The Suez Crisis and the Jews of Egypt

by Lyn JuliusLyn Julius
AUTUMN / 2017

New Immigrants arrives in Israel New Immigrants from Port Sayid in Egypt arriving to Israel in 1956. The Jewish Agency for Israel.

‘There are few greater injustices than to say about something that happened, that it did not happen’ wrote the late Norman Geras. Lyn Julius has established herself as a leading voice, at once passionate and expert, about what happened to the Jews from the Arab lands in the decades following the establishment of the State of Israel. In this essay she tells the story of those who were expelled from Egypt in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez intervention by Britain, France and Israel.

On 29 October 1956 the colonial powers Britain and France colluded with Israel to attack Egypt in order to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, a western strategic interest and the gateway to India and the East. In their analyses of the Suez Crisis as the final hurrah of old-style European colonialism, historians and journalists often fail to consider the human impact on thousands of Jews who found themselves peremptorily expelled from Egypt.

Jews like Lilian Abda. She was swimming in the Suez Canal when Egyptian soldiers arrested her. Abda was charged with trying to relay information to Israeli forces advancing across the Sinai Peninsula on 29 October 1956. ‘I was brought in my bathing suit to the police station,’ she recalls. ‘The next day they expelled me and my entire family from the country.’

By the end of the ‘Seven Days’ War’, Britain and France had failed to achieve their objectives. Israel, while enduring humiliating universal condemnation for its Sinai campaign, reaped short-term respite from terrorist raids, the reopening of the Straits of Tiran to its shipping, and a strategic alliance with the French. But the Suez Canal stayed in Nasser’s hands. Britain and France did not manage to destroy the Egyptian dictator. On the contrary, Nasser turned a military defeat into a political victory. The champion of socialist pan-Arabism emerged stronger — and was poised to wreak his revenge on Egypt’s Jews.


Jews had lived in Egypt since Biblical times, but most were relatively recent arrivals from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, attracted by the economic possibilities of the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869. Some held European passports — a means of achieving greater rights and security under Ottoman rule. Pre-1948 Egypt was a cosmopolitan place, as captured in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: 57, 000 Greeks, 27,000 Italians, 80,000 Jews, and thousands of Armenians and Maltese.

A quarter of the Jews were Egyptian. As a result of an increasingly restrictive nationality policy privileging ‘real Egyptians’, 40 per cent were stateless. To possess a British or French passport did not require the holder to have lived in Britain or France or even to speak the language (of 24,000 British subjects in Egypt, only 45 per cent were from Britain itself and a quarter were Maltese. Of 21,270 French, only 40 per cent were from France; 33 per cent were from the Maghreb.)[1]

In 1948, the repercussions from the establishment of Israel reverberated in the Cairo Hara or Jewish quarter: over two hundred Jews were killed in a bombing campaign between June and November. A first wave of 20,000 Jews fled, mostly to Israel.

The troubles had largely left Egypt’s substantial Jewish bourgeoisie untouched. Prominent in banking, finance, retail, land development, transport, commerce and industry, they continued living comfortable lives, frequenting clubs and cafés, and spending their summers by the sea.

In 1952, King Farouk was deposed in a military coup and sent into exile. For the Jews, General Neguib’s meeting with Chief Rabbi Nahum Effendi promised a new dawn. But Colonel Nasser, Neguib’s successor, was to use the Sinai campaign as a pretext for expelling almost 25,000 Jews and confiscating their property.


Invoking emergency laws, Nasser set about expelling British and French subjects. Jews were expelled in two waves: the first (accounting for some 500 Jews) [2] were given 24 hours to leave. The second was ordered to leave the country within two to seven days with their families.[3] Clemy Lazarus, née Menir, was five years old:

As a consequence of the Suez Crisis, my mother, along with all British and French ‘citizens’ were unceremoniously expelled from Egypt. I have a memory of military personnel marching through our apartment delivering the expulsion order.

This caused my parents and grandparents severe heartache as my parents had five children and my mother was, at the time, six months pregnant with number six. She was obliged to leave for England on her own, without her husband, but with five children in tow. She was 24 years of age at the time. She spoke French and Arabic but no English and she knew no other culture than the Jewish/Egyptian one in which she grew up.

She was compelled to leave without any money or possessions of any value. She did, however, manage to buy a few gold bangles that she wore as jewellery for the purpose of sustaining us down the line.

