The 40th Anniversary of the Six Day War brings with it many tales of bravery both military and political. It brings with it debate between those who want to report history and those who want to change it. The anniversary gives an opportunity to tell the untold stories of people who lives were forever changed by Israel’s stunning victory.
One of these stories surrounds the Egyptian Jews. People who can trace their lineage for over a hundred years in Eretz Mitzrayim. Loyal to their homeland, loyal to their faith, once war broke out in June 67 they were thrown in jail. For some of them it was an internment that was to last almost four years–their only crime, being Jewish.
The Six Day War: Exodus II
For at least four generations, Farouk Shabtai’s family lived and prospered in Egypt. The 27-year-old physician worked in a government prison near Cairo. His well-connected family even had friends in the Egyptian police force and in the Interior Ministry.
But none of that mattered when the authorities came knocking on his door in the afternoon of June 5, 1967. Jews were being detained, he was told, for their own safety and protection. Shabtai and his two brothers were taken to Abu Zaabal prison 65 kilometers outside Cairo and were later transferred to an internment camp at Tourah – the same prison in which he had been treating prisoners for the previous year.
The 1967 war ended in six short days. Yet it would take another two years before Shabtai and his brothers were granted their freedom.
“It was revenge,” said Shabtai, today a 67-year-old family physician in Ashdod. “How long can someone protect us after the situation worked itself out?… To protect us for two years? That is not logical.”
His wife Laila added: “What kind of protection is it to torture a person?”
Shabtai was one of at least 425 Jewish males – the vast majority of the community’s men – who were detained in Egypt during the Six Day War.
Within days of their detention, 75 Jewish detainees with foreign passports were released due to pressure exerted by these countries and expelled, according to Prof. Michael M. Laskier of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern History. One hundred and twelve of the remaining 350 prisoners were released by the end of 1967 or the beginning of 1968 and expelled, while the rest were gradually released over the next two and a half years.
But many of those who carried Egyptian passports were detained for nearly three years. Shabtai, like many Jews born in Egypt, did not have citizenship and was considered by the government to be stateless.
“The idea was to break the back of the Jewish community and demoralize it,” Laskier said. “If you take people 18 to 50, they are the backbone of the community, the main providers, that can assist the community – people that authorities might have felt… could be any kind of help to Israel or might carry out acts of sabotage.”
When Shabtai and his brothers were taken from their home, their widowed mother was left to manage largely on her own. It was at least three months before his mother and his future wife, who had met him a month before his detention, received word of his whereabouts. For at least three weeks at Abu Zaabal, Shabtai remained clueless about outside events. When he finally heard from a new detainee that Israel had captured the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, he felt “internal happiness” – emotions he was careful not to reveal to his captors.
The first several months at Abu Zaabal were very difficult for the detainees, who corroborate stories of random physical and verbal abuse, indiscriminate beatings, strong feelings of uncertainty and humiliation.
On their first day there, they were required to hand over any possessions they carried with them and to strip down to their underwear. Before they were crammed into their small cells, they were forced to run quickly around an open rectangular corridor while prison staff waited to hit them with belts or wooden sticks as they passed by. The exercise would repeat itself many times.
“Every time Israel attacked the Egyptians, they used to take revenge on us,” Shabtai said. “I don’t know on whose instruction but among the captains that were there, there were bad ones. There were even captains that they called ‘Hitler.’ Who knows if they had brothers who died in the war, if they had parents that died in the war” or if they knew prisoners captured by Israel. “They didn’t have anyone to take revenge on, except us.”
Gamliel Yallouz of Herzliya, says that once after a long run, an officer was waiting to hit them as they entered their cells. When Yallouz entered, the officer, waving a club of dried date leaves, took the thickest and roughest part of the weapon, stuck it hard into his bare chest and turned it 360 degrees.
“The only thing I thought to do was to grab his belt with both hands and jump with him” to the ground a few floors beneath them. “I felt so humiliated, so bad, I told myself, ‘I’ll take him with me.'” The only reason Yallouz didn’t commit suicide, he says, was that he suddenly saw a vision of his two children – two and four – standing next to the officer. “This was the only thing that calmed me.”
Prison officials, he added, would select detainees at random, take them out of their cells and beat them during late at night, which would cause the prisoners’ imagination to run wild.
There were even detainees older than 60. They slept in very cramped quarters, and for a time there were as many as 70 people crammed into a 5 x 7-meter cell, said Sami Mangoubi, an engineer in Haifa, who was then a 21-year-old student at Cairo University.
“You are there and don’t know what will happen to you tomorrow, it’s not a clear thing. There is always fear,” Mangoubi said. “You don’t know how much time will pass… if it will become more serious.” In fact, it was a good thing that they did not realize they would be detained as long as they were, he said.
In addition, sanitary conditions were far from ideal.
Yallouz said he did not receive a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap or a change of underwear for at least four months. The food at Abu Zaabal included fava beans with insect eggs, cheese with worms and an occasional five-centimeter cockroach.
