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.