4. Nazis and Spies
The Discourse of Operation Susannah
The Nazi mass murder of European Jews established the standard vocabulary, rhetorical frame, and social experience for assessing all subsequent threats, potential or actual, to any Jewish community, including the Jews of Egypt. In the second half of the twentieth century, there have been no instances of anti-Semitic oppression that can reasonably be compared to the distinctively modern, European practice of scientifically elaborated racism, mass-marketed propaganda, industrialized genocide, and global conquest of Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, concern to maintain a high level of vigilance against anti-Semitism, deep guilt throughout the Western world over the failure to adequately confront (in some cases, over actual complicity with) the Nazi genocide, lack of an adequate alternative lexicon, and a certain amount of cynical manipulation by Zionist publicists have installed Nazi-style anti-Semitism as a recurrent trope in discussions of the post-World War II Jewish condition. Yet, in their worst moments, Jews in modern Egypt were very far from experiencing such intense, unremitting, and ideologically committed persecution.
The arrest, conviction, and execution of a network of Egyptian Jews charged with committing acts of espionage and sabotage on behalf of Israel in 1954–55—an intrigue code-named “Operation Susannah”—were critical moments in the elaboration of a discourse that cast the Egyptian regime, and ultimately all Arabs, as neo-Nazis. Here I want to consider how this discourse developed between 1948 and 1977 by comparing competing representations of Operation Susannah. During those years, the imposition of a particular interpretation of the recent experience of European Jewry on events in Egypt and the insistence that this necessarily informed the meaning of the lives of all Jews everywhere censored the voices of Egyptian Jews and blocked their ability to narrate their own history.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the “Discovery” of Egyptian Nazism
As noted in Chapter 3, the outbreak of hostilities between Egypt and the newly established state of Israel on May 15, 1948, resulted in the internment of several hundred Zionists and communists, the sequestration of Jewish assets, bombings in harat al-yahud and of Jewish stores in downtown Cairo, and random attacks on Jews during the summer and fall. There were crude anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in the Egyptian press during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Consequently, Jews had reason to feel apprehensive about their status in Egypt. These fears were relieved somewhat after the assassination of Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi, the official dissolution of the Society of Muslim Brothers in December, and assumption of the premiership by Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Hadi, a cosmopolitan who enjoyed good relations with elite Jews.
The government of Israel forcefully described the developments in Egypt as Nazi-like persecution. Its public statement on “The Position of Jews in Egypt” cataloged the actions taken against Egyptian Jews with only passing reference to the state of war between Egypt and Israel and proclaimed that “the stringent measures taken against the Jewish population are reminiscent of the early days of the Hitler regime.”  This characterization was uncritically reported in the Palestine Post (subsequently the Jerusalem Post), a daily close to the government that served as a vehicle for disseminating its views to the diplomatic community and to Jews outside Israel.
The notion that Egyptian Jews were suffering from Nazi-style anti-Semitism began to crystallize in American Jewish circles as early as October 1948. Using terms similar to those of the Israeli government a few weeks later, confidential reports began circulating among officials of the American Jewish Committee asserting that “The situation of the 75,000 Jews in Egypt is in broad terms similar to that of the Jews in Germany in the period beginning about 1936.”  Other accounts circulating among the American Jewish Committee leaders suggested that because of Oriental indiscipline, the situation of Jews in Egypt in 1948 was even worse than that of Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. One such report asserted, “The Egyptian press, written in Arabic, is more violent in their open attacks against Jews than any former Nazi paper would have dared to be.”  Nessim Z. Moreno, who had lived in Egypt for many years before settling in the United States, was despatched by the American Jewish Committee to investigate conditions in Egypt. He reported, “Having lived in Germany in Hitler's time, I have seen terrible persecution of Jews first hand, but from the stories I heard of what went on in Egypt in the period from May 15, 1948, until the assassination of Nokrachi Pacha [i.e., Nuqrashi Pasha, December 28, 1948], the condition of the Jews in Egypt was in some respects worse than the condition of the Jews in Germany during the late thirties.” According to Moreno, this was because in Germany “there was generally discipline in the carrying out of antisemitic measures,” whereas in Egypt “there were many recurrences of uncontrolled mob rule.” 
Then, as now, Islamic radicalism was seen as particularly threatening by many in the West. A report to the Wiener Library in London that circulated among committee leaders described an encounter with the leader of the Society of Muslim Brothers:
The undisguised racism and exoticist voyeurism of this description enhanced the author's conclusion that a “pogrom of Jews” was “an actual reality” in Egypt. “The pattern is the Hitler pattern—on a small scale.” 
Hasan El Benna is a short, squat, ratty little man with puffed eyes, puffed cheeks, fleshy nose. His beard, running from ear to ear, crawls up then down his upper lip in an ugly black hirsute vine. Hasan El Benna's manner is mousy and furtive.…
I interviewed this religious fuhrer and was a trusted visitor at Ikhwan headquarters in Cairo and other cities.
The American Jewish Committee drew on all these sources to compile its comprehensive Report on the Jewish Situation in Egypt, which was confidentially presented to U.S. government officials in November 1948 before being released to the public early the next year. According to the committee, the world knew so little about “Egypt's recent venture into Hitlerian brutality on a national scale” because of the press censorship in force since May 15, 1948.
The credibility of assertions as ridiculous as those just quoted depended on Orientalist preconceptions, substantial ignorance, and the uncritical transfer of European terms of reference to Egypt. The hyperbole of the American Jewish Committee was probably motivated by the recent memory of the passivity of the international community during the Nazi era. But relying on this memory to assess conditions in Egypt is analogous to generals preparing to fight the last war. Moreover, to reach the conclusion that the government of Egypt was conducting Nazi-style persecution of Jews, the American Jewish Committee had to ignore the firsthand evidence it received from an unimpeachable source—the president of Cairo's Sephardi Jewish community, Salvator Cicurel.
Cicurel met with representatives of the committee in New York at the end of October 1948. His assessment of the situation was informed by the historically specific appreciation that “the recent anti-Jewish outbreaks…[were] connected with the existence of Israel and the defeats of the Egyptian Army there.”  Cicurel specified that the army and the Society of Muslim Brothers harbored anti-Jewish sentiments. He tried to persuade the American Jewish Committee leaders to appeal to the U.S. government to intervene to block the enforcement of the Egyptian Company Law of 1947. Such action, if successful, would have allowed Cicurel to continue to employ an overwhelmingly Jewish staff in his large and fashionable Cairo department store. The Cicurel store had been damaged by a bomb in July 1948, widely suspected to be the work of the Muslim Brothers, who tried to foment anti-Jewish sentiment during the Arab-Israeli War as part of their overall assault on the Egyptian regime. But Cicurel enjoyed the personal favor of King Faruq and soon reopened his store with the support and encouragement of the king. A scant three years after World War II, he could hardly have thought that he and his Jewish staff were in danger of Nazi-like persecution if he planned to continue his business operations in Egypt.
In 1950, a comprehensive report prepared by S. Landshut for the American Jewish Committee and the Anglo-Jewish Association criticized the committee's 1949 report for its claim that Egypt was suffused with “systematic thorough-going anti-Semitism…too firmly rooted to be expected to disappear.” Landshut, like many contemporary Western observers oblivious to the local experience of imperial rule, regarded any anti-Western sentiment as xenophobia and was unable to accept the legitimacy of Egyptian nationalism. Still, he concluded that “it is wrong to speak of any deeply-rooted anti-Jewish-as distinct from generally anti-Western-feeling were it not that the Palestine question had temporarily crystallized Egyptian xenophobia into anti-Semitism.” 
The efforts of well-informed individuals like Cicurel and Landshut to describe the condition of the Jewish community in a judicious and restrained manner were insufficient to overcome the emotional power of the trope of Nazi anti-Semitism. Understanding and sympathy for Egypt and the rest of the Arab world were minimal in the West, and competition among Jewish organizations seems to have encouraged their publicists and supporters to draw the most extreme conclusions on the basis of limited or unreliable evidence. Many American Jews, shaken by the realization that their response to the Nazi genocide had been inadequate, resolved not to underestimate any future threats to Jewish communities abroad. This well-intentioned impulse generated a predictably regular misrepresentation of the situation in Egypt. Once the theme of Nazi-like persecution was established in Jewish circles, it began to proliferate promiscuously. Fabrications and exaggerations were repeated as truth and rarely subjected to rigorous investigation. Therefore, in 1954, when Egyptian authorities announced that they had apprehended the perpetrators of Operation Susannah and intended to bring them to trial, this news was easily inserted into a well-defined discursive structure that had previously been established as appropriate for understanding the situation of Egyptian Jews.
