Sixty-five years since the Suez crisis

Sixty-five years ago, the Suez crisis followed an attack by Britain, France and Israel, and led to the expulsion of some 30,000 Jews from Egypt. Lyn Julius explains that the persecution had an antisemitic character, as it extended beyond British and French subjects to Jews of every nationality and none, although no Jew was Israeli. We reproduce her article in Fathom magazine:

An Egyptian-Jewish family being expelled

On 29 October 1956 the colonial powers Britain and France colluded with Israel to attack Egypt in order to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, a western strategic interest and the gateway to India and the East. In their analyses of the Suez Crisis as the final hurrah of old-style European colonialism, historians and journalists often fail to consider the human impact on thousands of Jews who found themselves peremptorily expelled from Egypt.

Jews like Lilian Abda. She was swimming in the Suez Canal when Egyptian soldiers arrested her. Abda was charged with trying to relay information to Israeli forces advancing across the Sinai Peninsula on 29 October 1956. ‘I was brought in my bathing suit to the police station,’ she recalls. ‘The next day they expelled me and my entire family from the country.’

By the end of the ‘Seven Days’ War’, Britain and France had failed to achieve their objectives. Israel, while enduring humiliating universal condemnation for its Sinai campaign, reaped short-term respite from terrorist raids, the reopening of the Straits of Tiran to its shipping, and a strategic alliance with the French. But the Suez Canal stayed in Nasser’s hands. Britain and France did not manage to destroy the Egyptian dictator. On the contrary, Nasser turned a military defeat into a political victory. The champion of socialist pan-Arabism emerged stronger — and was poised to wreak his revenge on Egypt’s Jews.

COMMUNITY OF 80,000 JEWS

Jews had lived in Egypt since Biblical times, but most were relatively recent arrivals from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, attracted by the economic possibilities of the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869. Some held European passports — a means of achieving greater rights and security under Ottoman rule. Pre-1948 Egypt was a cosmopolitan place, as captured in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: 57, 000 Greeks, 27,000 Italians, 80,000 Jews, and thousands of Armenians and Maltese.

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. [6]

As most Jews lived in blocks of flats, the authorities simply distributed firearms to the concièrges, instructing them to keep the Jewish residents under surveillance. These began to run out of food.

On 23 November 1956, a proclamation signed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, and read aloud in mosques throughout the land, declared that ‘all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state,’ and promised that they would be soon expelled.

SEQUESTRATION

Between November 1956 and March 1957 the assets of at least 500 Jewish-owned firms were sequestered and their bank accounts frozen. Some 800 more enterprises were blacklisted (95 per cent of the total were firms under Jewish ownership.) The Egyptian custodian deducted 10 per cent of their value for ‘administrative purposes’.[7]

Sarah Fedida remembers that her husband Joe (a British subject) arrived at the office one morning to find red seals on the door. ‘He was never allowed into the office again. He was not allowed to pick up his personal belongings and papers from the safe. Everything had been confiscated by the state.’

Some sequestrations could only be described as opportunistic. Jenny (née Setton) Stewart said of her father, who had Egyptian nationality:

“My father, an import-export merchant in Egypt, was taken to prison. An Egyptian army officer had designs on the apartment he lived in, and had him arrested on trumped-up charges. My father spent about eight months in jail with robbers and thieves. When he was released he was put on a ship for Italy, and then another to Israel. Life was a struggle: he started working as a postman; as he was well-educated and multilingual, he managed to rebuild his life in Israel.”

A table of nationalities of Jews registering with the central registry of Jewish losses in Egypt (1957-59)[8] shows that 45 per cent were stateless (this would have included Egyptians stripped of their nationality). Other nationalities range from Italian to Moroccan, Lebanese, Syrian and even Persian.

There is some evidence that the sequestrations were premeditated. The Jewish division of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior kept files on every Jew and Jewish-owned business before the Suez crisis. Moreover, there was already a team in place to manage the confiscations. [9]

DEPARTURE

The expellees had their exit visas stamped: ‘ONE WAY-NO RETURN’. Egyptian Jews were stripped of their citizenship as they left the country. The Swiss embassy issued Nansen passports — internationally-recognised refugee travel documents — to those who were stateless.

Read article in full

Egyptian professor accused of re-writing history

The Suez expulsion will be the theme of An Evening to mark the departure and expulsion of Jewish refugees from Arab Countries  and Iran on 30 November at 7:30pm UK in London. The event will be in-person and  livestreamed to the JW3 Youtube channel.

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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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