But for many, the hardest thing was dealing with the shame of being reduced from a productive citizen to a helpless captive.
“I felt as if we were nothing, not human beings,” said Yallouz, who remained in Abu Zaabal about six months before being transferred to Tourah. “That is the most bitter part, the humiliation.”
EGYPT BECAME a destination for those seeking employment and refuge from repression in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Jews from Europe and the Middle East settled there during this period, although some Jews can trace their roots in Egypt back more than 1,000 years.
By 1948, an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Jews were living Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities. These Jewish communities were quite involved in the economic development of the country before the July 1952 coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Yet well before the Six Day War and even before Israel’s establishment, the situation for Jews in Arab countries became progressively more difficult.
Several factors led to these communities’ decline. Among them was the world economic crisis that began in 1929 which helped to resuscitate anti-Jewish sentiment, the growing perception that Jews and other non-Muslim minorities were “collaborators” under British colonial rule, the rise of fascism and the Palestine question, said Laskier, author of The Jews of Egypt: 1920-1970: In the Midst of Zionism, Anti-Semitism and the Middle East Conflict. However, the primary catalyst for the Jewish community’s dissolution in Egypt and other Arab countries was the radicalization of nationalism and its orientation toward pan-Arabism. The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also helped inflame prejudice against the Jews.
“Nationalism was the major problem because Egyptian nationalism over time, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, espoused notions of Pan-Arabism and it was very, very radical and minorities – Jews among them – didn’t have much of a future in a pan-Arab environment,” Laskier said. “Jews were regarded as not only not loyal, but not authentic Egyptians. For the Muslim Brotherhood, they were considered to be infidels or disloyal.”
In fact, this wave of nationalism was so strong that even if Israel had not existed, Laskier argues that the Jewish community in Egypt would still have dissolved sooner or later. Following the 1956 Sinai Campaign, between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews are estimated to have left by 1958 due to expulsion or voluntary departure. Those who left voluntarily did so under significant political and economic pressure, including discriminatory laws and practices and the sequestering of property and businesses. By 1967, there were only 2,500 Jews left in the country.
Egypt’s Jewish community was as diverse – made up of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Karaites – as it was fragmented and quarrelsome. In 1964 for example, the Sephardi leadership, which traditionally supplied matzot to the Ashkenazi community, refused to supply it “for no clear reason.” Only after a complete scandal had erupted, Laskier said, did the Sephardi leadership yield and provide the matzot.
Before 1967, Jews were living in “total paranoia,” with Egyptian authorities spying on Jewish community leaders and with at least some community members forwarding information about other Jews, hoping they and their families could be protected and perhaps avoid persecution.
It was “a community that was dwindling, but not showing any kind of solidarity in time of crisis,” Laskier said. “That was the situation on the eve of the Six Day War.”
FOLLOWING DETENTION at Abu Zaabal, most of the 1967 detainees were transferred within the next several months to Tourah, where they no longer suffered physical abuse and had more space and freedom. They were able to receive family visitors once a month, who brought them food, clothing, reading material and cigarettes. They played cards, exercised, created a tennis net of pajama cords to play tennis and even cooked for themselves.
Shabtai and his two brothers were finally released and expelled from the country on April 28, 1969. His older brother left two jewelry stores in Cairo, which Shabtai estimates were worth at least $20,000. Shabtai, his brothers and Laila were given Spanish passports, which enabled them to exit the country and immigrate to Israel via Paris.
Shabtai and Laila married in Paris on June 5 – exactly two years after he was detained – so that the bitter memories of that date would be replaced by happier ones, Laila said.
After the Six Day War, 500 men were expelled from the country and many more left due to “psychological warfare” or a “feeling that nothing was left for them in Egypt,” said Laskier. Many of those who left had wives and families that followed them out. They were forced to leave behind their assets.
While many Egyptian Jews fled to the US and elsewhere, Israel was the logical choice for some.
“I didn’t want my children to go through what I went through or for there to be a chance” that they could, “so I came here,” said Mangoubi.
Yallouz, after being released in 1970, had his Egyptian citizenship revoked and was expelled, and reunited with his family in Paris before they made their way to Herzliya. But he suffered from a high fever, frequent severe stomach pains and digestion problems due to anxiety. He became impatient and was quick to get angry at her and their children, his wife Clemi said. Things were so difficult that she even considered divorce. It took a few challenging years, she said, but he slowly returned to his former, more easy-going self.
Despite the hardship and persecution, many former detainees have fond memories of Egypt and its people. Shabtai had a Muslim friend, he said, who studied with him at university, visited him in prison and even moved to the US after his expulsion hoping he would find him. Shabtai is still in touch with him and they have visited one another at least three times, he said. “It hurt him what happened to me,” Shabtai said. “He couldn’t believe that something like that could happen” in Egypt.
Similarly, Yallouz and his wife are still in contact with their longtime friends who were neighbors of Clemi’s family. They also enjoy visiting the country and reuniting with old friends but they have kept their Israeli identity a secret from most other locals.
“You can’t know exactly where hatred is,” said Yallouz.