The Israeli and Anglo-American Jewish Discourse
The Israeli press first reported that Egyptian Jews were to be tried on charges of espionage and sabotage on behalf of Israel in mid-October 1954. Days after the story broke, the Jerusalem Post, Davar (Word, the Histadrut daily controlled by MAPAI), and Herut (Freedom, the daily of Menahem Begin's party of the same name) began to compare the situation in Egypt with events in Nazi Germany. Because of its access to a foreign audience, the coverage of the Jerusalem Post was particularly significant in establishing a common discursive frame regulating understanding of the events for both the vast majority of Israelis and a large sector of the North American and Western European public.
The Post's first account of the affair conveyed the contents of an article in the London Jewish Observer, a common technique to avoid Israeli censorship restrictions. A substantive original account appeared two days later under the large headline “Egypt's Jews Said Panic-Stricken by Persecution and Mass Arrests.” Relying on information reaching Geneva, the Post reported that 150 Jews had been arrested and interrogated with methods that “stagger the imagination.” The article charged the Egyptian police with beating Armand Karmona to death on August 7 (Egyptian authorities claimed he committed suicide, and the exact circumstances of his death remain uncertain) and discussed extensively Marcelle Ninio's torture and attempted suicide. The Post concluded,
The sole responsibility for this wave of terror, the reports said, rests with the newly formed National Egyptian Militia which is described as a paramilitary organization trained by former German Army officers on the storm trooper model.…Jewish leaders here were shocked when shown the reports. “If true,” a Jewish official declared, “they are reminiscent of the days of Hitler.” 
Every significant assertion in this report was totally fictitious or highly questionable. I have found no other reference to the National Egyptian Militia in any English or Arabic book or article on Egypt during this period. Apparently, it never existed or was utterly inconsequential. There were many recurrent reports of former Nazis living and working in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. But hard data supporting such allegations are illusive, and there is no credible evidence that former Nazis exercised a policy-making role in Egypt. The arrest, trial, and sentencing of the Operation Susannah conspirators were carried out by the Egyptian police, internal security apparatus, and judiciary in response to actual bombings carried out by Egyptian Jews acting as agents of Israel. The arrests and investigations of Jews by security authorities after the discovery of Operation Susannah did not directly disrupt the lives of the vast majority of the approximately 50,000 Jews living in Egypt at the time.
Despite the spuriousness of the Jerusalem Post's report, it was never retracted; and it established the terms for understanding the events in Israel and in Jewish circles abroad. There was simply no public consideration of the possibility that those arrested were actually guilty. This was partly due to the unprofessional character of the operation. The traditionally pro-Zionist Manchester Guardian editorially explained that the charges against the Operation Susannah conspirators must be fabricated because “any Jewish underground would presumably act with some sanity.”  The ultimately anti-Semitic presumption of superior Jewish intelligence led to the conclusion that the accused were innocent victims of anti-Semitic persecution.
Because its format and style were designed to present Israel's case to an international audience, the coverage of the Jerusalem Post was more sensational than some of the Hebrew press. However, Herut presented the most incendiary reporting of the affair. Its editorial on the opening day of the Cairo trial explained that the defendants “are not only accused of spying. They have hung on their heads all manner of crimes that the Levantine imagination can invent for this purpose.” The editorialist linked the Cairo defendants to a long list of victims of anti-Semitism beginning with Mendel Beilis (the victim of a 1911–13 blood libel in Russia) and explained that “in exile…Jews suffered because they were Jews.…Here they are suffering because of the existence of the state of Israel.” Of course, Herut did not draw the obvious conclusion that the existence of the state of Israel apparently did not prevent the persecution of Jews and had perhaps even increased it. Instead, the newspaper resolved that the Israeli government was obliged to abandon self-restraint and intervene to protect the accused.
Herut's coverage reached a peak of frenzy in reporting the suicide of Max Binnet. A front-page article carried his picture with a black border, and the editorial proclaimed, “The clique of Nazi-Levantine hangmen has claimed the life of one of the martyrs of the Egyptian blood libel.” Max Binnet's blood “cries out to us from the earth and demands: revenge!”  Binnet was a major in the Israel Defense Forces who was already known and wanted in Iraq for previous espionage activity there. His mission in Egypt appears to have been far more substantial than Operation Susannah, with which he had no direct connection. He may have decided to take his own life to avoid being tortured and possibly revealing important state secrets. But like many other pieces of this story, this is impossible to determine with any certainty.
Herut's crude racism and its fascist-style land and blood imagery might easily be dismissed as the expressions of a marginal minority of fanatic militarists (Ben-Gurion and MAPAI considered Begin and his followers to be beyond the pale of respectable politics). But the newspaper closest to the government, Davar, just as insistently deployed the trope of Nazi-like anti-Semitism in Egypt, linking it to the entire history of Jewish persecution in Europe. Its editorial on the opening day of the Cairo trial claimed,
The similarity is great between this trial and the trials of anti-Semitic hatred that were staged in the past by reactionary rulers in Europe.…The Cairo spy trial is an expressly anti-Jewish trial and constitutes a climax in the campaign of persecutions against the Jews of Egypt.…According to all the signs this Egyptian dictator [Nasser] is influenced by the spirit of the Nazis…also in his attitude to the Jews.
A few days later, the headline of what purported to be a more considered analysis based on the information obtained from a foreign diplomat who had recently left Cairo proclaimed, “German Nazis are at the head of a ‘Jewish Department’ in the Egyptian government. They have staged the trial of the 13 and are preparing additional trials.”  Although never supported by material evidence, the accusation of Nazi orchestration of Egyptian anti-Semitism was deeply engraved in the consciousness of a substantial portion of the public in Israel and abroad.
On the day of the execution of Shmu’el Azar and Moshe Marzuq, Davar's editorial, just like that of Herut several weeks earlier, connected their fates to the history of anti-Semitic persecution of Jews in Europe, appropriating the language and imagery of religious martyrology for the national cause:
The blood of these two Jewish martyrs flows into the river of blood of millions of our people, who were slaughtered and burned for the sanctification of the Name and the nation in our generation and in previous generations. But in the era of the state of Israel Jewish blood will not be cheap anywhere [dam yehudi lo yihye hefker].…
The state of Israel, in which capital punishment has been abolished, has the unassailable moral right to accuse Egypt before the entire world of miscarriage of justice and political murder.
La-Merhav (To the region), the daily of Le-Ahdut ha-‘Avodah, which had recently split from MAPAM, began to appear on December 6, 1954, and did not have the opportunity to write about Operation Susannah as fully as the other Israeli papers. Reflecting the activist military-political outlook of its party, La-Merhav was just as bloodthirsty as Herut in demanding Israeli retaliation against Egypt, though it did not invoke the entire history of anti-Semitism in Europe in the fashion of Herut, Davar, and the Jerusalem Post to justify it. Only MAPAM's ‘Al ha-Mishmar (The guardian) and the independent ha-Aretz (The land) covered the Cairo trial with relatively little inflammatory hyperbole.
Just as in 1948, American Jewish organizations took up the cause of Egyptian Jews and described their circumstances in exaggerated terms drawing on the lexicon of the Holocaust. The report of Nehemiah Robinson, director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs, the research branch of the World Jewish Congress, on “Persecution in Egypt” appeared first in the Congress Weekly and was widely reprinted. As evidence that the Jewish community was suffering from grave persecution, he cited the arrest of some Jews for participating in Zionist activities. He reported that “a process of expulsion was set in motion” during the 1948 war and that “the Jewish position is, if such a thing is still possible, aggravated by the ever-growing prominence of the ‘National Militia’ composed of uniformed armed youths on the Nazi storm trooper pattern, trained by Germans” —the same dubious entity previously mentioned in the Jerusalem Post.
The official response of the Israeli government to the arrest of the Egyptian Jewish espionage and sabotage ring, although not as frenzied as the coverage of the press and the reports of international Jewish organizations, was equally adamant in insisting that the Cairo trial was an anti-Semitic hoax with no basis in reality. In his statement to the Knesset, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett proclaimed,
The Government of Israel rejects most emphatically the fantastic libels that appear in the charges made by the Egyptian prosecution, which accuse the Israeli authorities of outrages and infernal plots against Egypt's international relations.…If their sin is their Zionism and their devotion to the state of Israel, then many Jews throughout the world are partners in this sin.
