The Lavon Affair is a spy story in Israel’s early years that left a nasty mark on the young state, with reverberations for the following 20 years. Its name derived from Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, though it is also referred to as “Esek HaBish” or “The Mishap”.
Revolving around nearly a dozen young Egyptian Jews who agreed to spy for Israel against their home country, the affair taps into a story of idealism and self-sacrifice as well as abandonment and an unwillingness to take responsibility.
Due to strict censorship in Israel in the early 1950’s, few knew that in 1954 Israeli underground cells that had been operating in Egypt were uncovered by the Egyptian police. Several young Jews were arrested and forced to undergo a show trial. Two of them – Yosef Carmon and Max Binnet – committed suicide in prison due to the brutal interrogation methods of the Egyptian police. Two more – Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar – were sentenced to death and hanged in a Cairo prison. Israel glorified them as martyrs. Their memory was sanctified. Neighborhoods and gardens were named after them in Israel, as were dozens of children born in the year 1955. At the same time, it was not publicly conceded that they died in the service of Israel.
The other six heroes of the “Esek HaBish” were far less prominently known. They were sentenced to long jail terms, where they languished for years. Two of them, Meir Meyuhas and Meir Za’afran, were released in 1962, after having served seven-year jail sentences. Shrouded in secrecy, they reached Israel where their arrival was not made public, and journalists were not allowed to interview them. Sworn to silence, they reconstructed their lives to the best of their ability, far from the spotlight.
That left four more “Zionist spies,” as they came to be called in Egypt. Marcelle Ninio, a woman, and Robert Dassa, both sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, and Victor Levy and Philip Nathanson, who were sentenced for life. Marcelle Ninio was kept on her own in the women’s prison in Kanather. The men were jailed together for fourteen years, mainly in the Tura prison.
Why would such young Jews risk their lives for an Arab country in which they were born, for a country – Israel – which until 1952 they had never seen? And why would Israel decide to open a cell of native Jews to spy for them?
For Israel, sources of information were drying up in Egypt after the War of Independence of 1948. Perhaps more than half of Egypt’s approximately 80,000 Jews had left for Israel by mid-1950. Egyptian Muslims were more openly hostile and distrustful of those Jews who remained, which led many Jews to sever any connection they had with Israel. Israel thus needed sources of information. More than that, by the early 1950’s Egyptian nationalist agitation against the British presence in Egypt and especially in the Suez Canal Zone was intensifying. Britain was speaking openly about leaving Egypt as it had from Palestine in 1948. British troops in the Canal Zone were living in similar conditions to those in Palestine by the end of the Mandate – behind barbed wire in protected zones.
The Israelis, meanwhile, did not want the British to leave. The British presence guaranteed a buffer of sorts to an attempted Egyptian invasion of Israel. With the British gone, there would be nothing to stand between Egypt and Israel but the vast wastelands of the Sinai.
Thus, the Israelis approached several native Egyptian Jews, who recruited others, usually from among their own social circle. These Egyptian Jews were ready to spy against Egypt because they never regarded themselves, nor did others regard them, as Egyptians. They attended Jewish schools, their social contacts were limited almost exclusively to Jews, and most of them did not even hold Egyptian citizenship.
Unlike other Middle Eastern Jewish communities, the perhaps 80,000 pre-1948 Egyptian Jews had shallow roots. Many Jews had arrived in Egypt only in the second half of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. Some settled in Egypt while on the way to Palestine from Yemen or North Africa. Others were former Ottoman Jews, hailing from all over the pre-World War I Ottoman Middle Eastern Empire.
Egypt even became somewhat of a haven for Jews expelled from Palestine by the Turks during World War I. David Ben-Gurion was one of the many Palestinian Jews who spent time in Egypt during the war years of 1914-18. After the war, some Jews even came from Eastern Europe, fleeing from the Communist revolution. While many of them would have preferred to go to America or Palestine, they were unable to, so they remained in Egypt. Like other foreign colonies, such as the Italians and Greeks, the Jews lived in Egypt without really striking roots. They lived mainly in their own neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria (as well as in a few cities close to the Suez Canal), they attended their own schools, and spoke their own languages. As many of them were fairly well educated, they spoke French, the language of culture, and English, the language of Government. (The British remained in Egypt from 1882-1956 and ruled for much of that period). Many of them could not even read or write in Arabic and spoke only a very basic Arabic.
