Wednesday, February 4, 2015

In the Shadow of the Gallows: Maurice Orbach and Israel's Attempt to Save the Egyptian Jews Accused in the Cairo Trial, 1955


This year will mark the 60th anniversary of many dramatic events in Israel's history. 1955 was a crucial year and a turning point in relations with Egypt, Israel's most powerful neighbour. At the Archives we will soon complete a collection of documents on foreign relations for that year, the last volume in our series on Israeli foreign policy up till 1960. Here we will bring you some highlights of this collection.

One of the reasons for the deterioration of relations with Egypt was the "security mishap" in 1954, which also led to a political crisis in Israel, the "Lavon Affair". Israeli military intelligence had set up a spy and sabotage ring of young Egyptian Jews in Cairo and Alexandria. In June 1954 they were activated to attack American and British targets, in the hope of preventing an Anglo-Egyptian agreement on evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal zone, transfer of the Canal to Egypt and military aid from the U.S., in a Western attempt to court Egyptian ruler Colonel Nasser. In July 1954 some bombs were planted but the damage was negligible. After a bomb went off in the pocket of one of the agents, the members of the ring were arrested. The question whether Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon had given the order for the operation later became the centre of a political storm and affected Israeli politics for  years. However at the time the public was told nothing about the true background to the affair. Israel claimed that the Jews involved were innocent and Cairo was planning a show trial.

In the indictment published in October the prosecution asked for the death sentence for all of the 13 accused. Efforts by Israel and world Jewry to prevent severe sentences began immediately and continued until the end of January 1955. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett was deeply worried that if the Jews were executed, public opinion would make his efforts to reduce border tension and to improve relations with Egypt impossible.


A key figure in these efforts was Maurice Orbach, a British Jew and a Labour Member of Parliament, who visited Cairo in November 1954 as the representative of the World Jewish Congress. After briefing by Sharett, Orbach met Nasser, who told him that the matter was in the hands of the public prosecutor, but he would consider a plea for mercy. Nasser also said he wanted peace with Israel, but could not take steps yet because of the internal situation in Egypt, where a plot to assassinate him by the Muslim Brotherhood had been uncovered. Afterwards there were direct contacts in Paris between Israeli and Egyptian emissaries.

The trial by a military court opened on 11 December in Cairo. Orbach met with Nasser again and messages were passed between him and Sharett (see our previous post on Sharett's letter  warning against the effects of a death sentence). Nasser's reply was that he would do everything possible to prevent "inflammatory sentences." He promised to prevent border incidents and agreed to a high level meeting with Israeli representatives. At the end of December Nasser sent another message, saying that Egyptian public opinion was also inflamed, especially in view of the trial and execution of the six Muslim Brothers who had attacked him. In the current state of tension a high level meeting was impossible.


Crowds hail Nasser in Alexandria after the failed assasination attempt, October 1954
Photograph: Wikimedia


At the beginning of January 1955 reports reached Sharett that "things in the Cairo trial were deteriorating" and he wrote to Orbach asking him to return to Cairo immediately. His adviser Gideon Raphael flew to Paris to brief Orbach for his trip. This time Orbach's reception was frosty. His report (the first pages appear here) shows how he gradually came to realize that Nasser was evading him and would not see him until after the trial. It was learned that the Egyptians would not announce the verdict until it was already confirmed by the Revolutionary Council. Nevertheless Sharett did not give up hope and Israel redoubled its efforts to persuade other countries and humanitarian bodies to intervene.


 On 27 January Egypt announced that two of the accused, said to be the ringleaders of the Cairo and Alexandria groups, Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, had been sentenced to death. Two others were cleared and the rest received long jail sentences. The Foreign Ministry mobilized the U.S. Jewish community to ask for Eisenhower's intervention. However Sharett wrote in his diary that there was almost no chance of Nasser's pardoning the accused Jews, now that the verdict had been published. He asked himself if Nasser had deliberately deceived Israel, or had made promises he could not keep because of changed circumstances or opposition within the ruling junta. At the Israelis' urging, Orbach and Richard Crossman, another  British politician who had received promises from Nasser, sent him a telegram begging him to reconsider at the last moment.

 Sharett refused to allow public demonstrations in Israel, and insisted that if protests were made, they must be against the sentence, in order not to encourage the belief that the Jews were innocent. Even Prime Minister Nehru of India, which had no diplomatic relations with Israel, agreed to appeal to Nasser. But Nasser replied to Eisenhower that America too executed spies. It seemed that the international outcry only made him more determined to show his independence. On 31 January Marzouk and Azar were hanged. Sharett thanked those who had tried to help in a special meeting of the Knesset:
"The Government of Israel voices its contempt and horror at the heartless rejection by the rulers of Egypt of the urgent representations made to them, a rejection accompanied even, in some cases, by calculated deceit regarding what was intended.”

“At the same time, the government wishes to express its recognition of all who did what they could, by word and deed, to save human lives and prevent the gallows from casting its shadow over relations between peoples in the days to come."


Israeli stamp issued in memory of Moshe Marzouk

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