The 1948 Arab-Israeli War
On May 15, 1948, the British departed Palestine, and Egypt invaded the country along with four other Arab armies in an effort to thwart the UN partition plan. Prime Minster al-Nuqrashi seized the opportunity to repress his internal opposition by imposing martial law. Zionism became illegal, and all the Zionist emissaries from Palestine left Egypt. The organizations they led disbanded or went underground. The Jewish community was pressured by the government and public opinion to distance itself from Zionism. Several individuals made public statements denouncing Zionism, and it seems reasonable to presume that in at least some cases they were subjected to direct or indirect coercion.
War with Israel made the status of Egyptian Jews an urgent public question. The resolution of this question proposed by secular-liberal political theory was overwhelmed by perceived security considerations and the cessation of open, reasoned debate so commonly associated with war. The al-Nuqrashi government lacked the courage, vision, and popular mandate that would have been required to articulate a bold and principled stand. Lacking firm guidance, state officials reflexively tended to protect themselves from responsibility by adopting the most conservative, heavy-handed, and security-minded approach.
Egyptian Jews were also confused. The combination of martial law, fear, and the loss of most of the community's public organs make it difficult to trace the currents of Jewish opinion. But considerable evidence challenges the common assumption in Zionist and some Egyptian nationalist and Islamist historiography that following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War, the main subject of discussion among the Jews of Egypt was how and when to leave for Israel.
Within days after the outbreak of war, some 1,300 political opponents of the government from across the political spectrum were rounded up and sent to internment camps. They included 300 Zionist Jews and a roughly equal number of Jewish communists. There are many discrepancies in the reports of the total number of Jews detained, and accounts do not always distinguish between Zionists and communists. The maximum number of Jewish detainees at any one time was probably about 700–800. The British ambassador reported that 554 Jews were interned at the end of June 1948, when some of the original prisoners had already been released. Hostilities ceased in January 1949, but in July, 250 Zionists and 60 Jewish communists remained interned in Huckstep (160), Abu Qir (110), and al-Tur (40).
To establish a sense of proportion without in any way justifying the practice of detaining people without trial, the internment of about 1 percent of the Jewish community by the Egyptian government during its war with Israel can be compared to the practice of the U.S. government a few years earlier. In 1942, the Western Defense Command ordered the internment of all of the 110,000 Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. Even the families of those who served in the U.S armed forces remained interned for the duration of the war.
A martial law decree issued in late May 1948 authorized Egyptian state authorities to place under “administration” the property of anyone interned or under security surveillance. By January 1949, the property of about seventy Jewish individuals and firms was under state supervision. Included were many of the Jewish-owned department stores in downtown Cairo and Alexandria (Adès, Chemla, and Gattegno) and other well-known businesses with a high public profile (La Société d'Avances Commerciales, J. H. Perez & Co., Peltours, S.A.E.). Many of the businessmen whose assets were seized had been active Zionists and could perhaps legitimately be considered security risks (Aharon Krasnovsky, Emilio Levy, Marcel Messiqua, Roger Oppenheim). However, the Egyptian state apparatus failed to make certain distinctions critical to secular-liberal norms. For example, the members of the Perez family were not political Zionists, but the assets of J. H. Perez & Co. were nonetheless placed under administration, perhaps because they were major investors in Palestine Hotels Ltd., whose holdings included the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. A substantial quantity of property was placed under administration, though this was very far from a wholesale seizure of Jewish assets. The largest Jewish banks, insurance companies, stock brokerages, and cotton export firms were not affected because most of the wealthiest Jewish business families kept their distance from Zionism.
During the summer and fall of 1948, Jews and their property were attacked repeatedly. On June 20, 1948, a bomb exploded in the Karaite quarter of Cairo, killing twenty-two Jews and wounding forty-one. Several buildings were severely damaged. The Egyptian authorities unconvincingly blamed the explosion on fireworks stored in Jewish homes and antagonism between Karaite and Rabbanite Jews. Al-Ahram reported that the police and firemen reacted to the fire quickly and effectively. But Jewish witnesses on the scene testified that the response of the authorities was sluggish and negligent. Reports and commentary on the incident in al-Kalim were heavily censored. The editors left blank spaces in articles in several issues following the bombing to protest the government's handling of the incident and the censorship.
