How Egypt took revenge on its Jews

The Jerusalem Post’s Brenda Gazzar tells the story of how the Egyptian government took revenge on the country’s Jews following Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War. Some were interned for up to three years. (With thanks: Linda)

“Shabtai was one of at least 425 Jewish males – the vast majority of the community’s men – who were detained in Egypt during the Six Day War.

“Within days of their detention, 75 Jewish detainees with foreign passports were released due to pressure exerted by these countries and expelled, according to Prof. Michael M. Laskier of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern History. One hundred and twelve of the remaining 350 prisoners were released by the end of 1967 or the beginning of 1968 and expelled, while the rest were gradually released over the next two and a half years.

“But many of those who carried Egyptian passports were detained for nearly three years. Shabtai, like many Jews born in Egypt, did not have citizenship and was considered by the government to be stateless.

“The idea was to break the back of the Jewish community and demoralize it,” Laskier said. “If you take people 18 to 50, they are the backbone of the community, the main providers, that can assist the community – people that authorities might have felt… could be any kind of help to Israel or might carry out acts of sabotage.”

“When Shabtai and his brothers were taken from their home, their widowed mother was left to manage largely on her own. It was at least three months before his mother and his future wife, who had met him a month before his detention, received word of his whereabouts. For at least three weeks at Abu Zaabal, Shabtai remained clueless about outside events. When he finally heard from a new detainee that Israel had captured the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, he felt “internal happiness” – emotions he was careful not to reveal to his captors.

“The first several months at Abu Zaabal were very difficult for the detainees, who corroborate stories of random physical and verbal abuse, indiscriminate beatings, strong feelings of uncertainty and humiliation.

“On their first day there, they were required to hand over any possessions they carried with them and to strip down to their underwear. Before they were crammed into their small cells, they were forced to run quickly around an open rectangular corridor while prison staff waited to hit them with belts or wooden sticks as they passed by. The exercise would repeat itself many times.

“Every time Israel attacked the Egyptians, they used to take revenge on us,” Shabtai said. “I don’t know on whose instruction but among the captains that were there, there were bad ones. There were even captains that they called ‘Hitler.’ Who knows if they had brothers who died in the war, if they had parents that died in the war” or if they knew prisoners captured by Israel. “They didn’t have anyone to take revenge on, except us.”

“Gamliel Yallouz of Herzliya, says that once after a long run, an officer was waiting to hit them as they entered their cells. When Yallouz entered, the officer, waving a club of dried date leaves, took the thickest and roughest part of the weapon, stuck it hard into his bare chest and turned it 360 degrees.

“The only thing I thought to do was to grab his belt with both hands and jump with him” to the ground a few floors beneath them. “I felt so humiliated, so bad, I told myself, ‘I’ll take him with me.'” The only reason Yallouz didn’t commit suicide, he says, was that he suddenly saw a vision of his two children – two and four – standing next to the officer. “This was the only thing that calmed me.”

(…)

“By 1948, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Jews were living Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities. These Jewish communities were quite involved in the economic development of the country before the July 1952 coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Yet well before the Six Day War and even before Israel’s establishment, the situation for Jews in Arab countries became progressively more difficult.

“Several factors led to these communities’ decline. Among them was the world economic crisis that began in 1929 which helped to resuscitate anti-Jewish sentiment, the growing perception that Jews and other non-Muslim minorities were “collaborators” under British colonial rule, the rise of fascism and the Palestine question, said Laskier, author of The Jews of Egypt: 1920-1970: In the Midst of Zionism, Anti-Semitism and the Middle East Conflict. However, the primary catalyst for the Jewish community’s dissolution in Egypt and other Arab countries was the radicalization of nationalism and its orientation toward pan-Arabism. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also helped inflame prejudice against the Jews.

“Nationalism was the major problem because Egyptian nationalism over time, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, espoused notions of Pan-Arabism and it was very, very radical and minorities – Jews among them – didn’t have much of a future in a pan-Arab environment,” Laskier said. “Jews were regarded as not only not loyal, but not authentic Egyptians. For the Muslim Brotherhood, they were considered to be infidels or disloyal.”

“In fact, this wave of nationalism was so strong that even if Israel had not existed, Laskier argues that the Jewish community in Egypt would still have dissolved sooner or later. Following the 1956 Sinai Campaign, between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews are estimated to have left by 1958 due to expulsion or voluntary departure. Those who left voluntarily did so under significant political and economic pressure, including discriminatory laws and practices and the sequestering of property and businesses. By 1967, there were only 2,500 Jews left in the country.

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One Comment

  • actually, Nasser was already imposing special laws on Jews in the 1950s. He wanted to take over their property, supposedly in the name of socialism for the sake of the poor, blah blah blah. After the Egyptians had expropriated the Jews they did the same to other non-Muslims, such as Greeks, Italians, etc., of whom there were very many in Egypt before Nasser.
    Michael Laskier has written several books and articles on Egyptian Jewry under Nasser. The problems didn’t begin with the Six Day War. By the way, you might look up the book The Forgotten Millions, edited by Malka Hillel Shulevitz. An article in that collection of articles reports that both Iraq and Egypt were thinking of expropriating the Jews before the 1947-1949 war.

    Reply

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