Although the Israeli government was already informed that a military intelligence unit was involved in the bombings in Egypt, Sharett may not yet have known the full extent of the responsibility of Israeli military authorities. The Olshan-Dori Committee he established to investigate the affair delivered its report on January 12, 1955. Sharett may have believed (or hoped) he was being truthful; however, his statement was, in fact, entirely false. Whether it was a conscious or an unconscious misrepresentation, this is a striking expression of the powerful discursive order in which it was imbedded: Any accusation that Jews were guilty of espionage and terrorism in Egypt could only be due to the most heinous anti-Semitism.
The Israeli government and its U.S. supporters were well aware of the propaganda value of describing the Egyptian case against the Operation Susannah conspirators as a Nazi-style, anti-Semitic show trial. The day after the executions of Azar and Marzuq, Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban delivered an off-the-record talk in which he asserted,
The Government of Israel…[knows] the complete falsity of the fabricated absurdities to the effect that these people, completely helpless and in the full control of the Egyptian state, were conducting in Egypt activities for the undermining of Egyptian security at the behest of the Government of Israel.
One American Jewish Committee leader who attended expressed his satisfaction that “Eban's ‘Background Talk’ effectively exploits the trial as an occasion for condemning Western admiration for the Nasser dictatorship.” 
The executions also provided a pretext for Israel to cease attending meetings of the Mixed Armistice Commission established by the United Nations after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War to supervise Egyptian-Israeli military relations in lieu of a peace treaty. The commission had, from time to time, reported that Israel initiated violations of its common border with Egypt. Consequently, it was regarded with suspicion by Israeli military authorities, who objected to any restrictions on the timing and scale of the reprisal raids they conducted into the Gaza Strip in response to violations of the Egyptian-Israeli border by Palestinian refugees and others.
Suspension of Israeli participation in the Mixed Armistice Commission meetings meant there was no local forum for discussing its massive raid on Gaza on February 28, 1955. This operation was widely regarded as a retaliation for Egypt's execution of Azar and Marzuq and as a punishment for Egypt's opposition to Arab participation in the Baghdad Pact. It began a cycle of escalation of border violence that culminated in the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt.
The Official Egyptian Story
Egyptian government officials were astounded by the reactions to the prosecution of the Operation Susannah conspirators. For them, this was a clear case of espionage and sabotage with both confessions and material evidence to support the prosecution's charges. They claimed they were reacting to the discovery of the conspiracy just as any European state threatened with subversion would. Government spokespersons and reports in the press repeatedly stressed that the accused were not on trial as Jews and that the Jewish community per se was not being subjected to any persecution. These claims were not entirely accurate. Jews faced continuing difficulties in establishing Egyptian citizenship (see Chapter 2), and many felt uneasy about their future after 1948. Though the Egyptian government's case against the conspirators was well supported by the evidence, there were aspects of its presentation and surrounding circumstances that made it difficult for a Western audience to accept the official Egyptian version of the story.
In the aftermath of the contest between Naguib and Abdel Nasser in March 1954, which definitively established the latter as the leader of the new regime, the government stepped up its anticommunist campaign in the press. A prominent feature of this effort was to accuse the communists of being Zionists. A month before the arrest of the Operation Susannah conspirators was announced, lead articles in the major Egyptian dailies explained that the Egyptian communist movement was controlled by a Zionist Jew, Henri Curiel, who resided in Paris. The campaign continued throughout the fall, concurrent with major trials of communists, including several Jews. A photo essay in al-Musawwar asserted that the communists were Zionists, atheists, and sexually promiscuous. It featured a picture of Curiel in short pants, which made him appear totally alien and ridiculous by Egyptian cultural standards.
The equation of Zionism and communism was common among conservative Arab leaders, including the Egyptian prime minister in 1948, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, and King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud of Saudi Arabia. This notion was not an expression of primordial Arab or Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment. Its categories are too modern for that and obviously inflected with European anti-Semitic ideas, such as those in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Developed as an instrument in the struggle against Zionism, it offered a facile explanation for certain superficially consistent facts—the disproportionately large number of Jewish communists, the strength of socialist Zionism in Israel, and the support for the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state by the Soviet Union and the international communist movement. It may also have been an effort to adapt to the Manichaean discourse of the cold war in the United States during the McCarthy-Dulles era. That certain Egyptians and Arabs believed such claims to be effective arguments against Zionism attests to the great gap between their conceptual universe and Euro-American political discourse. Especially after World War II, these charges resonated with Nazi efforts to portray Jews as the animators of the international communist movement and could not but arouse suspicion in Western Europe and North America.
Equally suspicious was the shift in the public representation of the seriousness of the conspiracy. After the announcement of the discovery of the plot, the Egyptian police appeared to minimize the whole affair, calling it “child's play.”  Perhaps this was because the authorities were embarrassed by failing to discover the operation before several bombings had been successfully executed. Indeed, Operation Susannah caused no personal injuries or deaths and resulted in relatively minor damage to property. On the opening day of the trial, the headline of al-Ahram, like all its previous headlines reporting the story, did not mention the bombings and referred only to “The Big Zionist Spy Trial before the Supreme Military Court.”  It was only two days after the trial began that the paper's headlines acknowledged that the accused were charged with committing acts of violence. If their crimes were insubstantial, as the Egyptian authorities first claimed, it did not seem reasonable to impose the death penalty or life imprisonment on the perpetrators. Foreign observers generally viewed the shift in the severity of the characterization of the actions of Operation Susannah in the Egyptian press as motivated by the concurrent trial and execution of the Muslim Brothers who had attempted to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser in Alexandria on October 26, 1954. These political circumstances aroused suspicion about the legitimacy of the charges and the fairness of the judicial procedures.
The cosmopolitan cultural qualities of the Operation Susannah conspirators and the political considerations that motivated them were discordant with Egyptian norms. However, they were easily recognizable in Western Europe and North America, which further enhanced Westerners' propensities to believe the worst about the Egyptian charges. The cultural and social differences between the Operation Susannah conspirators and the standards of urban middle-class Egypt were strikingly expressed in the representation of the gender relations among the conspirators. The prosecution portrayed Ninio as a beautiful and seductive Mata Hari who acted as chief liaison between the Cairo and Alexandria branches of the spy ring, charges reinforced and embellished by the Egyptian press.
Marcelle Ninio received the most extensive and graphic coverage of all the accused, including regular and detailed commentary on her physical appearance and dress. Al-Ahram featured her picture on its front page three times during the first week of the trial and described her as “a young Jewish woman with a great deal of intelligence, shrewdness, and spirit of self-sacrifice.” Al-Musawwar's coverage was the most imaginative and developed the gender dynamics of the plot in greatest detail: Ninio “used her femininity to influence and control her abettors. She was the brains of the ring, which operated under her direction and instructions.”  The young men, who had gone to Israel secretly and illegally to receive instruction in intelligence operations, “were trained by Israeli young women.”  Under the subheading “Always…Money and Women,” a subsequent article in al-Musawwar explained how the young male minors were seduced by money and pretty girls in Paris (where they stopped on their way to Israel), Israel, and Alexandria. The furnished flat in Alexandria, which was the operations center of the network there, was portrayed as a place for youthful foolishness full of girls, drink, music, and wanton entertainment.Al-Musawwar noted Marcelle Ninio's admission that she had frequented the Alexandria flat and occasionally spent weekends there, a sure indication of debauchery by prevailing Egyptian standards. According to al-Musawwar, the young men were simply enjoying themselves when an Israeli devil came and ordered them to burn and destroy U.S. establishments and threatened to reveal that they had been to Israel if they refused.
The Israeli and Western press also devoted disproportionate attention to Marcelle Ninio's dress, physical appearance, and role in the trial. In Egypt, the image of manipulative and uncontrolled female sexuality enhanced the prosecution's claim that the defendants' behavior was beyond the norms of civilized behavior. But in Israel and the West, focusing on Marcelle Ninio feminized all the defendants and made them appear less threatening to Egypt and more vulnerable as victims. The differing effects of comparable representations of gender were one more reason for Westerners to distrust the Egyptian account of the affair.
