Saving the remnants of Jewish Life in the Arab World
In 2008, Jason Guberman began a project to map and collect photographs of synagogues and Jewish shrines and cemeteries throughout the Middle East, creating for posterity a digital museum of the physical remnants of these ancient, and almost entirely defunct, communities. Diarna, the organization he founded, has been able to take advantage of the recent upheavals in the region to expand its reach even as Islamic State and other groups have been destroying what little remains.
Emily Feldman writes:
Many places were still off-limits when Diarna started its project, some three years before the Arab Spring uprisings toppled dictators in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Many of those autocrats clung to anti-Semitic policies. Libya under Muammar Qaddafi was particularly difficult to access for researchers working for a Jewish nonprofit. Qaddafi was notoriously anti-Semitic—canceling all debts owed to Jews, among other things—and Diarna’s efforts to recruit local researchers failed…
When fighting erupted in Libya, for example, reporters descended on the country, including one familiar with Diarna’s work. She contacted Guberman, offering to help him. Her only condition was anonymity. In May 2011, Guberman sent her a map of the Hara Kabira, the old Jewish quarter in Tripoli, to help her locate the Dar Bishi synagogue, the most beautiful in the city when it opened in 1928. After Qaddafi took power in the late 1960s, the government seized and shuttered all Jewish property in Libya…
Guberman was cautiously optimistic that the rebels who ousted Qaddafi in 2011 might make it easier to access Jewish sites. A Libyan Jew named David Gerbi tested those expectations a few months later by returning to Tripoli from exile in Italy to restore the Dar Bishi synagogue. . . . Guberman wondered how locals would react. He soon found out. A group of protesters opposed to the synagogue’s restoration gathered in central Tripoli with signs denouncing Zionism and some declaring “there is no place for Jews in Libya.” Fearing for his safety, Gerbi abandoned his project and returned to Italy.