Moshe Marzouk, an extremely bright young man studying to be a doctor when he entered the spy ring, was born in Cairo to the Karaite sect. The Karaites in Egypt regarded themselves as Jews, as did the Egyptian Jewish community. The Karaite quarter bordered the Jewish Quarter of Cairo’s Old City and was part of it. Like other Jews, the Karaites dreamed of Israel and took part in Zionist activity, whether legal or illegal (as it often was in Egypt by the 1940’s). At the same time, the Karaites mixed more with the Egyptian population, and Arabic was their first language. They were thus more integrated than other Jews. Some even bore Arabic names.
Moshe Marzouk’s family came to Egypt from Tunisia at the beginning of the 20th century. His family retained their French citizenship, which was very common practice for Jews living in North African countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, there were attacks and even bombings by Egyptians on the Jewish sections of Egyptian cities. Moshe Marzouk was approached about organizing Jewish self-defense in Cairo in 1948, which he agreed to. Later, he worked helping Egyptian Jews emigrate to Israel.
Shmuel Azar, Victor Levy and Robert Dassa were born in Alexandria, a much more cosmopolitan city than Cairo. One could hear French, Italian, and Greek as much as Arabic in Alexandria’s broad, straight thoroughfares lined by French style buildings.
All three boys were born in Egypt. Robert Dassa’s family was one of those that settled in Egypt on the way from Yemen to Palestine. In his pictures in prison, Robert, with his jet-black hair, dark complexion and mustache looked the most Egyptian of all.
Victor, Robert, and Philip Nathanson (another member of the spy ring) were all 16 in 1948, and all involved in Zionist activity. Shmuel Azar was four years older and not really part of their social group until later.
The espionage story began in the very early 1950’s when the Israelis sent an undercover agent to Egypt by the name of Avraham Dar. He went by the name John Darling, posing as a British citizen of the island of Gibraltar. He taught the Egyptian Jewish spy ring about underground organizations and conspiratorial tactics. They learned how to make delayed action devices, letter bombs, and the intricacies of photography. In early 1952, most of them secretly came to Israel to learn sabotage and underground techniques. Most of them fell in love with Israel and vowed to do whatever they could to help.
At a farewell party for the small number of Egyptian Jews who participated in the course, they decided to call what they would be called upon to do “Operation Susannah.” It was partly in jest, named after Victor Levy’s fiancée, whose name was Susan Kauffman. She went with him to Israel and stayed. The spies were to return to Egypt, and they would know when to go into action when they would hear an Israel radio broadcast of the American song “Oh! Susannah.”
Victor Levy left for Egypt in August 1952. On the way back to Egypt he first stopped off in Paris and then other locations in France to learn more about manufacturing explosives and some photography.
An Israeli agent by the name of Avraham Seidenberg was sent to take over the organization of the spy ring from his predecessor, Avraham Dar. Seidenberg was a good choice for such a dangerous mission - considering that he was an Israeli unlike the Egyptian Jews, and thus had more of a chance of his cover being blown. Yet he had little to lose. He had been caught looting Arab property during Israel’s War of Independence and had never been able to rehabilitate himself in public life. His marriage, too, was on the rocks, and thus he was quite happy to be offered something that could lead to new vistas and opportunities.
Seidenberg was first sent to Germany to establish a false identity as a former SS officer by the name of Paul Frank. He successfully infiltrated the ranks of the underground former Nazi network. He set out for Egypt in early 1954, his new identity established. “He chalked up a number of successes, uncovering the underground route by which wanted Nazi war criminals slipped through to the Arab states, as well as supplying the first reports about Egyptian efforts to establish an arms industry with the help of German experts.”
Once he arrived in Egypt, he began recruiting other members of the Egyptian Jewish community. Marcelle Ninio was one of those who were captivated by his show of confidence and by the fact that he was an Israeli. The other members of the cell – who all knew each other, which was an unfortunate portent and a major mistake in terms of organizing espionage operations – agreed to work for him as well.
