Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fifty years since the Egoz disaster

With thanks: Sylvia

It is 50 years to the day that 42 Moroccan Jews and one crewman lost their lives on board the ill-fated
Pisces (renamed the Egoz). The Jews were desperately trying to reach the Promised Land by defying a ban on Jewish emigration. Some good did come out of this disaster, however: it paved the way for Morocco to re-open its gates to Jewish emigration in the early Sixties: some 200,000 Moroccan Jews left for Israel. Here's an account of what happened on that fateful day (translated from the French from the Dafina website).

On Wednesday 11 January 1961, for the thirteenth time, the ship Egoz was about to do an illegal crossing to Gibraltar. It was an old launch that had served the British during World War 2, converted into a smuggling boat.

On board were ten families of Moroccan Jews, 42 people in all, preparing to make the great voyage to the Promised Land. Among them were Captain Francisco Morilla and a three-man Spanish crew; Haim Sarfati, a 28-year-old Israeli born in Fez, sent by the Mossad as a radio operator, on his last mission before returning to marry in Israel; Jacques and Denise Ben Haroch, married the previous day; David Dadoune and his two children. Dadoune had been caught with a fake passport at the airport in Casablanca and was happy to be joining his wife and two other boys already in Israel; Henry Mamane, a bartender from Casablanca, and his 80 year-old mother Hana Azoulay and his children, eager to be reunited with two girls who had gone with an earlier party of children on 2 January.

The passengers were exhausted after a 600 km journey from Casablanca.To avoid attracting attention, the group was supposed to make a pilgrimage to the tomb at Ouezzane of Amram Ben Diwan. In case they were stopped after Ouezzane they had to claim they were on their way to be guests at a wedding in the Al Hocem area. Crossing the Rif mountain range had been very arduous due to snow and fog. Around midnight they stopped near a bridge, where two masked figures had guided them on a rocky path to the beach. These armed and hooded men, members of the Mossad network, helped them onto lifeboats in order for them to reach the boat.

But as the boat sailed out to sea, the waves became rough. Yet all checks had been made and the forecast had been for good weather. At 3 am GMT, ten miles from the Moroccan coast, the vessel's tired hull split 'like a nutshell'. Within five minutes the Egoz sank completely. No doubt the Mossad network in Gibraltar picked up the SOS and gave the alarm. The captain and two sailors aboard managed to escape on board the only lifeboat. A Spanish trawler, the Cabo de Gata picked them up at dawn and also sounded the alert.

Alex Gatmon , the head of the Mossad in Morocco who had taken up his post two months earlier, warned Ephraim Ronnel, his superior who ran three North Africa networks from Paris. Rescuers converged from all sides.The coastguard launch Orpheus and four Moroccan trawlers set sail from the port of Al Hoceima. The British base at Gibraltar dispatched a speedboat and airplane.

The commander of the French Navy in Algeria ordered two escort vessels to divert to the scene of the accident (the Vendeen and Intrepid). The military attache of the Embassy of Israel in Paris, Colonel Uzi Narkiss, won a promise of help from the French Prime Minister Michel Debre.

But aid came too late. Twenty-two corpses were found floating on the surface wearing inadequate life jackets. The wreck itself and the bodies of 20 passengers, including 16 children, were never found.

This event raised a storm of international emotion, and a forceful poster and leaflet campaign in Israel and the mellahs of Morocco (Operation Bazak) aroused the anger of the Moroccan authorities. Crown Prince Moulay Hassan received a delegation from the Jewish community: Dr. Leon Benzaken, former Minister of Posts, and a personal friend of King Mohammed V, David Amar, head of the Jewish community and Rabbi David Massas.

They asked permission to give the dead a religious burial. Following lengthy and extremely tense talks, the prince agreed, on condition that the bare minimum of ceremonial took place and no parent was allowed to attend. The 22 bodies were buried hurriedly in a far corner of the Spanish cemetery of Al Hocem.

Since 1980 the 23rd Tevet has been declared a day of remembrance in Israel for the sinking of the boat Egoz. After years of hard work and negotiation with the Israeli government, associations in Israel and international figures, King Hassan II gave his permission for the bones from the shipwreck to be repatriated to Israel. They were given a state funeral at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on 14 December 1992.

Read post in full (French)


Sammish said...

The first time I encountered the Egoz disaster episode was when I read the French book by Agnes Bensimon titled "Hassan II et les Juifs" (1991). It is a great book that reveals how tight immigration policies where closely connected with corruption and payments under the tables to the royal palace and elected officials...

bataween said...

I got this account from Dafina, but I think Dafina got the orginal account from Agnes Ben Simon's book.
Each Moroccan Jew was ransomed by the World Jewish congress for about $250 a head. I suppose you mean that additional bribes were paid to the palace and officials.

Sammish said...

Well, you are well aware that when it comes to the "underground economy" official data is no where to be found. Agnes Bensimon stressed that despite the original agreed upon transactions, there were many countless additional payments that were made "under the tables".

One has to undertand that bribery and corruption has been imbedded, and rooted in the social fabric for centuries. Even the average citizen if he gets into a position of power will himself be pushed to extrate payments "under the table". Every Moroccan understands that and is well aware of it, as if it is part of the normality of life. That's what is very sad and ackward about it.

There is even a well known joke in Morocco about this social/cultural problem. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, officials and highly respected citizens went to the king and asked for an audience to ask the him to intervene in order to find a solution by stressing the immoral and the "un-islamic" aspect of this social problem of usurpation of money for personal gain which is against everything in the islamic sunna. After hours of hearing their lectures and complaints, what do you think was the king reply:

"How much would you give if I solve this problem?"

bataween said...

Nice one, Sammish!

Sylvia said...

Anyone who wants to get to the original story must do so in the papers of the time (l'Express, Paris-Match, Le Monde, etc) under the name Pisces, not Egoz. Egoz came much later.
Although I can understand why the name Pisces in Hebrew needed to be changed (in Hebrew it transcribes as Feces - not very nice) but still it seems they could have called it Dag or Dagon.

I am always suspicious of these name changes - giving for example the North Africans the name Mizrahi - a name they never went by and most still don't recognize. By changing the name you have at some point to erase all the history you had prior to changing the name.
A few things bother me in this story.The boat was overloaded, the seas dangerous at that time of the year, and the only ones who got away were - to my knowledge, the Spanish captain and three members of his crew.

bataween said...

Yes, I thought it was women and children first usually! Not very chivalrous of the Spanish captain to save his own skin.

José said...

I have to say that my uncle Paco Pérez, maquinist of the ship, didn´t want to leave the children and the passengers and he stood there. He died also and now thanks a lot of freiends Israel has grateful his memory. He gave hjis life for these people though he wasn´t a jew.