The Egyptian press repeatedly stressed that proper judicial procedures were being followed in the trial. The Qur’an, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament were all available in the courtroom for witnesses to swear on. To counter widespread reports that the accused had been tortured to obtain their confessions, al-Musawwar published photos and interviews of the defendants in jail, claiming they were properly treated and well fed by prison authorities. Because Marcelle Ninio had attempted to commit suicide, the authorities were especially anxious to demonstrate how well she fared. Her prison diet was said to include string beans, meat, cheese, winter cress, and tangerines—fare more ample and varied than that enjoyed by most Egyptians. Her only complaint about prison life was that she wanted to write a story about how generous her jailers were to her, but she was not allowed to have a pen and paper. No one familiar with prison conditions in Egypt could possibly believe such a description, and the interviews and photos of the defendants surrounding it were obviously staged. The defendants probably cooperated in this propaganda effort, hoping to improve their situations. But it was unconvincing and could only arouse suspicion that something was not right.
The International Campaign for the Defendants
International opinion in Great Britain and North America was generally inclined to accept the Israeli version of events, and the trial coverage of the major newspapers mirrored the Israeli press. Leading figures in the Jewish community and the government of Israel pressured the U.S. and British governments to intervene in the Cairo proceedings. Nonetheless, both governments were disinclined to make public statements because they were attempting to maintain good relations with the Egyptian government and because they had doubts about the Israeli version of the case.
In December 1954, the government of Israel officially asked the British Foreign Office to intervene on behalf of the Operation Susannah conspirators. This request was reinforced by a delegation of leading representatives of the World Sephardi Federation and the Anglo-Jewish Association. The leader of the delegation consulted with the Israeli Embassy in London before the visit to the Foreign Office and reported its results to the embassy afterwards. The British government avoided making any specific commitments. The permanent secretary of the foreign office, Anthony Nutting, advised A. L. Easterman, head of the political department of the World Jewish Congress, not to visit Egypt to observe the trial. Israeli officials claimed that Chief Rabbi Haim Nahum's statement of November 10, 1954, that Jews were not subject to systematic persecution in Egypt was issued under duress and had no value, but the British did not accept this argument. The Foreign Office regarded the trial as fair and unofficially determined that the defendants were not being mistreated. It discouraged the delegation from approaching the U.S. government. In opposition to the policies of the Conservative government, Labour MP Maurice Orbach, who was also a leader of the World Jewish Congress, visited Cairo from December 6 to 16 in an effort to convince the Egyptian government to be lenient with the accused.
On several occasions before the discovery of Operation Susannah, Egyptian Jews had been arrested on unrelated charges of membership in communist or Zionist organizations. American Jewish leaders met several times with State Department officials in Washington and requested inquiries into these arrests under the presumption that they must be part of an anti-Semitic campaign of the government. Jefferson Caffery, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, was repeatedly directed to investigate and closely monitor the situation of Jews. Caffery consistently reported that there was no significant official anti-Semitism in Egypt. Only months before the apprehension of the Operation Susannah conspirators he wrote,
There probably have been and still are instances of molestations, of discrimination against, individual Jews by various government departments and officials. There does not appear, however, to be any organized campaign by the present regime against the Jewish community as a whole. On the contrary, Jews in Egypt are probably better treated than those in other Arab states.
Caffery was close to Gamal Abdel Nasser and was not overly concerned about the welfare of Jews. He seems to have taken the many official statements about the equality of all Egyptian citizens and the formal gestures of cordiality to Jews by high government officials at face value. Nonetheless, because of the constant pressure on him from Washington on this matter, he probably would have reported anything of a substantial nature.
We do not know if the U.S. Embassy in Cairo considered the Operation Susannah defendants guilty. The available declassified embassy records contain no reference to an investigation indicating who, in its opinion, was responsible for the firebombings in Cairo and Alexandria and what the objectives of the perpetrators might have been. This is a very suspicious omission because the library of the United States Information Service in Cairo was among the targets. It is difficult to believe that no inquiry into this matter was undertaken; very likely Caffery knew that the Operation Susannah conspirators had attacked U.S. government property in Egypt.
When the case came to trial, the government of Israel and a large number of American Jewish organizations pressed the State Department to intervene in favor of the defendants. The department resisted making a formal protest to the Egyptian government, probably because it knew that the charges were well founded and because it was still seeking good relations with Egypt. After the trial was concluded, Caffery visited Egyptian Foreign Minister Husayn Fawzi on at least two occasions to urge him not to permit any executions in the case. The message from John Foster Dulles delivered by Caffery made no mention of the defendants' innocence or guilt. It referred only to the likelihood that executing any of the convicted prisoners would disrupt the possibility of progress in reducing tensions in the Middle East—a reference to ongoing secret talks between Egypt and Israel. These talks were indeed disrupted by the execution of Shmu’el Azar and Moshe Marzuq on January 31, 1955, and Israel's February 28 assault on Gaza.
Shortly after the Cairo trial began, representatives of Israel asked the American Jewish Committee to send their honorary president, Jacob Blaustein, to observe the proceedings. He was unable to make the trip, so the committee arranged for Roger Baldwin, U.S. chairman of the International League for the Rights of Man, who had a reputation of being sympathetic to the Arabs, to attend. Baldwin arrived in Cairo on January 8, 1955, after the trial was concluded, and left on January 27, before the verdicts were announced. This brief stay while the trial was not actually in session did not provide Baldwin the firmest basis for judgment. However, his reports did undermine many of the assertions circulating in Israel and the West. His most significant conclusion was, “There seems to be no doubt of some guilt of all the defendants.” He was also quite clear that “By accepted western standards the trial was not fair,” though in Egyptian terms proper procedures were followed. Based on assurances that he and the U.S. Embassy had received from the Egyptian authorities, Baldwin reported to the American Jewish Committee leadership that he did not believe that death sentences would be imposed. When the sentences were announced and two of the accused were condemned to death, he termed this “shocking,” “savage,” and “vindictive” because
[t]he conspiracy did not involve any serious acts of espionage or sabotage. It was, as the defense said, a childish and irrational affair of young people acting on instructions of two agents [Dar and Seidenwerg, alias Paul Frank] who escaped and were not condemned.…The explanation for such severity is to be found not in the trial record, but politics.
When the sentences were announced, their severity became the focal point of Western attention. Many of the major U.S. and British papers editorialized against the trial or the sentences, including the London Observer, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Manchester Guardian. A Washington Post editorial termed the trial a “show trial…of 13 Jews…under trumped-up charges” and was so strong that the American Jewish Committee considered using it in its publicity work. A Washington Star editorial called the sentences a “judicial lynching.”  This barrage of criticism against the procedures and sentences of the trial inevitably drew attention away from Roger Baldwin's correct conclusion that the defendants were guilty.
After the Executions
The Egyptian government's most comprehensive effort to convince a foreign audience of its case against the conspirators was presented in a pamphlet titled The Story of Zionist Espionage in Egypt. The central claims of the text were well supported by the evidence presented in court. However, some of its assertions were blatantly false, for example, the assertion that “during the Palestine War the Jews of Egypt were not interned.”  The effort to link Operation Susannah to a history of “Zionist atrocities”—the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944, the assassination of Count Bernadotte in 1948, and violation of Muslim and Christian religious holy places by Israeli military forces during the 1948 war—was unconvincing because the first two actions were carried out by dissident Zionists opposed to the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, and the last occurred during a war in which both sides attacked civilian populations. The rhetorical pretense that espionage and sabotage were not normal activities between states (especially those formally at war with each other, as were Egypt and Israel) was not credible. But for a Western audience, the part of the pamphlet that most damaged the credibility of the Egyptian government's claims was the section arguing that Zionism and communism share “one political objective-world domination. Both powers co-operate secretly and in public without friction since the power in the end will eventually go to Zionism.” 
This superfluous contention reproduced elements of Nazi propaganda and discredited the entire Egyptian case in the eyes of many foreign observers. The American Jewish Committee distributed this text along with another Egyptian government pamphlet criticizing Israel's February 28 raid on Gaza, claiming these tracts demonstrated that the Egyptian Embassy in Washington was spreading anti-Semitic propaganda. Drawing attention to the anti-Semitism in the one pamphlet allowed the committee to obscure the Israeli aggression described in the second.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo complained to the Egyptian government about The Story of Zionist Espionage in Egypt and reported that Foreign Minister Fawzi was “embarrassed at having it brought to their attention and avoided any discussion of its contents.”  The senior foreign ministry official was apparently familiar enough with Western political discourse to know the pamphlet's rhetorical strategy was self-defeating. The reports of the General Security Services (al-mabahith al-‘amma) conveying the results of its investigation of Operation Susannah to the assistant permanent secretary for general security and police affairs of the Ministry of Interior do not mention communism. They are dry and factual accounts of the conspirators' trips to Israel, contacts with Israeli agents, and possession of wireless transmitters and encryption codes. The police and general security investigators do not seem to have believed Philip Natanson's and Victor Levy's initial statements during their interrogations that they had acted on behalf of a communist organization. At the trial, the prosecution did not mention any links between communism and Zionism. Consequently, the source of the anti-Semitic content of the pamphlet appears to be the midlevel officials responsible for producing the tract in the Ministry of Information. They were probably unaware of the damage to Egypt's image that might be caused by equating Zionism and communism, and they may even have believed this absurd notion.