Clemy’s father, being an Egyptian national, was not expelled and remained behind. Clemy’s mother was sent with her children to refugee camps in Leeds and Kidderminster:

After six months my mother was at the end of her tether. My mother is the sweetest, most mild mannered, excruciatingly shy woman. Nevertheless, astonishingly, she found the strength to march into the office of the commander of the refugee camp. She banged on his desk, swiped all the paperwork to the floor and in her best newly-acquired English she declared: ‘Captain Marsh, bring my husband!’ To his credit, Captain Marsh did his utmost to make this happen and shortly afterwards my father joined us in the camps.

Back in Egypt, It became clear that in the initial confusion the authorities themselves were torn between expulsion and detention: In the anteroom of expulsion countless thousands of Europeans of all nationalities and creeds are relegated in their own interest to house arrest. The entire British community has remained indoors, with two hours in the morning to take the dog for a run. Many have been arrested in shipping offices and on the steps of the British embassy (in the care of the Swiss) owing to clashes between the Egyptian ‘keeping-in authority’ and the Egyptian ‘expelling authority’

By the end of November, the expulsion orders were extended to stateless Jews, as well as those of Egyptian nationality. George Naldrett-Jays, a retired senior British police commander in Alexandria, fulminated at the injustice:

The motives of revenge and retaliation meted out to the British and French aggressors were all too apparent in the heartless harassing of those of Jewish faith – whatever the official spokesman may say to the contrary – to Jews of all nationalities, including Egyptian nationals and Jews residing in Egypt with no known national status.[4]

Some 900 more Jews were arrested by 7 November 1956.[5] They were sent to prisons and detention camps. Of the 500 interned in the Jewish school at Abbasiya, Cairo, half were stateless. Old women, half of them stateless, were among the 42 Jews detained at the Jewish Abraham Btesh school in Cairo. Of the 300 kept at Les Barrages prison, Cairo, half were stateless, the other half were UK and France subjects. [6] As most Jews lived in blocks of flats, the authorities simply distributed firearms to the concièrges, instructing them to keep the Jewish residents under surveillance. These began to run out of food.

On 23 November 1956, a proclamation signed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, and read aloud in mosques throughout the land, declared that ‘all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state,’ and promised that they would be soon expelled.


Between November 1956 and March 1957 the assets of at least 500 Jewish-owned firms were sequestered and their bank accounts frozen. Some 800 more enterprises were blacklisted (95 per cent of the total were firms under Jewish ownership.) The Egyptian custodian deducted 10 per cent of their value for ‘administrative purposes’.[7]

Sarah Fedida remembers that her husband Joe (a British subject) arrived at the office one morning to find red seals on the door. ‘He was never allowed into the office again. He was not allowed to pick up his personal belongings and papers from the safe. Everything had been confiscated by the state.’

Some sequestrations could only be described as opportunistic. Jenny (née Setton) Stewart said of her father, who had Egyptian nationality:

My father, an import-export merchant in Egypt, was taken to prison. An Egyptian army officer had designs on the apartment he lived in, and had him arrested on trumped-up charges. My father spent about eight months in jail with robbers and thieves. When he was released he was put on a ship for Italy, and then another to Israel. Life was a struggle: he started working as a postman; as he was well-educated and multilingual, he managed to rebuild his life in Israel.

A table of nationalities of Jews registering with the central registry of Jewish losses in Egypt (1957-59)[8] shows that 45 per cent were stateless (this would have included Egyptians stripped of their nationality). Other nationalities range from Italian to Moroccan, Lebanese, Syrian and even Persian.

There is some evidence that the sequestrations were premeditated. The Jewish division of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior kept files on every Jew and Jewish-owned business before the Suez crisis. Moreover, there was already a team in place to manage the confiscations. [9]


The expellees had their exit visas stamped: ‘ONE WAY-NO RETURN’. Egyptian Jews were stripped of their citizenship as they left the country. The Swiss embassy issued Nansen passports — internationally-recognised refugee travel documents — to those who were stateless. The first wave of expellees were allowed to take only one suitcase and a small sum of cash, and forced to sign declarations ‘donating’ their property to the Egyptian government. Jenny Stewart recalls that ‘We were allowed to take out only £20 each. I sewed a £10 note in the hem of my dress. My mother’s jewellery was confiscated by the immigration officers when we arrived at the airport.’

It was common practice for customs officials to ransack suitcases to check for smuggled items. Sarah Fedida recalls:

As I passed through customs, I was suspected of carrying valuables. The customs men called me back. My mother pleaded to come with me as I was in a fragile state of health, but they would not let her. I had nothing, but they searched me as if I had been carrying bombs. They turned everything I had upside down. They turned the baby’s carrycot upside down. They stole anything they could from my suitcase.

