A Short History of The Exodus Of Jews From Egypt

By Victor D. Samua, Ph.D.

During the years 1917 and 1939, Jews from Egypt could go to Palestine by obtaining a visa in Cairo from the mandatory power, which was Great Britain, by giving a deposit of 60 British pounds. They would leave and some would not return. In 1947, the trip to Palestine, for political reasons, was made more difficult, which necessitated illegal attempts to circumvent the verification of the British at the frontier. A number of Jews were involved in facilitating their departure. Some Jews were able to leave by going through the desert on camel, and by offering bribes, were able to reach Palestine. In other instances, employees of a travel agency arranged to hide the passengers in the train at the time of verification of documents. Some were able to go to Lebanon and managed to get to Israel, again by offering bribes their way. Edmond Sanua had made aliyah to Israel in the 30's, and as a controller of the Shell Company, had to make a monthly trip to Egypt because of his work and then return to Palestine. At each trip, he was able to hide two youths in his trunk. Since he was known at the frontier, he was allowed to go through without verification.

However, these efforts were limited since a small number of Jews from Egypt could manage to get through. Preparations were made to send larger numbers by sea, again by bribing the ship owners. However, this method had to be abandoned because Britain had established a maritime blockade around the shores of Palestine. In 1943, the Jewish Agency sent a number of shlichim to assist in the transfer. Zionist groups in Cairo assisted these shlichim by giving them false papers so that they could carry on their illegal work which consisted of preparing the youth to work in Palestine, and teaching them self-defense. This experience was put to good use when the rioters tried to invade the Haret-el Yahud, the Jewish quarter. The British army that was fighting the Germans who were stationed in Libya included a Jewish brigade made up of volunteers from Palestine. It appears that they had some influence on some young Egyptian Jews to leave Egypt. In 1946, "Operation Pessah" was initiated which would enable hundreds of youths to go to Palestine. Jewish soldiers in the British army were allowed to return home to celebrate Pessah. Arrangements were made so that they would renounce such a right, which would permit Egyptian youths to wear British uniforms and pass through at the frontier. They were taught beforehand to act "British". There were different estimates regarding the number who passed the frontier (estimates vary from 2000 to 8000), but there were enough youths to help the great flow of Jews from Egypt who came following the Arab-Israel wars.

"Preparations were made to send larger numbers
by sea, again by bribing the ship owners"

In 1948, when the conflict started on May 15th, police arrested a number of Jews, mostly for Zionist activities. It is estimated that 600 individuals (but the exact number will never be known) were jailed in three major camps, Huckstep, a former United States air base near Cairo; a former R.A.F. camp in Aboukir near Alexandria, and a camp in Port Said. The women were interned in prisons for foreigners. While the early conditions were chaotic, in time the internees were able to ameliorate the conditions of the camps. Internees included Zionists as well as rich non-Zionists whose properties were confiscated. It seems that some were arrested because it was known that they had relatives in Israel. At one point 50 internees of the Huckstep camp were, it seems, selected at random and sent to El Tor in the Sinai desert where conditions were quite primitive, very hot during the day and very cold at night. One of the internees was able to write a long letter describing the terrible conditions in the camp, which was clandestinely sent out. While the conditions at times were terrible, there was no comparison to the suffering of Jews under the Nazis. Those with foreign passports were assisted by their consulates to get their exit visas, some non-Egyptians were forced to leave the country and signed papers to the effect that they were leaving voluntarily. Of course, they could not recover their property. During the war period there was a lot of rioting in the streets when a few Jews and Europeans were killed. Because of the unsettled situation and inability to make a living, or inability to get sufficient compensations from their sequestered businesses, many Jews, particularly those with foreign citizenship, were able to leave but they could not take with them more than 20 Egyptian pounds for each individual. Others were given a few days before being forced out of the country. It is estimated that 30,000 Jews left the country following the fighting in Israel. They received help from the World Jewish Congress, Joint Distribution Committee, the Red Cross and the Jewish Agency. Some of the ships that were used included the Esjperia, Misri, Nefertiti, Khedivial Maritime Line. The ships were filled with immigrants, mostly living on the bridges. When the ship reached international waters, the Jews from Egypt started tjo sing the Hatikva in unison and in full force. They were thus expressing their great joy at finally enjoying their freedom, and their hopes for a better future. In Egypt, any expression of Jewishness was shunned for fear of arrest. Some were fearful even to have Hebrew books in their homes.

