on a Libyan scouting mission. When Libyan rebels took over Tripoli, writer-photographer Tsur Shezaf went to report for Israeli TV, using his British second passport and without revealing his Israeli identity, to avoid any anti-Israel sentiment.
“As I walked and I start filming, two people came out and stopped me,” said Shezaf. “They asked, ‘Who are you, what are you doing here?’”
One of the men told Shezaf that he couldn’t trust anyone, Libyans or foreigners. He asked him why he was interested in the Jewish graveyard – and whether he himself was a Jew.
“I hesitated for second or two, and I said, ‘Yes, I am a Jew,’” Shezaf recalled. It worked — Shezaf was told to go ahead.
The neglect of Jewish history in Muslim lands has been a source of concern in Israel for decades. Up until 1948, there were about a million Jews in Middle Eastern and North African countries. But with the rise of Arab nationalism and the war that led to Israel’s founding in 1948, Jews left in the hundreds of thousands, mostly ending up in Israel.
Many of these migrants took along some of the world’s most important Jewish antiques and manuscripts. Since then, many other artifacts were whisked away with the help of the Israeli intelligence services.
“Why would a secret organization be involved in such an activity? Because Mossad has a variety of responsibilities unprecedented in any intelligence service in world,” said Ronen Bergman, senior military and political analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. He is working on a book about the history of the Mossad.
“Mossad is also in charge of keeping safe the Jewish communities in the world, and also keeping their property safe.”
In some cases, it meant taking some properties of Jewish heritage, and smuggling them to Israel, Bergman said.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Israeli intelligence helped smuggle out important Torah scrolls from Egypt, one of them so precious that its identity remains classified.
In the 90s, Israeli agents helped Jewish immigrants smuggle important Hebrew manuscripts out of Syria. Details of that operation have also mostly been kept secret. Bergman says he knows of no new operations that have taken place recently.
Pedi insists he’s not working in connection with Israeli intelligence, and he doesn’t like thinking of his work as espionage.
“For God’s sake, it’s just gravestones. Places, streets. What’s the problem? Why we can’t get it normally?” Pedi said. “I am sending people there because now what was left, maybe tomorrow will not be. Every year fewer places exist. Ten, fifteen years from now, maybe nothing will be there.”
Jewish graveyards in Libya, Pedi says, acted as an historical record of that community. Under Gaddafi, many Jewish and Muslim graveyards were destroyed to make way for urban development.
Pedi says he’s operating rescue missions, before that history is erased. That’s why he asked Shezaf to bring back any shards of gravestones he found on the ground. It’s probably against the law, but he did it.
“If it has no importance but to the Jews, and the place is going to be eliminated, why not take it?” Shezaf said. “The graveyard of Khoms is going to disappear in few years. It’s a garbage dump. It’s either, I take it, or it is buried in heaps of garbage and other things.”
This isn’t the end of the story. Pedi’s quest has just begun.
He sees a window of opportunity now, while the Libyan government is in transition, and the borders aren’t under tight control. He’s trying to plan his own way in, to finally see his parents’ home country. Not through the eyes of his agents.
In Israel, Pedi’s building a museum to house all the Libyan Jewish artifacts he’s collected over the years.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.