Between 23,000 and 25,000 Jews are estimated to have left Egypt between November 1956 and the end of 1958.[10] By 1957, more than 6,000 left by ship with assistance of International Red Cross. Other relief groups, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS, the Central British Fund the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency helped refugees resettle in Israel, Western Europe, the US, Central and South America and Australia. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was said to have interceded to soften the harsh treatment meted out to departing Jews.[11] There were so many Jews leaving Egypt, and some were in such distress that, for the first time, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Dr Auguste Lindt, recognised Jews departing Egypt as bona fide refugees under his aegis.

In 1957, a grant of US $30,000 was allocated to provide ‘emergency aid’ to Jewish refugees from Egypt. This funding was granted on condition that that there would be absolutely no publicity given. The grant was later converted into a loan, and the Joint Distribution Committee paid back the US $30,000 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In contrast to the continuing largesse dispensed to Palestinian refugees, that was the extent of the international community’s financial support to Jewish refugees fleeing from Arab countries.[12] Those bound for Britain were transferred to camps in the Midlands and north of England. An astonishing number of heads of families died soon afterwards, unable to cope with the shock of their uprooting. Others rebuilt their lives successfully. Clemy Lazarus writes:

The early years in England were extremely difficult for my parents. They had no money, no home and no livelihood. Added to this, my parents swam up against every economic, social and spiritual tide in order to maintain a strictly orthodox home.

We were welcomed by the Birmingham Jewish Community, where we were housed in a Victorian tenement building along with half a dozen other refugee Jewish/Egyptian families, and committed to paying a nominal weekly rent. My parents, who started from rock bottom, worked unbelievably hard, living a life of deprivation and self-sacrifice, devoted all their time and energy to caring for their family’s wellbeing and education, to the exclusion of all else. My father was eventually able to set up a small cardboard box manufacturing business which subsequently grew into a highly successful one.

From the moment my parents arrived in England, they showed their gratitude to their British hosts by naming their newborn baby Elizabeth after the Queen of England. My father enrolled in night school to learn to speak English and soon spoke English better than any Englishman. My father became a dapper English gentleman albeit with an Egyptian accent. When he could afford it he bought my mother the finest clothes and had bespoke suits made for himself along with matching bowler hats which he wore jauntily.

At the end of 1956, the direct expulsion orders ceased, replaced by ‘more subtle techniques of intimidation and psychological warfare’. [13] Jews were said to have left ‘of their own free will’. Customs inspections became less brutal. The blacklisting in Egypt continued, with no rhyme or reason. George Naldrett-Jays reported on how such ‘invitations to leave’ were delivered:

The victim’s names — together with 50 others — appears on an undecipherable Arabic list. Called upon to sign he does so blindly – someone else is frequently intended (cases have occurred) – and presto, three generations of existence in an erstwhile hospitable land are blotted out. Those marked down here comprise the humble, respectable, artisan and clerk types who submit, bon gré mal gré to being unceremoniously pitchforked out of the country, abandoning all to the all-embracing grasp of the public custodian. [14]

Egyptian officials picked out Arlette Cohen’s name at random from a school register and pitched up on her family’s doorstep asking for the teenager. Her family were Greek nationals. Although they were not being expelled, Arlette’s father took fright and immediately made plans to ship his family out of the country.

Jews returned from internment to find Egyptian Muslims had taken their jobs. (Albert Tam, who held a senior position at the Société Nationale de Publicité, came back after three months’ detention to find future president Anwar Sadat had taken his post.) Many Jews running private companies were stymied by the denial of trade permits, export and import licenses, foreign currency allocations, and other administrative facilities essential to the conduct of their businesses.

The regime amended its citizenship and nationality laws in order to exclude Jews and other minorities from becoming Egyptian, and those who were already Egyptian were forced to relinquish their nationality. From 1959 the bearer’s religion had to be listed on identity papers: as a result, companies were deterred from employing Jews. [15]


In addition to depriving owners of their properties and income, the sequestration measures indirectly affected the livelihood of a much broader circle of Jews, those employed by firms placed under custodianship — such as the fashionable Jewish-owned department stores, Cicurel, Gategno and Chemla.It was reliably reported that all sequestered firms received instructions to discharge all employees of the Jewish faith, and acted accordingly.

Unofficial measures affected most Jews. They had already lost their positions in public companies and many private firms which were not subject to sequestration. As a result of assorted restrictions Jews were either forcibly excluded or had no choice but to ‘voluntarily’ withdraw from business. Likewise, a steadily growing number of Jewish physicians, lawyers and engineers were, by various means, prevented from practising their professions.

Henry Mourad was a student at Cairo University. He writes:

At the beginning of my third year in college, the family business was nationalised without, of course, any possible reparation or compensation. My father was given a meagre salary, and thus, we had no choice but to get ready to leave Egypt. This was economic strangulation.

