How 1967 caused a mass Jewish exodus

The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War is also a time to remember that other war – the war that Arab regimes waged against their Jewish citizens. This Tablet piece by Lucette Lagnado gives an overview, but may be criticised for downplaying the antisemitism that bedevilled these countries before 1967. (With thanks: Eliyahu)

The choir at Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, Alexandria

 

What wasn’t—what isn’t—forgivable, even looking back 50 years later,
was how residents of those countries chose to vent their rage: By
turning it against the Jews in their midst, most of who were studiously
apolitical and had nothing to do with the war, its outbreak or its
outcome.

Even in those countries that were, as some of us like to say, “nice
to the Jews”—such as Tunisia, where fairly sizable Jewish communities
were left in 1967—there were terrifying demonstrations and expressions
of hatred and venom. Jews from Morocco left in exodus. In countries like
Libya, murderous assaults took place that prompted an emergency
evacuation of hundreds of Jews.

Egypt, where I was born and spent my early childhood, engaged in
especially tawdry behavior. My family had left in 1963, following tens
of thousands of other Jews out of the country. We did so reluctantly: My
father didn’t want to go and it took pressure from my siblings to
convince him. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of life outside of
Egypt.

That was the case with a lot of Egyptian Jews. While they loved
Israel too, they saw themselves as Egyptian. I can still hear Dad’s
cries on the boat out of Alexandria harbor: “Ragaouna Masr”—Take Us Back to Cairo.

But our little boat kept chugging along.It wouldn’t turn back. It has
taken me years to realize—sort of, as I still love Egypt passionately:
Lucky us.

In 1967, there were an estimated 2,500-3,000 Jews still left between Cairo and Alexandria, down from a high of 80,000 in 1948.

On that week in ’67, the Egyptian government began rounding up Jewish
men, to send to jails and prison camps. By accounts of the time, as
many as 400 or 500 Jews were imprisoned.

While they gallantly left girls and women alone, authorities picked
up Jewish men young and old. Even the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria was
arrested. Enraged about their failure to defeat the Jewish state, the
Egyptians turned their wrath on Jews whose crime, as far as I can tell,
was that they were living in Egypt.

Nor did the aftermath of the war lead to the prisoners’ swift
release. It is true some were in jail a mere couple of weeks until some
foreign embassies helped get them out. But others lingered for months,
even years, as Egypt released Jewish prisoners in painful dribs and
drabs.

Albert Gabbai, rabbi of the venerable Congregation Mikveh Israel in
Philadelphia, was 18 and still in school in Cairo that June. He and his
three older brothers and two sisters lived with their widowed mother.
Their father, once a shirt-maker to King Farouk, had died years earlier
and the brothers managed his clothing business along with their mom.
Four other brothers had made it to America and the plan, he recalled,
was to join them.

Rabbi Gabbai still remembers how the authorities first dragged his
two older brothers to prison that week in June. Then some weeks later
they came for him and another brother. They carried machine guns, yet
were exquisitely polite, he recalls, inviting him to come with them as
if they were going out for coffee. The four Gabbai brothers remained
prisoners for three years, till June 1970.

There were other Jewish victims across the Middle East. While in
Tunis researching a book on Jews of the Arab lands, I met with elderly
Jews who vividly remembered that week in ’67, when a country that had
treated them exceedingly well became simply unrecognizable.

They recalled how mobs took to the streets, targeting Jewish shops
for destruction. They attacked the magnificent Grande Synagogue, whose
enormous towering Jewish star was a testament to how tolerant Tunisian
culture once had been.

The marauders turned their wrath on, of all places, the Kosher
butcher shops on the Avenue de Paris, attacking them with odd ferocity
and dragging carcasses of meat from the stores to the sidewalks. It was,
I was told, a particularly gruesome sight.

Many Tunisian Jews left then and there, abandoning all they owned—homes, furniture, clothing. The expression I heard was “la clef dans la verouille“—they had left their key in the lock.

And Libya—yes, even Libya once had an important Jewish presence—was
especially brutal to its Jews that week, who tried to barricade
themselves in their homes to avoid the angry mobs.  “Jewish stores,
homes, synagogues were burned and destroyed.  People were violated and
killed,” and two families were murdered (except for one survivor who
wasn’t there), said Vivienne Roumani, a Libyan Jew who made the 2007
film, The Last Jews of Libya. Later that month many of the Libyan Jews were evacuated to Italy.  It was no longer possible for them to remain safe in Libya.

And that is how a Jewish presence that dated back 2,500 years,
effectively ended, says Roumani, a native of Benghazi who left Libya in
1962.

Perhaps that is why, whenever a supporter of the BDS movement
targeting Israel insists they are “only” anti-Israel not anti-Jewish, I
cast a cold eye, recalling how bogus that distinction turned out to be
for Jews of Arab countries. It is as false now as it was 50 years back.

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