The impact of the Suez crisis on Egypt’s Jews

Last November was the 60th anniversary of the exodus of 25,000 Jews from Egypt. Lyn Julius examines what happened in Fathom (Autumn 2017): 

 Jews leaving Port Said (Photo: Jewish Agency)

 

A quarter of the Jews were Egyptian. As a result of an increasingly
restrictive nationality policy privileging ‘real Egyptians’, 40 per cent
were stateless. To possess a British or French passport did not require
the holder to have lived in Britain or France or even to speak the
language (of 24,000 British subjects in Egypt, only 45 per cent were
from Britain itself and a quarter were Maltese. Of 21,270 French, only
40 per cent were from France; 33 per cent were from the Maghreb.)[1]

In 1948, the repercussions from the establishment of Israel reverberated in the Cairo Hara or
Jewish quarter: over two hundred Jews were killed in a bombing campaign
between June and November. A first wave of 20,000 Jews fled, mostly to
Israel.

The troubles had largely left Egypt’s substantial Jewish bourgeoisie
untouched. Prominent in banking, finance, retail, land development,
transport, commerce and industry, they continued living comfortable
lives, frequenting clubs and cafés, and spending their summers by the
sea.

In 1952, King Farouk was deposed in a military coup and sent into
exile. For the Jews, General Neguib’s meeting with Chief Rabbi Nahum
Effendi promised a new dawn. But Colonel Nasser, Neguib’s successor, was
to use the Sinai campaign as a pretext for expelling almost 25,000 Jews
and confiscating their property.

Expulsion begins

Invoking emergency laws, Nasser set about expelling British and
French subjects. Jews were expelled in two waves: the first (accounting
for some 500 Jews) [2] were given 24 hours to leave. The second was ordered to leave the country within two to seven days with their families.[3] Clemy Lazarus, née Menir, was five years old:

As a consequence of the Suez Crisis, my
mother, along with all British and French ‘citizens’ were
unceremoniously expelled from Egypt. I have a memory of military
personnel marching through our apartment delivering the expulsion order.

This caused my parents and grandparents
severe heartache as my parents had five children and my mother was, at
the time, six months pregnant with number six. She was obliged to leave
for England on her own, without her husband, but with five children in
tow. She was 24 years of age at the time. She spoke French and Arabic
but no English and she knew no other culture than the Jewish/Egyptian
one in which she grew up.

She was compelled to leave without any
money or possessions of any value. She did, however, manage to buy a few
gold bangles that she wore as jewellery for the purpose of sustaining
us down the line.

Clemy’s father, being an Egyptian national, was not expelled and
remained behind. Clemy’s mother was sent with her children to refugee
camps in Leeds and Kidderminster:

After six months my mother was at the end
of her tether. My mother is the sweetest, most mild mannered,
excruciatingly shy woman. Nevertheless, astonishingly, she found the
strength to march into the office of the commander of the refugee camp.
She banged on his desk, swiped all the paperwork to the floor and in her
best newly-acquired English she declared: ‘Captain Marsh, bring my
husband!’ To his credit, Captain Marsh did his utmost to make this
happen and shortly afterwards my father joined us in the camps.

Back in Egypt, It became clear that in the initial confusion the
authorities themselves were torn between expulsion and detention:

In the anteroom of expulsion countless
thousands of Europeans of all nationalities and creeds are relegated in
their own interest to house arrest. The entire British community has
remained indoors, with two hours in the morning to take the dog for a
run. Many have been arrested in shipping offices and on the steps of the
British embassy (in the care of the Swiss) owing to clashes between the
Egyptian ‘keeping-in authority’ and the Egyptian ‘expelling authority’

By the end of November, the expulsion orders were extended to stateless Jews, as well as those of Egyptian nationality.

George Naldrett-Jays, a retired senior British police commander in Alexandria, fulminated at the injustice:

The motives of revenge and retaliation
meted out to the British and French aggressors were all too apparent in
the heartless harassing of those of Jewish faith – whatever the official
spokesman may say to the contrary – to Jews of all nationalities,
including Egyptian nationals and Jews residing in Egypt with no known
national status.[4]

Some 900 more Jews were arrested by 7 November 1956.[5]
They were sent to prisons and detention camps. Of the 500 interned in
the Jewish school at Abbasiya, Cairo, half were stateless. Old women,
half of them stateless, were among the 42 Jews detained at the Jewish
Abraham Btesh school in Cairo. Of the 300 kept at Les Barrages prison,
Cairo, half were stateless, the other half were UK and France subjects.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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