A bizarre rumor is motivating at least a few of the young foreign zealots who have joined the rebellion against Libya’s strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Col. Moammar Gadhafi on Libyan TV

NBC News correspondent Richard Engel reports from the battle zone that one in five of the rebels claims to be fighting Gadhafi because of a much-repeated report that the leader is Jewish.


Gadhafi is a practicing Muslim who has financed terrorism against Israel and any western power that supports the Jewish state.

Nevertheless, the rumors vary from telling to telling. One report has it that Gadhafi’s mother converted to Judaism at age 9. In another story, Gadhafi’s grandmother is Jewish but leaves her husband for an Arab sheik.

Another version, backed up by a Libyan historian, is that Gadhafi “was born out of wedlock to a Jewish woman and an Italian soldier in a village east of Tripoli,” writes Dana Kennedy, a contributing editor for American On Line. “Because of the shame surrounding the birth, the baby was given to a Catholic cardinal who in turn gave the child to the sheepherder and his wife.”

The stories all lack key details – such as the name of the cardinal.

Gadhafi’s official biography says that he was born June 7, 1942, in a tent in Sirt, the son of a poor, illiterate Bedouin shepherd and his wife.

However, the rumors – usually told with drama and emotion – are being used to recruit fighters. Claiming Gadhafi is Jewish works in this particular cultural setting. “For decades, some Arab regimes have used hatred of Israel and Jews to deflect attention from their own shortcomings,” notes Kennedy, “and have labeled their perceived enemies as secretly being Jewish when it suited their purposes.”

The ultimate insult in such circles is that an opponent is a secret Zionist – promoting the Jewish state of Israel.

Mohamed Yusuf al Magariaf, 71, a prominent Libyan dissident now based in the U.S., says that investigated Gadhafi’s past for several of his books and believes much of what the dictator has told people about his origins is a lie.

“No one knows exactly which year he was born or exactly where he was born,” says Magariaf. “Nobody knows which day or month. There are so many question marks about it. Everything the average person knows — and there isn’t much — was a story he invented.

“Tribal traditions are everything in Libya,” says Magariaf, “and everyone is always known by their cousins and uncles. In the case of Gadhafi, no one has ever mentioned that he is from his uncle’s tribe. Who are his uncles? For someone like Gadhafi to be so powerful, it would be normal for his uncles to come out and say he is our nephew. Gadhafi never mentions his uncles.”

Kennedy asked Magariaf just how legitimate the rumors might be.

“There have always been rumors in Libya about this,” Magariaf answered. “But then came two facts. In the early 1970s, the Italian newspaper Oggi published a story saying Gadhafi was born to a Jewish mother. I have no idea why or where it came from.

“In 1973, Gadhafi told two journalists who were interviewing him for a local Libyan magazine called Al Blagh that he had some cousins of Jewish background,” said Magariaf. “But Gadhafi retracted the line about his Jewish cousin and it was never published in the magazine. I interviewed one of the journalists, Ahmed Dajani, in 1980, and he confirmed all this.”

Isn’t the timing just a little suspicious? Is it possible that it’s just strategic misinformation designed to recruit rebel fighters?

“What I know comes from my own investigation,” said Magariaf. “First, I want to say that Gadhafi’s Jewish roots are a very sensitive subject. I don’t mention them because I hate Jews or because I hate Gadhafi. I hate what he has done, not the man himself. And my books are not focused on the subject of whether Gadhafi is Jewish. It’s about telling the world the truth about all his lies.”

Last year, Israel’s Channel 2 interviewed two Israeli women of Libyan origin who claimed to be Gadhafi’s Jewish relatives.

In her book Gadhafi’s Secret, journalist Mary Pace says Gadhafi actually should be considered Catholic because he was born to an Italian officer who impregnated a Libyan girl and then took the baby to Venice, where he was baptized at the age of 8 or 9 months.

Mohamed El-Jahmi, a Libyan-American activist who left Libya 30 years ago, said that the ever-changing rumors have always been strong in Libya.

“But I’d prefer not to talk about it,” El-Jahmi told Kennedy. “It doesn’t matter if Gadhafi is Jewish or not, in the long run. What’s important is that he is evil, and he needs to go. And the Arab people need to embrace Jews and Israel if the Arab world is ever going to really grow.”


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