Despite such occasional expressions of official anti-Semitism, in late 1954 and early 1955, when the U.S. government had a favorable view of Gamal Abdel Nasser, informed observers like Ambassador Caffery resisted the charge that the Egyptian regime was practicing Nazi-style anti-Semitism. Such accusations became more common in some political circles and in the American media after Egypt purchased arms from Czechoslovakia in September 1955. According to the conceptually limited global map promoted by the brothers Allen and John Foster Dulles, Egypt could now be accused of being an enemy of the “Free World.” The New York Times, reflecting the views of a good portion of its readership, began referring to Abdel Nasser as “Hitler on the Nile.” 
Egyptian Jews again found themselves under pressure as a result of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in October 1956. Many were arrested; their property was sequestered and confiscated; and, in contrast to the situation during the first Arab-Israeli War, the Egyptian government pressured them—or if they were foreign nationals, compelled them—to leave the country. As it had in 1948, the government of Israel took the lead in promoting the notion that the Jews of Egypt were being subjected to Nazi-like persecution. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion reported to the Knesset after the war on Egypt's treatment of its Jews, “These acts remind us of those committed by Hitler before the world war.” He went on to describe the Nazi character of the Egyptian regime in more general terms:
Today we must remind the world of the fact that many people did not believe our warnings in the case of Hitler's Mein Kampf which many treated as nonsense and believed that no one would act according to the directions it gave.…
I must remind members of this House that during the Israeli army's Sinai operation many of the Egyptian officers' vehicles were decorated with the swastika and that many of these officers had copies of Mein Kampf in an Arabic translation with them.
Israel never presented any verifiable evidence regarding swastikas on Egyptian military vehicles and the like, but Ben-Gurion's allegations were uncritically reported in Israel and the United States. They confirmed what many people already “knew.” The increased tensions between Egypt and the U.S. government as a result of the promulgation of the Eisenhower Doctrine in January 1957 encouraged American Jewish organizations to be more assertive in promoting their views about the Middle East because Egypt and by extension “the Arabs” now constituted a common enemy for both Israel and the United States.
After the war, French Jewish groups initiated an international conference of representatives of Jewish organizations to discuss the situation of Egyptian Jews. This undertaking may well be related to the French government's extreme agitation over the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, a corporation registered in France and headquartered in Paris. The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith, and all the large American Zionist organizations participated and endorsed a statement asserting, “The Egyptian authorities acted with the advice of notorious Nazis and with the aid of techniques elaborated by the totalitarian regimes whose existence has darkened the human scene during the past generation…and if they have singled out the Jews it is only because they have chosen to begin with the most defenseless minority.”  The statement failed to mention that Israel had recently invaded Egypt or even hint that this might have affected the condition of Egypt's Jews.
In January 1957, B'nai B'rith, the largest American Jewish organization, held a press conference to announce that “former officials of the Nazi regime in Germany are administering the Egyptian government's anti-Jewish ‘terror’ program.”  In response to the B'nai B'rith press release, Zachariah Shuster, the European director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote to the New York office that “the release has much information which is patently false and much which is greatly—and usually luridly—exaggerated.…We are confident that most of it is pure invention and represents a concoction of imaginary horror stories without any basis in reality.”  Nonetheless, an American Jewish Committee fact sheet on “The Plight of the Jews in Egypt” issued in early 1957, although less elaborate and sensational, adopted the same style. It charged that three former Nazis, including one identified as an SS general, occupied positions of high responsibility in Egypt. Ten thousand copies of this fact sheet were printed, and Representative Abraham Multer (D, NY) inserted its entire text into the Congressional Record.
In 1955 or 1956, Don Peretz began to work for the American Jewish Committee as a consultant on Middle East affairs. After a two-week visit to Egypt in June 1957, Peretz reported to the committee leadership that “the situation [of Egyptian Jews] in no way resembles that as portrayed by most of the American press or by the American Jewish Committee fact sheets,” which he regarded as “very misleading and not very helpful.”  Subsequently the committee commissioned an investigation, apparently undertaken by Don Peretz, to verify a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about former SS leaders at the head of the Egyptian gestapo. The investigation concluded that none of the persons named by the German paper could be traced, and no evidence of the presence of former SS leaders in Egypt could be established. All such press reports were based on information coming from the World Jewish Congress in New York and the B'nai B'rith. The investigation further charged that many of the alleged “facts” about this matter in an article in B'nai B'rith's National Jewish Monthly were false. The report concluded, “None of the known German councillors who have been active for years in Egypt has ever been able to have immediate political or other influence.” 
The American Jewish Committee never publicized Peretz's unequivocal statements. His most substantial piece of research for the committee—a comprehensive and judicious summary titled “Egyptian Jews Today”—was also never published. Peretz's essay discussed both the material prosperity of Egypt's Jews and their precarious position as a result of the trajectory of Egyptian nationalism and the Arab-Zionist conflict. It documented anti-Semitic expressions in Egypt's mass media, explaining their historical and political context, and also drew attention to several very careful and correct statements on the status of Jews by Egyptian officials. Peretz did not mention that any Nazis held official positions of authority in Egypt.
Released in January 1956, Peretz's report should have prepared American Jewish Committee leaders to understand that although the situation of Egyptian Jews was difficult, many of the stories circulating after the October 1956 war were grossly exaggerated. But for the committee to publicly oppose the claim that Egypt was practicing Nazi-like anti-Semitism would have been organizational suicide. Institutional American Jewish life was quite factionalized, and there was competition among the various groups to adopt the most vigilant and militant stand against anti-Semitism. The memory of Nazi mass murder and the refusal of Western political leaders to recognize its dimensions and mount a concerted response weighed “like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”  This consideration decisively influenced the American Jewish discourse on Operation Susannah and every other discussion of the status of Egyptian Jews. Despite the lack of evidence, Israeli government officials and publicists encouraged the dissemination of exaggerations and fabrications about the persecution suffered by Egyptian Jews.
Marginalizing the “Heroes of the Affair”
The trial of the Operation Susannah conspirators and the execution of Shmu’el Azar and Moshe Marzuq aroused a storm of public and official protest in Israel and among Jewish communities in Europe and North America. Nonetheless, concern for the convicted who remained alive and in Egyptian prisons soon disappeared from the public agenda in Israel. Exposure of the details of this episode threatened to destroy the careers of leading figures in the political and military establishment. In fact, the end of Ben-Gurion's career as prime minister of Israel in 1963 was directly related to the factional contention in MAPAI that erupted when Israeli aspects of the affair were exposed in 1960–61 (see below). Nonetheless, the details of what happened in Egypt in 1954 remained shrouded in a veil of official secrecy until 1975.
Even relatively peripheral and minor information was banned from the press and radio by the official censor. Thus, in late 1955, the Israeli media were preemptively prohibited from reporting the fact that members of the families of the accused in the Cairo trial were about to arrive in Israel on the grounds that this might endanger their security or the security of those remaining in Egypt. A public welcome might also have confirmed the veracity of Egypt's charges against the convicted and risked further exposure of the case and its principals.
Security considerations are a plausible explanation for such a high level of secrecy until the 1956 Suez/Sinai War. However, if Israeli authorities were so concerned for the welfare of the members of the Operation Susannah network, why did they fail to request their release in the course of the general prisoner exchange after the war? Egyptian officials expected such a request and were prepared to grant it. Yet the Israelis did not mention the matter in the negotiations over the return of prisoners of war. Me’ir Meyuhas and Me’ir Za‘fran served out their seven-year terms. Robert Dassa, Victor Levy, Philip Natanson, and Marcelle Ninio were finally released in the prisoner exchange following the 1967 war. These four have repeatedly charged that individuals in the highest echelons of the Israeli military, including Moshe Dayan, minister of defense in 1967, were uninterested in seeing them released.
