It is 61 years this month since the tragic sinking of the old Pisces launch (renamed the Egoz) with the loss of 44 on board (42 Moroccan-Jewish would-be emigrants to Israel, one Israeli radio operator, one Spanish machine operator – Paco Perez. The rest of the crew survived). The boat was on its 13th illegal voyage to Gibraltar from Casablanca. Gilad Kabilo, whose family was on the 12th voyage, writes in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Lily, Imre, Sylvia):
Monument to the Egoz dead in Ashdod, Israel
King Mohammed the Fifth, who some say had favorable views of his kingdom’s Jewry, continued to allow aliya (immigration). Moroccan Jews, raised on passionate Zionist ideals, had been making aliya in great numbers – over 72,000 Moroccan Jews made aliya between 1948 and 1955 – and still over 200,00 Jews remained in Morocco.
In 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser began pressuring Morocco to stop allowing Jewish return, reportedly saying to king Mohammed “every Jew you allow to leave becomes a soldier.” In the days of the War of Attrition and rising Pan-Arabism, king Mohammed could not refuse president Nasser, and the aliya efforts went underground. Secret immigration continued, with Moroccan authorities unofficially adopting a very lax enforcement policy.
By 1961, over 30,000 more Jews made the perilous journey from Morocco to Israel, weathering freezing seas and subhuman conditions in their hope to reach the Promised Land.
The Egoz tragedy was the catalyst for a new arrangement. Morocco, always more attuned to the Western world than other Arab countries, began facing pressure from France and the United States to stop preventing Jews from leaving to Israel and to an establish an organized channel for departure. Thus, an agreement was reached between the king and the leaders of Morocco’s Jewish community, with American and French involvement and the oversight of the Israeli government, to allow the immigration of Jews out of Morocco to any country except Israel. This agreement was the precursor to Operation Yachin, under which over 80,000 Jews made aliya to Israel through a third country, mainly France and Gibraltar.
On January 9, a night before the departure of the Egoz, another family made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to their homeland. My family, immortalized in a photo of them waiting for the next ship on the shores of Gibraltar, ended their journey home in the northern town of Hazor Haglilit, with nine children who have since begotten dozens of proud Israelis. Though they left Morocco in the dead of night with nothing but their heaviest blanket, the word “refugee” was never heard in my father’s house. Making aliya through choice and not for a lack of it, this Moroccan family, like thousands of others who make up Israel’s diverse nation, has never looked back – they are home.
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