Expelled Egyptian Jews left behind piece of their hearts
RAMAT GAN, Israel, Dec. 18 (JTA) – At a lavish dinner party at an Alexandria nightclub on Oct. 29, 1956, Geoffrey Hanson celebrated his engagement to a beautiful woman named Jeanette whom he had courted for six years in a fairy-tale romance.
It happened to be the day that Israel attacked Egypt in the Suez War.
On the evening of Oct. 31, after Britain and France joined the war according to plan, Hanson – who like many Egyptian Jews held a British or other European passport – was arrested about midnight at his home by Egyptian officials. He was imprisoned in Cairo for 90 days.
His Jewish fiancee managed to visit Hanson twice in jail, but when Hanson, a 25-year-old hotel manager, was released, he was expelled to England – never to see his first love again.
“I was miserable for many years,” said Hanson, 75, who today lives in Ramat Gan, Israel, and is happily married to another woman. “It took me years to overcome” it.
Fifty years ago about 1,000 Jews in Egypt – including many with Egyptian citizenship – were detained or imprisoned during the Suez Crisis. Many of the French and British citizens who were expelled from Egypt in retaliation for the tripartite attack, prompted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, were Jews.
Another 500 Jews, who did not hold French or British passports, also were expelled from the country, according to historians.
Between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews are estimated to have left Egypt between November 1956 and the end of 1957 due to expulsion or significant pressure, including the sequestering of property and businesses. It was one of the largest waves of exodus for Egyptian Jews in modern history.
For Hanson and other Jews expelled because of the 1956 war – as well as during other wars with Israel – it was a traumatic experience.
“I left a good position,” Hanson said, noting that just months before the war he had been named manager of an Alexandria hotel that catered to Egypt’s high society and government elite. “I was a happy man.”
Jews had been attacked and imprisoned even before 1948 on suspicion of being Zionists. Yet despite their increasing troubles, many Egyptian Jews did not see Zionism as their primary solution.
“Many of them just wanted to assimilate” into society, said Rami Ginat, a political science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “They wanted to become part of it. They saw themselves as Egyptians.”
From World War I until the mid-1930s, Egypt was a liberal place and many Jews fared well socially and financially. But in the mid-1930s, with the rise of fascism in Europe and the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – formed in 1929 as a reaction to Britain’s occupation of the country – the situation began to change, Ginat said.
Zionism grew in the late 1930s and ’40s. Many Egyptians thought Zionism ran counter to Egypt’s struggle for liberation from Western domination.
The situation for the community also worsened following Operation Suzannah in 1954, which came to be known in Israel as the Lavon Affair.
Believing that Britain’s presence in Egypt had a moderating influence on Nasser’s military ambitions, Israeli officials recruited several young Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in public places. The goal was to create a perception of instability in Egypt and make the British reconsider their plan to withdraw from the Suez Canal zone.
Egyptian officials discovered the scheme, which hadn’t resulted in any casualties. Two suspects were hanged, two were acquitted and several others were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
It became known as the Lavon Affair for the Israeli defense minister, Pinchas Lavon, who was forced to resign because of the incident.
“The Lavon Affair involved only a small part of Jewish youth, but by involving them it endangered the entire Jewish community because the government suspected that the Jews were not loyal,” said Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956, he also aimed to rid the country of foreigners, many of whom held European passports and had enjoyed special privileges and exemptions under century-old agreements between Egypt and some European states.
After Nasser nationalized the canal, Israel – in part prompted by Egyptian-supported terrorist raids from Gaza – joined with Britain and France to invade. The Jews of Egypt “were identified, whether they wanted it or not, with Israel,” Tsimhoni said.
Aimee Abada, now 70, who grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, and now lives in Haifa, says her father – 63 at the time – and eldest sister were taken to Cairo and imprisoned for a few months before the family was expelled around January 1957.
Abada’s family was forced to leave behind its home and the highly successful furniture factory Abada’s father had owned for more than three decades. About 500 Jewish companies in Egypt were sequestered from November 1956 through March 1957.
Abada’s father, who had immigrated to Egypt from Morocco as a teenager, held French citizenship. When he was released from prison, he and his family were put on a ship to Europe.
“They brought him on the ship with handcuffs – a person who I don’t know if he knew what politics was in his life at all – but it was enough that he was Jewish and people upstairs said ‘there are Jews here,'” Abada said. “So they took him and they took my older sister” to prison.
Not just Jews, British and French were expelled from Egypt at the time, but also Greeks, Italians and other foreigners.
“It was the first step for Nasser to Arabize Egypt,” Abada said. “We’re beginning to understand this now.”
Abada’s father, who became ill during the ordeal, sailed to Israel via Greece, while her mother and two of Abada’s siblings went on to visit Abada, who was studying in France. Except for two of Abada’s siblings who were already living in Israel, the rest of the family would not see Abada’s father again: He passed away three weeks after he arrived in Israel.
“We were happy that he was able to die in Israel because that was his great hope,” she said.
Abada’s husband, Ernest, who lived in the Suez Canal Zone in the city of Ismailia, remembers when Egyptian officials came knocking on their door in early November 1956.
They told his father, who was one of many stateless Jews in Egypt, that they were taking him for a day to protect him from people who might want to kill him because he was Jewish.
The following day they came for 19-year-old Ernest, his stepmother and a sister, and put them on a train to Cairo, where they were imprisoned until January 1957.
Unable to return home for their belongings, the family was shipped to Italy, where they were greeted by the Jewish Agency for Israel and asked whether they wanted to go to Brazil or Israel. The family chose Israel, since Ernest’s stepmother’s parents were living in Acre, he said.
Abada, a retired pharmacist, and Ernest, who worked more than 30 years for Barclays Bank in Israel, have not returned to Egypt save for short trips to the Sinai.
At their elegant home in Haifa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Abada says she doesn’t believe her life would have been as comfortable had she remained in Egypt. While the Jewish expulsion from Egypt was a disaster in many ways, she says they can thank Nasser for his actions.
“I believe 99 percent who left Egypt have a much better life than what they could have in Egypt today, in social position” and material wealth, she said.
For his part Hanson, who enjoyed a career in Israel’s hotel industry, is much more nostalgic for the past. He visits his native Alexandria frequently and brings visitors from around the world to see the Jewish synagogue there.
“My home is Israel,” Hanson said, “but my heart is in Egypt.”