The charge is credible in light of the major political scandal provoked by Operation Susannah. The Olshan-Dori Committee established by Prime Minister Sharett in January 1955 was charged with determining which Israeli official had authorized Operation Susannah, which had never been discussed or authorized by the cabinet. But Olshan and Dori failed to determine whether Minister of Defense Pinhas Lavon or Director of Military Intelligence Binyamin Gibli had given the order. Lavon was forced to resign and accept responsibility for the Cairo “mishap,” though he insisted that he had not authorized it. The issue smoldered under the surface of Israeli political life for several years and exploded in 1960 as a result of evidence presented at the 1959 trial of Avri Seidenwerg (Paul Frank), who was convicted of being a double agent and betraying the Operation Susannah conspirators. Seidenwerg had given perjured testimony to the Olshan-Dori Committee. A subsequent ministerial investigation determined that the key document establishing Lavon's responsibility had been forged. The political upheaval fomented by these revelations became known as the “Lavon affair.”
When he learned of the perjured testimony, Lavon demanded exculpation. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion refused to exonerate Lavon because he did not want to damage the reputations of the Israeli armed forces, destroy Gibli's career, and implicate his close political allies Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, director-general of the Ministry of Defense and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, respectively, in 1954. Exonerating Lavon would imply that Ben-Gurion's proteges in the Israeli security establishment were responsible for Operation Susannah. Moreover, if military officers acted without requesting proper civilian authorization, not only those personally responsible would be discredited. The leaders of the entire security establishment, and ultimately Ben-Gurion himself, would stand accused of complicity or negligence, or at least of creating an atmosphere permitting such behavior.
The terms of the Lavon affair established by the Olshan-Dori Committee and all the subsequent official inquiries focused entirely on relations among leading personalities within MAPAI and the Israeli army. The sharpest expression of this discourse is the title of the published version of the investigation ordered by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion but released only in 1979: Mi natan et ha-hora’ah? (Who gave the order?). The Egyptian Jews who had undertaken espionage and sabotage on behalf of Israel were excluded from the narrative. If the perpetrators of Operation Susannah had been released after the 1956 war, they would have come to Israel and stated, as they have consistently since 1975, when they were first permitted to speak, that they acted only under orders. They would have denied Gibli's version of the story, according to which the earliest bombings in Operation Susannah were unauthorized by any Israeli authority. During the years when this was a live issue in Israeli politics, they were either jailed in Egypt or living in Israel under a gag order.
Even Israelis highly critical of Ben-Gurion accepted the discursive terms of the political and military establishment. In 1961, when the battle between Ben-Gurion and Lavon was a fiercely contested public spectacle, the journalists Eliyahu Hasin and Dan Hurvitz wrote a scathing book defending Lavon and criticizing Ben-Gurion, Peres, Dayan, and Gibli. The essence of the matter, according to Hasin and Hurvitz, was that Lavon was accused of giving “an ill-considered and unwise order which he had in fact not given; however, giving such an order was within his legal authority and had no stain of criminality.”  Hasin and Hurvitz were extraordinarily daring in the extent to which they were willing to expose duplicitous and criminal behavior by military and civilian leaders responsible for Israel's security. By directing its fire at Ben-Gurion, Dayan, and Peres, their book challenged the activist politico-military outlook these three MAPAI leaders had developed (usually designated as “activism”) and the related view that the military, as the central institution of Israeli society, should be insulated from public scrutiny and criticism.
It is therefore all the more striking that Hasin and Hurvitz never clearly stated what the order was. They mentioned Operation Susannah and the Cairo trial briefly on two occasions: once as part of a summary of the events of 1954 and the deterioration of relations with Egypt and again when noting that as late as 1960 Moshe Sharett apparently believed that the 1954 bombings in Egypt were undertaken without orders from Israel (which is most unlikely because the Olshan-Dori Committee had concluded in January 1955 that either Lavon or Gibli had ordered the bombings). Censorship very likely prevented Hasin and Hurvitz from specifying clearly that the order in question was for Egyptian Jews to begin a campaign of bombing in Egypt.
Despite their scathing criticism of Ben-Gurion and the Israeli military establishment, Hasin and Hurvitz reinforced the discourse of national security in which Operation Susannah was framed because the issue was narrowly posed as who did or did not give a particular order. They did not discuss whether such an order should have been given or what its consequences were. Just as in the official Israeli government version, the executors of Operation Susannah were marginal to their own story; the interests and the fate of the Jews of Egypt were beyond the range of the investigations of Hasin and Hurvitz. For both the defenders and the critics of Ben-Gurion in the 1960s, the Lavon affair concerned a conflict among the leaders of MAPAI or a question about the competence of Israeli military intelligence, not events in Egypt that affected the lives of Egyptian Jews and the course of Egyptian-Israeli relations.
On the tenth anniversary of the execution of Shmu’el Azar and Moshe Marzuq for their roles in Operation Susannah, Shlomo Kohen-Tzidon, a native of Alexandria who had emigrated to Israel and become a member of the Knesset, published a book memorializing Shmu’el Azar and the Jews of Alexandria. As far as I have been able to determine, it is the first book about the Jews of Egypt to appear in Israel. Kohen-Tzidon's text reinserted the history of his community and what he regarded as its most heroic members into the Israeli public debate on Operation Susannah and the Lavon affair. While expressing a certain resistance to the exclusion of Egyptian Jews from the official narrative, the book's cautious manner limited its impact and ultimately reproduced and reinforced many elements of the prevailing discourse.
Recounting the “foolish and childish” exploits of Operation Susannah, Kohen-Tzidon wrote that he did not know all the details of what Azar and the other members of the network did or why they did it. He did not think it was credible that Israel would have recruited Jews as spies because as a minority they were highly visible and had greater difficulty of access to public institutions and to the masses of Egyptians. Yet Kohen-Tzidon did “know” that the treatment of the Egyptian Jews after their arrests was reminiscent of cruelest tortures of the gestapo. This argument was reinforced by including a reprint of a newspaper article by another Egyptian Jew, Felix Harari, who wrote in the daily Yed‘iot Aharonot on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Cairo trial, “Today there is almost no doubt that the Egyptian version of the story is false.…Today…it is clear that Victorine [Marcelle Ninio] was entirely innocent.”  This focus on Marcelle Ninio once again feminized the perpetrators of Operation Susannah and diminished the severity of their actions.
Kohen-Tzidon also argued that Operation Susannah was emblematic of the Egyptian Jewish community's support for the Zionist project, hence its political and cultural legitimacy in Israel. Consequently, sixty pages after declaring the innocence of the Operation Susannah conspirators, Kohen-Tzidon appeared to admit the possibility of their guilt: “To the extent that the youths did what was attributed to them in the court, or a little of what was attributed to them, they acted good heartedly as a result of misdirection according to ill-considered instructions.”  The guilt of the conspirators enhanced the status of the entire Egyptian Jewish community in Zionist terms.
This rupture in the text has several possible explanations. The book was hastily prepared and issued by a minor publisher without much editorial care. Moreover, it was a public relations device for the only Egyptian Jewish member of the Knesset attempting to establish his claim to represent all Egyptian Jews in Israel. Precision of expression was not the point.
There were also political and administrative pressures on the text. As a loyal Zionist and member of the Israeli parliament, Kohen-Tzidon could not launch a major public attack on Israeli political and military authorities for authorizing imprudent actions that might have endangered the Jews of Egypt. This would have constituted a challenge to the Zionist maxim that the existence of Israel unconditionally guaranteed the security of all Jews throughout the world. Suggesting that this might not be so could have destroyed his personal credibility and threatened his political career.
Overt censorship also contributed to limiting Kohen-Tzidon's challenge to the official version of events and their import. Parts of his printed text are rendered unintelligible by defaced type. Much of the censored material is in the section of the book reprinting journalistic accounts of the Cairo trial. One of the censored items was an article by Ze’ev Schiff that first appeared in ha-Aretz. Uncommonly, Schiff did ask whether it was permissible to endanger the Jewish community of Egypt by recruiting its members as spies. Moreover, in the original newspaper version, Schiff quoted from an assessment of the affair in The New Statesman and Nation:
This passage was excised from Kohen-Tzidon's book despite having already appeared in ha-Aretz in 1955 and again in 1964. Apparently, quoting from a published foreign source forced the censor to allow a disposable newspaper to intimate the guilt of the Operation Susannah conspirators and the responsibility of the Israeli government. Ten years after the trial, it was still not permissible to say the same in a more permanent book. Awareness of the censorship imposed on him may have produced Kohen-Tzidon's ambivalence about the guilt of the perpetrators of Operation Susannah and the responsibility of the Israeli government for their actions.
