As Israel celebrates its 74th Independence Day, it is fitting to recall some of the hair-raising sacrifices that Jews have made to reach what would become the Jewish state. Until Israel was declared, the British banned mass Jewish immigration and diverted the ships with their cargo of bedraggled Holocaust survivors to camps in Cyprus. (The case of the Exodus backfired spectacularly on the British when they callously sent the refugees back to Germany. ) Some 100,000 Jews attempted to make the crossing to Palestine. Less well known and small in number ( 1,300), however, are the Jews from North Africa who were passengers on these immigration ships. One was Shmuel Sibon from the Moroccan city of Sefrou. His story was uploaded to a website, Ma’apili Magrab, dedicated to the hundreds of North African immigrants who sailed for Palestine on three ships, the Yehuda Halevi, the Shifat Zion and the Poratzim (translatable as ‘those who break through’).
Unlike the majority of youngsters travelling to Palestine, Sibon was not a member of a Zionist youth movement. He belonged to the Boy Scouts. He resolved to emigrate to Palestine in 1947 and made contact with Zionist operatives in Morocco. He was told to wait until he received the signal to leave, and not to breathe a word to anyone about his plan.
His date of departure turned out to be the day of the Mimouna, the celebration that concludes the Passover holiday. On that day he shared his secret with his two best friends. He was walking along the road with them when suddenly a military truck driven by a learner-driver careered into the three boys. One friend was killed, the other was badly injured. Shmuel escaped unscathed. He ran home from the scene of the accident, not wishing to be caught up in an investigation.
That night, he travelled to Fez and boarded a train for Algeria at midnight. He spent a month in Tenes, a mountain transit camp in Algeria established by the Jewish Agency. He waited a month for the ship that would take him to Palestine. The conditions in the camp were terrible. There was not enough food and the inmates had to eat grass and were infested with lice. He could not shower for a month.
Finally, the night arrived when his group, drawn from all cities in Morocco, were to board the Yehuda Halevi. The ship left with 300 passengers, less than its full quota, because the police had got wind of the voyage. A journey that should have taken four days, took 21. Food and clean water were in short supply and the passengers could not shower. British patrol boats followed the ship as they approached the coastline of Eretz Yisrael and one even holed the Yehuda Halevi. The passengers found themselves knee-deep in water. They were taken to Haifa and then to Cyprus where Shmuel spent eight months.
In Cyprus the whole camp was waiting at the gate to greet the new arrivals. They asked:’where are the Africans?’, expecting to see black people disembark from the ship. They asked what Zionist group he belonged to. Each group was responsible for feeding their own members.. He was told to join the group which offered the best food – Gordonia. And so he did.