Worse yet, the government boasted in the newspapers the seizure of the family’s business and thus exposed our religion. I was finally discovered as being a Jew. A difficult confrontation with my friends arose at the (Cairo) University. And as soon as we applied to leave Egypt, we were stripped of our Egyptian nationality, which we had through five generations. Our personal assets — bank accounts, homes, etc. — were also confiscated, and we were told never to return.

The antisemitic nature of the regime’s policy had a ripple effect when Jewish employees sacked from their jobs in both Jewish-owned and non-Jewish firms included Jews who were Italian or Greek subjects. These also left the country with exit visas stamped ‘Without Return’.[16] Non-Jewish Armenians, Greeks and Italians were not targeted – Greece declared itself on the side of the Egyptians — but also packed their bags, feeling increasingly unwanted in the xenophobic climate.

Jean Naggar’s family on her father’s side, the Mosseris, owned the largest private investment bank in Egypt. She writes in her autobiography, Sipping from the Nile, [17] that the family had lived in Cairo 200 years, longer than the government official who initially came to serve notice on them to leave. Although the expulsion order was rescinded (an old Sephardi family, the Mosseris had retained Italian nationality, and Italy was neutral in the Suez crisis), Jean’s father Guido Mosseri determined that there was no future for himself, his wife and three children in Egypt after 1956. The Egyptian government took possession of the bank and ‘paid’ him in government bonds due to mature 20 years later, by which time they were worthless. The family could take as many suitcases as they wanted out of Egypt, but no currency. They were dispossessed of most of their assets and could not take out the money they received from the sale of their house to the Russians. In Egypt mansions belonging to wealthy Jewish families became embassies, residences and public institutions. President Anwar Sadat’s widow Jihan still lives in a mansion once owned by the Castro family, and Egyptian presidents have had the use of a villa still technically owned by the Smouha family.

Albert Dassa’s family held on in Egypt until 1958. Before leaving, they were allowed to sell the contents of their apartment, with the exception of a Monet painting and furniture bearing the royal seal which they had purchased from King Farouk’s palace when the king went into exile. The Monet, Albert later learned, fetched seven-and-half million euros at auction in Paris.


In July 1957, the US embassy in Cairo reported that ‘the Greeks, Armenians, Italians and other Christian groups were affected as well. Still, the creation of Israel and the wars that ensued between the young state and Egypt aggravated the position of the Jews well beyond (emphasis added) the precarious position of the other minorities’. [18] According to the scholar Gudrun Krämer, ‘that the Jews were all expelled, except for a few hundred, and not the other minorities, and that the Greeks and Italians were not, was the result of the Israel-Arab conflict over Palestine’. [19]

Nasser’s actions may be understood in the context of decolonisation – shaking off western control. Some decree of xenophobia is almost inevitable when new nations assert their independence. But most Jews were neither British nor French. If this was revenge for Israel’s part in the Suez crisis, no Jews were Israeli citizens. This was the first instance in the history of law when the concept of Zionism was applied as an indirect basis for denaturalisation.[20] All Jews were being made to pay for Israel’s ‘misdeeds’. This raises questions over Egypt’s right to inflict ‘collective punishment’ by expelling a constitutionally-protected minority, many of whom were Egyptian or stateless. Several Jewish organisations in the West reported that Egypt had taken antisemitic measures — internment, denaturalisation, dispossession, and expulsion — reminiscent of Nazi Germany.[21] The comparison was made by the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself in a Knesset session shortly after the Sinai campaign. He said that Egyptian tanks bore swastikas; Nasser was ‘another Hitler’. [22] It is arguable that the postwar influx of an unknown number of ex-Nazi war criminals into Egypt – some of whom occupied senior governments posts and converted to Islam — had helped created a toxic climate of anti-Semitism.

At least one scholar, Joel Beinin, disputes this,[23] claiming that so soon after the Holocaust’s full horror had become apparent, Jewish organisations such as the American Jewish Committee were projecting their paranoia and obsession with Nazi antisemitism on the Egyptians. Beinin lays the blame for the flight of Egypt’s Jews at Zionism’s door by dwelling at length on Operation Susannah, the ill-conceived and botched bombing of UK and US offices and a cinema instigated by the Israeli government in 1954 to coax the US and Britain to intervene in Egypt.[24] (Also known as the Lavon Affair, ‘the Mishap’ or ‘the Unfortunate Business’). The perpetrators were ‘fifth column’ local Jews, but caused no casualties. Two were executed and the rest imprisoned.