There is no doubt that the saboteurs were naive and inexperienced. We must add that just as Colonel Nasser should have acted with mercy, it would be best for Mr. Sharett [prime minister at the time] on his part, to exercise strong supervision over the Israeli Ministry of Defense and its various secret operations.
To have his book published, Kohen-Tzidon had to adopt a certain naiveté about Operation Susannah that minimized the possibility that Shmu’el Azar and his colleagues were guilty of espionage and sabotage on behalf of Israel. Because he was not an investigative reporter, but a politician seeking to advance his career and legitimize his social base of support, Kohen-Tzidon was willing to restrain whatever doubts he may have had about the official story. The result was a sentimental, unpolished, and unconvincing narrative.
In any case, the opinions of the politically aware sector of the Israeli public about what constituted the important issues at stake were already framed by a discourse emphasizing national security and the rivalry among the leaders of MAPAI. The regnant Ashkenazi cultural ethos of the 1960s was uninterested in the culture and history of the Jews of the Middle East. Kohen-Tzidon's book, although it attempted to focus attention on Egyptian Jews, did so in a way that could have little impact on public debate in Israel. Moreover, it ultimately reproduced and reinforced the discourse structuring the official Israeli version of Operation Susannah.
In the 1960s, Hasin and Hurvitz and Kohen-Tzidon were able to write books whose ostensible subject was Operation Susannah while managing to avoid a substantive discussion of what happened in Egypt in 1954, who did it, and why it was done. Hasin and Hurvitz accomplished this by focusing on the limited question of “Who gave the order?” in Israel. Kohen-Tzidon's concern to eulogize and commemorate Shmu’el Azar and the Jewish community of Alexandria and his confidence in the good faith of Israel's leadership allowed him to assert firmly as fact propositions that were highly questionable, if not yet demonstrably false. The effect of these books and supporting minor texts was to write the Egyptian Jews who undertook Operation Susannah out of their own history. Both the national security discourse of Hasin and Hurvitz and the martyrology of Kohen-Tzidon replicated the effect of the promiscuous deployment of the trope of Nazi-like persecution of Egyptian Jews from 1948 on, especially during the 1954 Cairo trial and the aftermath of the 1956 war. The fate of Egyptian Jews was rendered incidental to the needs and interests of the state of Israel as defined by its political leaders. Their experiences and conditions were defined through the lens of European Jewish history and its continuation in Israel.
Can the Perpetrators of Operation Susannah Speak?
Twenty years after the 1954 Cairo trial, the Israeli government finally admitted that the conspirators had acted on its behalf. Robert Dassa, Victor Levy, and Marcelle Ninio appeared on television in March 1975 and declared that they had acted on orders from Israel. Instead of asking who gave the order, they posed two new questions for the audience: Why were they abandoned after the 1956 war, and who was responsible for the decision not to request their release? These questions did not radically challenge the prevailing national security discourse on the Lavon affair, but they did attempt to reframe the narrative so that the members of the Operation Susannah network could reclaim their roles as historical actors. Ninio pushed right against the limit marked by the censor's pen in asking why they had not been allowed to publish their book, suggesting that she and her colleagues had a coherent version of what happened to them that challenged the official story. Their book, Operation Susannah, a collective memoir as told to Aviezer Golan (Philip Natanson participated in preparing the book but not in the television interview) unequivocally confirmed that the accused in the Cairo trial had engaged in espionage and sabotage on behalf of Israel, although Golan strained to avoid characterizing these acts as punishable crimes in Egyptian terms.
Operation Susannah conspicuously deploys the trope of Nazi-like persecution as exculpatory evidence for the accused. The German nurse in al-Muwassat Hospital in Alexandria, where Marcelle Ninio was confined after her suicide attempt, is gratuitously described as a surly blonde “whose appearance and behavior made her resemble the SS women in the European extermination camps.”  More significantly and ostentatiously, former Prime Minister Golda Meir shamelessly exploited the memory of the Nazi era in her preface to the book. She recalled that upon meeting Dassa, Levy, Natanson, and Ninio when they first arrived in Israel in 1968,
I thought of the Jews throughout Jewish history who faced discrimination, torture, danger, broken in body but never in spirit. I thought of the six million Jews during World War II in Nazi camps, buried alive, tortured, gassed. I thought of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who fought the Nazi tanks.
Meir felt guilty that the “heroes of the affair,” as they were referred to in the television interview that prompted the publication of Operation Susannah, had not received the recognition they deserved in Israel. She had been the first government official to admit that Dassa, Levy, Natanson, and Ninio were in Israel when she announced, after a cabinet meeting in November 1971, that she would be attending Ninio's wedding. For Meir, the long years during which the Israeli government denied any responsibility for its agents jailed in Egypt could be redressed by publicly embracing them and associating their story with the history of Nazi anti-Semitism and the resistance to it. Europeanizing the story of these Egyptian Jews was Meir's ultimate expression of their acceptance and legitimacy. Thus, even as Israeli authorities finally admitted that its agents were not victims of a Nazi-style, anti-Semitic show trial, Golda Meir reinforced that imagery and with it the barriers to a critical examination of Operation Susannah.
1. See Boaz Evron, “Holocaust: The Uses of Disaster,” Radical America 17 (no. 4, 1983):7–21; Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993). [BACK]
2. Israel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Press and Information Division, “The Position of Jews in Egypt,” Nov. 8, 1948, enclosed in USNA RG 84 Cairo Embassy General Records (1948), 840.1. [BACK]
3. Palestine Post, Nov. 14, 1948. [BACK]
4. Max Isenburgh (AJC, Paris) to Dr. John Slawson (executive vice-president, AJC, New York) Oct. 1, 1948, AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Foreign Countries, Egypt, 1948–49. [BACK]
5. Dr. Alfred Wiener, “Report on Conditions in Egypt,” Oct. 26, 1948, AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Foreign Countries, Egypt, 1948–49. [BACK]
6. Joseph M. Levy to Dr. John Slawson, May 10, 1949, AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Foreign Countries, Egypt, 1948–49. [BACK]
7. John Roy Carlson, “Pogrom Promoters of Egypt” (a report obtained by the AJC London office via the Wiener Library and forwarded to New York), Nov. 15, 1948, AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Foreign Countries, Egypt, 1948–49. [BACK]
8. Ibid. [BACK]
9. AJC, A Report on the Jewish Situation in Egypt (Jan. 1949), AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Foreign Countries, Egypt, 1948–49. [BACK]
10. “Meeting with Mr. Securel [i.e., Cicurel] of Cairo, Egypt,” Oct. 28, 1948, AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Foreign Countries, Egypt, 1948–49. Among those present was AJC Executive Vice-President John Slawson. [BACK]
11. S. Landshut, Jewish Communities in the Muslim Countries of the Middle East: A Survey (London: Jewish Chronicle Association, 1950), pp. 29, 40. The first quote is from AJC, A Report on the Jewish Situation in Egypt. [BACK]
12. Jerusalem Post, Oct. 15, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
13. Ibid., Oct. 17, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
