In the annals of the Jews of Morocco, the sinking of the Pisces(later known as the Egoz) with the loss of 44 Jews and one Spanish crew member in January 1961 was a terrible accident. The ship, chartered by the Mossad, was on its 14th journey from Morocco through the straits of Gibraltar with its cargo of illegal immigrants.The catastrophe was a watershed: following the tragedy, Morocco decided to lift its ban on Jewish emigration, and permitted 100,000 Jews to leave for Israel under Operation Yakhnin.
A lecturer at the Sorbonne (Paris VIII), Moroccan-born Israeli Dr Yigal Ben-Nun, has been making waves in Israel on the question of the Pisces, casting doubt on the accepted version of events. His research points the finger of blame for the sinking of the Pisces at foreign minister minister Golda Meir and Isser Harel, head of the Mossad.
“Are you telling me that Golda and Harel deliberately planned the sinking of the Pisces?” the interviewer asks Ben-Nun incredulously in the above clip. The academic’s answer is that they may not have intended the disaster as such, but that they did everything possible for such an eventuality to occur. Ben-Nun cites several Israeli reports on the poor seaworthiness of the ship. The Mossad continued to operate it even though an agreement with the Moroccans to allow legal emigration had ‘almost’ been signed.
More shockingly, Ben-Nun says that in the run-up to the Pisces disaster, the Mossad was looking for a spectacular event – even at the risk of human life – to shake up the Moroccan authorities into lifting the emigration ban. “We need Jewish martyrs,” the Mossad was reported to have said.
His accusations of ‘Cruel Zionism’ are hard to swallow but probably contain some truth. If there was negligence, the Israeli authorities need to be accountable to the families who lost their loved ones.
However, Ben-Nun loses credibility entirely in his reply when the interviewer evokes a parallel with the Exodus, the rickety ship packed with Jewish refugees from Europe defying the British blockade of Palestine in 1945.
Ben-Nun alleges that the Jews of Morocco had not reached the heights of despair of the refugees on board The Exodus. They were in no physical danger whatsoever. Indeed, they were living a ‘Golden Age’ in Morocco.
Yet historians such as David Bensoussan in ‘Il etait une fois le Maroc’ point to the climate of harassment and hostility prevalent in Morocco at the end of the 1950s. Postal links with Israel had been cut, Morocco had become a member of the Arab League and Nasser had made an official visit. Jews were arrested for wearing a kippa, Jewish girls were being forcibly converted to Islam. Above all, Jews were being denied a fundamental human right – the right to leave the country. Those who tried to do so could be jailed, and in some cases beaten and tortured.
Golden Age? I’m not so sure.