On July 15, Israeli planes bombed a residential neighborhood near the Qubba Palace in Cairo, killing many civilians and destroying many homes. The attack took place during the Ramadan iftar (breakfast meal), which undoubtedly amplified the anger of the victims, who began an angry march on the Jewish quarter. On July 17, the Egyptian authorities reported a second Israeli bombing attack. But there was no actual attack. Volleys of antiaircraft fire were discharged, perhaps to compensate for the army's failure to mount a defense against the previous bombing raid. In the tense atmosphere following one actual and a second alleged Israeli bombing raid on Cairo, the Cicurel and Oreco department stores located on the fashionable Fu’ad al-Awwal (now 26th of July) Street were bombed on July 19. This was followed by bombings of the Adès and Gattegno department stores on July 28 and August 1. On September 22, an explosion in the Rabbanite Jewish quarter in Cairo killed nineteen and wounded sixty-two victims. The last of the attacks against the Jews of Cairo was the destruction of the premises of the Société Orientale de Publicité, a large publishing and advertising firm that continued to operate during the war, by a bomb on November 12.
The government's response to these bombing attacks was inept and disingenuous, not because the authorities actually encouraged assaults on Jews, but because they were frightened by the apparent strength of the Society of Muslim Brothers. In mid-1948, the government became convinced that the Brothers were preparing an armed insurrection, and many members of the society were interned after the proclamation of martial law in May. On December 8, 1948, Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi officially dissolved the Society, and the state sequestered its considerable assets. In a 1950 trial, members of the Society were charged with carrying out all the bombings against the Jews of Cairo from June to November 1948. The prosecution argued that the bombings were part of a strategy to exploit the issue of Palestine to destabilize and undermine the regime.
Vigorously defending the Jewish community of Cairo against the attacks of the Muslim Brothers during a war with Israel would have risked increasing the unpopularity of a government that was already illegitimate because the 1944 elections had been rigged to exclude the Wafd from power. For Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi, sacrificing the security of the Jewish community was a small consideration compared to maintaining power. Moreover, because of the strength of the Muslim Brothers, the government may not have had the capacity to deter these attacks. In retaliation against the government's dissolution of the society, a member of the Muslim Brothers assassinated al-Nuqrashi on December 28. Unsure of its ability to obtain a speedy legal resolution that would deter the Brothers from further violence, the government arranged the assassination of Hasan al-Banna. The Egyptian government correctly assessed the seriousness of the challenge posed by the Muslim Brothers and lacked confidence in its capacity to counter it. The Jewish community found itself positioned between two contending forces, neither one of which regarded its interests or its security as a priority.
The government claimed to be acting only against Zionists, but the import of its actions was complicated by the fact that the Egyptian communist organizations had endorsed the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. On several occasions Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi lectured the British ambassador, Sir Ronald Campbell, and other British officials on his belief that all “Jews were potential Zionists, but that anyhow all Zionists were communists, and he looked at the matter as much from the point of view of communism as from the point of view of Zionism.” 
Al-Nuqrashi apparently believed this nonsense. His personal anti-Semitism and political ineptitude may be a good part of the explanation for the government's disingenuous proclamations, inconsistent and excessive security measures, and failure to physically protect the Jews of Egypt in 1948. Other factors would include the government's poor intelligence, political confusion, and weak executive capacity. The cosmopolitan style of al-Nuqrashi's successor, Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Hadi, reassured the Jewish community, and there were no violent incidents directed at Jews for several years after he assumed office.
The detentions and property sequestrations of 1948 were erratic. Some notable Zionist leaders, like Léon Castro, were not arrested. Others were interned months after the war began. The wealthy fruit and vegetable exporter, Isaac Vaena, was interned though he was not a Zionist. The inconsistency of the Egyptian government's actions encouraged multiple interpretations of their import. The detentions and sequestrations were a substantial threat to the security of the Jewish community. But their relatively modest scale and the fact that a few Zionists escaped them altogether encouraged some Jews to believe that their future in Egypt might resemble the comfortable and privileged lives many of them had led for the past several generations.