14. Among the credible accounts of the activities of former Nazis in Egypt are Reinhard Gehlen, The Service: The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen (New York: World Publishing, 1972), p. 260; Burton Hersh, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA (New York: Scribner's, 1992), pp. 331–32. They note the role of the CIA in supplying former Wehrmacht and SS officers to staff the Egyptian State Security Service but do not indicate that these officers operated in any policy-making capacity. See also the report of Don Peretz in note 63 of this chapter. Perhaps the Jerusalem Post referred to the “National Guard,” an auxiliary military unit with a function similar to that of the U.S. military units bearing the same name. [BACK]
15. Manchester Guardian, Dec. 24, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
16. Herut, Dec. 12, 1954, p. 2. [BACK]
17. Ibid., Dec. 22 1954, pp. 1, 2. [BACK]
18. Davar, Dec. 12, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
19. Haim Sar-Avi, “Natzim germanim ‘omdim be-rosh ’mahlakah yehudit’be-memshelet mitzrayim. Hem biyemu mishpat ha-13 u-mekhinim mishpatim nosafim,” ibid., Dec.17, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
20. Ibid., Feb. 1, 1955, p. 1. [BACK]
21. Nehemiah Robinson, “Persecution in Egypt” (New York, American Jewish Congress, Office of Jewish Information, Nov. 17, 1954), MHT D-61/151.6, 1. [BACK]
22. ha-Aretz, Dec. 14, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
23. “Text of a Not for Attribution Background Talk by Ambassador Eban,” Feb. 1, 1955, AJC/FAD-1, Box 14, Espionage Trial, Egypt, 1954–60. [BACK]
24. Hevesi to Slawson Feb. 7, 1955, ibid. [BACK]
25. Jerusalem Post, Feb. 9, 1955, p. 1. [BACK]
26. al-Jumhuriyya and al-Ahram, Sept. 3, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
27. “al-Qissa al-kamila li’l-shuyu‘iyya…fi misr,” al-Musawwar, Dec. 24, 1954, pp. 16 ff. [BACK]
28. “al-Sahyuniyya allati lam tastati’ al-intihar…wa-la al-harb ila isra’il,” al-Musawwar, Oct. 29, 1954, p. 14. [BACK]
29. al-Ahram, Dec. 12, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
30. Ibid., Dec. 14, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
31. Ibid., Dec. 11, 1954, p. 11, for the quote; ibid., Dec. 12, 13, 17, 1954, for the photographs. [BACK]
32. “al-Sahyuniyya allati lam tastati’ al-intihar…wa-la al-harb ila isra’il,” ibid., p. 9. [BACK]
33. Ibid., p. 16. [BACK]
34. “Kayfa tutbukh isra’il ‘umala’aha fi misr,” al-Musawwar, Dec. 17, 1954, p. 22. [BACK]
35. Ibid., p. 20. [BACK]
36. Hasan Husayni, “Ma‘a jasus isra’il fi al-sijn,” al-Musawwar, Jan. 7, 1955, pp. 14 ff. [BACK]
37. FO 371/108548/JE1571 (1954). [BACK]
38. Michael M. Laskier, “A Document on Anglo-Jewry's Intervention on Behalf of Egyptian Jews on Trial for Espionage and Sabotage, December 1954,” Michael 10 (1986):143–53. [BACK]
39. Caffery to State, Apr. 21, 1954, USNA RG 84 Cairo Embassy General Records (1954) Box 258, 350. 21. See also “Little Discrimination against Jews in Egypt,” Caffery to State, June 5, 1954, ibid., 570.1. [BACK]
40. This assertion is based on my examination of the State Department central files and the post records from Cairo that were available in 1992 and 1995 (USNA RG 59 and RG 84). Using the Freedom of Information Act, Stephen Green obtained a perfunctory and incomplete preliminary report by Ambassador Caffery passing on information received from the Egyptian police. For a facsimile, see Stephen Green, Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with a Militant Israel (New York: William Morrow, 1984), pp. 324–26. [BACK]
41. Caffery to the secretary of state, Jan. 10, 1955, USNA RG 84 Cairo Embassy General Records (1955) Box 264, 400.1, “Israeli Spies in Egypt.” [BACK]
42. Simon Segal to John Slawson, Jan. 17, 1955, enclosing Baldwin's memos to Segal from Cairo, especially Baldwin to Segal, Jan. 8, 1955, AJC/FAD-1, Box 14, Espionage Trial, Egypt, 1954–60. [BACK]
43. International League for the Rights of Man, press release, Feb. 3, 1955, ibid. [BACK]
44. London Observer, Dec. 26, 1954. [BACK]
45. The New York Times, Jan. 28, 1955. [BACK]
46. The New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 2, 1955. [BACK]
47. Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, Dec. 24, 1954, p. 1. [BACK]
48. Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1954; Simon Segal to John Slawson, Jan. 17, 1955, AJC/FAD-1, Box 14, Espionage Trial, Egypt, 1954–60. [BACK]
49. Washington Star, Feb. 2, 1955. [BACK]
50. Egypt, Ministry of Information, The Story of Zionist Espionage in Egypt, (Cairo: Ministry of Information ) p. 3. [BACK]
51. Ibid., p. 57. [BACK]
52. AJC flyer, “Anti-Semitic Propaganda Distributed by Egyptian Embassy,” Apr. 4, 1955, AJC/FAD-1 Box 12, Egypt, 1950–55. [BACK]
53. Jones to State, Jan. 31, 1955, USNA RG 84 Cairo Embassy General Records(1955) Box 264, 400.1. [BACK]
54. Documents 105 and 106 in the appendix to Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal, Milaffat al-suways: harb al-thalathin sana (Cairo: al-Ahram, 1989), pp. 763–66. These are the only available official Egyptian documents relating to the case, so the conclusion based on them most be considered provisional. [BACK]
55. Ali Rowghani, “The Portrayal of Nasser by the New York Times ” (unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, Department of History, Mar. 1994). [BACK]
56. As reported in the New York Times, Nov. 29, 1956. [BACK]
57. “Statement on Situation of Egyptian Jewry Issued by International Conference of Representatives of Major Jewish Organizations,” Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York, Jan. 22, 1957, AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Egypt, 1956. [BACK]
58. Press release, Jan. 15, 1957, AJC/FAD-1, Box 13, Jewish Agencies, B'nai B'rith. [BACK]
59. Zachariah Shuster to Eugene Hevesi Feb. 13, 1957, ibid. [BACK]
60. “The Plight of the Jews of Egypt: A Fact Sheet from the American Jewish Committee,” AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Egypt, 1957. [BACK]
61. Nathaniel H. Goodrich to Edwin J. Lukas, Mar. 25, 1957, AJC/FAD-1, Box 13, AJC Fact Sheet, Egypt, 1957; Congressional Record, Mar. 21, 1957, p. 3676. [BACK]
62. Don Peretz to John Slawson, July 1, 1957, AJC/FAD-1, Box 13, AJC Fact Sheet, Egypt, 1957. [BACK]
63. Unsigned, untitled report, Aug. 1957, AJC/FAD-1 Box 12, Egypt, 1956; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 25, 1957. [BACK]
64. Don Peretz, “Egyptian Jews Today” (New York, AJC, Committee on Israel, Jan. 1956), AJC/FAD-1, Box 12, Egypt, 1956. [BACK]
65. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Lewis S. Feuer (ed.), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 320. [BACK]
66. Tzenzura rashit le-‘itonut ve-radyo le-menahel mahleket ha-‘aliya, ha-sokhnut ha-yehudit, Jerusalem, Oct. 18, 1955, CZA S6/7241, “Mahleket ha-‘aliya-1953–55.” [BACK]
67. Aviezer Golan, Operation Susannah (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 245–46; Robert Dassa, Be-hazarah le-kahir (Tel Aviv: Misrad ha-Bitahon, 1992), p. 69. [BACK]
68. Dassa, Be-hazarah le-kahir, p. 69. This charge was first made in their 1975 television appearance, see below. [BACK]
69. Hagai Eshed, “Mi natan et ha-hora’a? ‘ha-‘esek ha-bish,” parashat lavon, ve-hitpatrut ben-gurion (Jerusalem: ‘Edanim, 1979). [BACK]
70. Eliyahu Hasin and Dan Hurvitz, ha-Parashah (Tel Aviv: ‘Am ha-Sefer: 1961), p. 92. [BACK]
71. Ibid., pp. 15–16, 92. [BACK]
72. Shlomo Kohen-Tzidon, Dramah be-aleksandriah ve-shnei harugei malkhut: mehandes sh. ‘azar ve-doktor m. marzuk (Tel Aviv: Sgi‘al, 1965), pp. 63–65. An intended second volume memorializing Moshe Marzuq was apparently never published. [BACK]
73. Felix Harari, “Mishpatei kahir 1954,” Yedi‘ot aharonot, Dec. 13, 1964, reproduced in ibid., p. 89. [BACK]
74. Kohen-Tzidon, Dramah be-aleksandriah ve-shnei harugei malkhut, p. 112. [BACK]
75. Ze’ev Schiff, “‘Eser shanim le-mishpat ha-rigul,” ha-Aretz, Dec. 11, 1964, reproduced in ibid., pp. 96–99. The quote from The New Statesman and Nation, Feb. 5, 1955, first appeared in ha-Aretz, Feb. 18, 1955. [BACK]
76. Israeli Television, “Yoman yom shishi,” report by Eitan Oren, Mar. 14, 1975. I viewed a film of the original broadcast at the archive of Israeli Television, Jerusalem. [BACK]
77. Golan, Operation Susannah, p. 146. [BACK]
78. Ibid., p. xii. [BACK]