If Nasser’s motive in seizing property wholesale was decolonisation and nationalisation, driven by a desire to redistribute wealth in one of the Middle East’s poorest nations, clearly he went out of his way to scapegoat Jews and their property in the 1950s. Treaties signed with Britain and France allowing expellees to return did not include Jews.[25]

It was only in the 1960s that Nasser pursued an indiscriminate policy of agrarian reform and nationalisation. This affected Egypt’s 600 wealthiest families – not just Jews but Copts, Muslims and assorted ‘foreigners,’ and caused a mass exodus of Greeks.[26] The Jewish community dwindled to a few thousand, suffered vicious reprisals in the aftermath of Israel’s Six-Day War, and today numbers 13 people or fewer.

British and French nationals expelled in 1956 did receive some compensation from their governments, but often not enough. For instance, the Smouha family, who put in the largest claim of 12 million pounds in compensation for the sequestration of the Alexandria suburb Smouha City, had to settle for a quarter of that sum. Egyptian and stateless Jews got nothing. Article 8 of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty made provision for a Claims Commission but it was never established.

Individuals outside Israel decided to sue the Egyptian government in court for seized property: Jenny Stewart paid a lawyer his fee but nothing came of it. Even those who won their case found that compensation in Egyptian currency was worth nothing at the end of the day.


Across the Arab world, approximately 856,000 Jewish refugees were driven out between 1948 and 1975. Some 50.2 per cent of Israel’s Jews today are, or descend from, refugees from Arab or Muslim countries.[27] The exodus of Jews from Egypt following the Suez Crisis was perhaps the most dramatic episode. Sultana Vidal reflects bitterly:

Fear was the Egyptians’ greatest ally, and slowly but surely this widespread exile rid them of most of their Jews. What a perfect final solution! They had their pound of flesh. No one could accuse them of doing what the Nazis had done. And yet, they destroyed us by dismembering our families and consequently our lives. [28]

In all, about half the Jews of Egypt fled to Israel – more might have done so had the Jewish state not been struggling to feed, accommodate and employ the new arrivals. Although they rebuilt their lives and none today consider themselves refugees, there remains an unresolved injustice. It is imperative, as a matter of law and equity, that Jewish refugees from Arab countries be on the agenda of any peace settlement.

While Middle Eastern refugees are scarcely out of the news nowadays, the plight of these silent and invisible Jewish victims goes unnoticed, while their right to recognition and redress is hardly ever mentioned. As the late Norman Geras once wrote, there are few greater injustices than to say about something that happened, that it did not happen.


  • [1] Gudrun Kramer, Jews in Modern Egypt, (IB Tauris: 1989), p. 9.
  • [2] Mina Thabet, ‘The approaching end of Egypt’s Jewish community’ Mada Masr, 4 May 2015.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] National Archives, Kew. Treatment of Jews in Egypt, 1957. FO 371/125602.
  • [5] Michael M. Laskier, The Jews of Egypt 1920 – 1970, (New York University Press: 1992), p. 254.
  • [6] Laskier, ibid. p. 254.
  • [7] Laskier, ibid, p. 255.
  • [8] Michael R. Fischbach, Jewish Property Claims against Arab Countries, (Columbia University Press: 2008), p. 148.
  • [9] Itamar Levin, Locked Doors, (Praeger: 2001), p. 107.
  • [10] Laskier, p. 257.
  • [11] Laskier, p. 257.
  • [12] Dr Stan Urman, executive director of JJAC, House of Commons, 19 March 2014. Full transcript of hearing at
  • [13] Laskier, p. 256.
  • [14] National archives, Kew. Treatment of Jews in Egypt, 1957. FO 371/125602
  • [15] Levin, p. 143.
  • [16] Jacques Sardas, Without Return, (Thebes Press: 2017), p. 211.
  • [17] Jean Naggar, Sipping from the Nile, Stony, (Creek Press: 2008), p. 272.
  • [18] Michael R. Fischbach, Jewish Property Claims against Arab countries, (Columbia University Press: 2008), p. 47.
  • [19] Krämer, p. 235.
  • [20] Laskier, p. 261.
  • [21] Laskier, p. 262.
  • [22] Natan Aridan, Suez 60th anniversary conference, London 13 November 2016. Video recording:
  • [23] Joel Beinin, The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, (University of California Press: 1998), p.108.
  • [25] Laskier, p. 265.
  • [26] Levin, p. 141.
  • [27] Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2009, Central Bureau of Statistics. ‘Table 2.24 – Jews, by country of origin and age’.
  • [28]Sultana Vidal, The Jasmine Necklace, (S. Pirotte-Vidal: 2002), p. 210.

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