There was an amelioration of the conditions when King Farouk was dethroned in 1952 and the government was headed by General Naguib, who on Rosh Hashana visited the major synagogue in Cairo and gave his good wishes to the congregants. However, the situation worsened again later when Nasser became President. With the Suez war in 1956, when the British, French and Israelis attacked Egypt to prevent the expropriation of the Suez Canal, most of the citizens with English and French passports were arrested and again there was a great flow of Jews leaving the country by ships which landed in Marseilles, Naples and Athens. By 1957, out of 80,000 Jews living in Egypt, about 3000 had not yet left the country. Today, the total Jewish population in Egypt is about 100 very aged persons. It is felt that within a few years, the only Jews in Egypt will be tourist.

The Jews of Egypt had the same characteristics as the non-Jews. They were mostly cosmopolitan, with their vision towards Europe, with most of them speaking French and as indicated in an earlier report, the 14th of July (Bastille Day) was a great time to celebrate. Everyone learned to sing the Marseillaise. English became an important language only after World War II and due to their knowledge of several languages and good education, Jews from Egypt had managed to reach economic and professional success very quickly wherever they settled. While most of them were born in Egypt, they had nothing Egyptian about them. Of course a relatively small group spoke Arabic at home, but the majority spoke foreign languages while French was the lingua franca.

Egyptian Jews were never considered Egyptian in Egypt. Although they were considered Jews, they were also, perhaps more strongly, considered Europeans. Since they were never true "Egyptians" in Egypt, they preferred to be considered as Europeans in Israel, which is more in tune with their education and culture. They have in general adapted very well to Israeli life. They generally depicted their past in Egypt as a "lost paradise", and described in great detail the good life they had in Egypt, but de-emphasized the hard times and the loss of their wealth. Many have a nostalgia for a country which no longer exists. What may be Egyptian about them is their appreciation of Egyptian foods such as the molochia (green garlicky soup), foul medames (fava beans), tahina, stuffed grape leaves, feta and Kaskaval cheeses, machsi (peppers and eggplant stuffed with rice and meat), etc. There was one general holiday for Jews and non-Jews, Sham el Nissim, a spring festival, a kind of Thanksgiving when people went out doors. At that time, as a ritual, a doll was thrown into the Nile. In ancient Pharaonic times, they threw a young women. This was also the time when a smelly fish by the name of "Fisikh" was eaten.

While Jews from Egypt have adapted economically very well in Israel, they show no interest in politics and as a result they have little electoral clout. The Moroccan Jews in Israel are one of the most influential of any immigrant group in Israel's political life. Moroccan Jews were always part of Moroccan political life and this tendency was transferred to their life in Israel. They became officers, members of the Knesset and hold high ministerial positions in Israel. Moroccans settled in moshavim and agricultural settlements in the Galilee and the Negev and began building developmental towns. The Jews of Egypt settled in Holon, Bat Yam, Be'er Sheva, Ashdot, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acco, Natanya and Tiberias. Moroccan Jews fit best as a whole in the pioneer mode. They came to Israel from a more modest background and were more influenced by "true Israeli" hard working pioneer convictions. They were more idealistic with a strong Zionist and religious background. The Jews of Egypt were accustomed to a more comfortable way of life and European culture. While some Egyptian Jews had the "pioneering" spirit, the majority has adapted to the middle and upper class way of life. They are likely to reminisce about the comfortable lifestyle they had in Egypt.

Any readers who are appreciative of the potential in producing high quality research documentation about the Jews of Egypt and who are in a position to help with the work, please contact the author.

Dr. Victor D. Sanua is Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at St. John's University, and the President of the International Association of Jews from Egypt. He resides in Brooklyn, New York.


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