On July 2, 1954, they went into action. They first blew up some post offices and a few days later, the American libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. These operations were to “make it clear to the whole world that Egypt’s new rulers were nothing but a group of foolhardy extremists, unreliable and unworthy of taking charge of an asset as important as the Suez Canal. Furthermore, it was to be demonstrated that their grasp on power was uncertain, that they faced powerful internal opposition, and, consequently, they were unworthy of being counted upon as a dependable ally.”
Robert Dassa was one of the first of the spies to be caught. Philip Nathanson was caught soon after when, on the way to blow up a cinema in Alexandria, the bomb he was carrying in his pocket ignited and then exploded. What was a particularly alarming factor was that outside of the theater a fire engine was waiting, as if expecting them. Philip had the distinct feeling he was being watched. It turned out that he had been.
As Philip lay on the ground, he saw startled and frightened faces looking down at him. While somebody shouted “Take care! He may have another bomb!” Philip heard a police sergeant say “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We were waiting for them. These are the people who set fire to the American library.” He was taken by ambulance to a hospital. After being lightly treated, he was interrogated by members of Egypt’s military intelligence, the Mukhabarat. The others – Shmuel Azar, Philip Nathanson, Robert Dassa, and Marcelle Ninio – were caught soon after. None of them had been prepared by their Israeli handlers for this eventuality.
They refused to implicate one another. At first, they did not even admit to the bombings. When the police brought Nathanson to his house with incriminating material, Philip continued to maintain that he was innocent of all charges. “‘The house was overflowing with policemen and detectives in and out of uniform,’” he recalled. “‘They took me straight to the garden, and to the workshop in the garden hut. This too was so crowded there was no room for me, and I remained standing on the threshold…The policemen had piled the table with Vim cans, chemicals, and the fine scales I used for weighing them. With each item they found, they asked me: ‘What’s this? What’s it for?’ ‘I told them I was manufacturing dyes.’ ‘Sure,’ said the governor sarcastically. ‘There’s a good market for them, praise be to Allah.’”
The police took everything they could from his house, even a fork and a spoon, to be used as evidence against them. Levy, Dassa and Nathanson held up to the persistent questioning, threats, and occasional beatings. They maintained that they were Communists who wanted the British imperialists out of Egypt. This even earned them the admiration and respect from the Egyptians, who also wanted the British out; that is, until Azar, who was constitutionally incapable of telling a lie, admitted that they were Jews and Zionists working on behalf of Israel. Seidenberg managed to escape on August 5, 1954, but the rest of the network, except for Ninio, was arrested.
In Israel, Seidenberg got a hero’s welcome as the only member of the network who had gotten away. Meanwhile, Ninio waited nervously, not knowing what to do, wishing to leave, but unable to do so. Seidenberg never got back in contact with her and appeared to be very relaxed about the whole ordeal. He had even encouraged the Egyptian Jews to stay put before they were arrested. It was only years later that they began to question Seidenberg’s role in the affair though Israeli intelligence began to suspect him much earlier.
The “Zionist spies,” as they came to be called, had not been well treated before they admitted they had been working on behalf of Israel. But it was bearable. That all changed after their association with Israel became known. Ninio, who had eventually been arrested, was beaten mercilessly on the soles of her feet and was threatened with sexual abuse. Her torture became so unbearable that at one point she threw herself out of a window and nearly died. She was taken to a hospital where she could heal.
The men were transferred from Alexandria to Cairo, where the prison guards were known to be even more savage than their Alexandrian counterparts. They were taken to the Sigan Harbi, a prison notorious for its cruelty – a reputation the guards there very much wanted to maintain. When they were marched down the stinking and decrepit hallways, in chains, they could hear cries coming out of the other cells. Soon those cries would sometimes be of their friends. This went on day and night. Treatment was something akin to a medieval torture chamber. Moreover, there were rivalries between the police and prison guards on the one side, and the Mukhabarat (military intelligence) on the other. Both sides wanted to prove that they could extract more information than the other.
The prison guards would sometimes hang the prisoners up with their arms tied behind their heads, and beat the prisoners savagely until they fainted, and sometimes even died. The truth is that this treatment was not only meted out to the Jewish spies – Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were fierce opponents of Nasser’s secular, socialist, military regime - received exactly the same treatment, and sometimes even worse. At one point one of the higher-level prison guards, after savagely beating a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, called in Robert Dassa. The guard told him to beat the Muslim Brother. “Now, I am going to let a Jew beat you.”
Robert refused. The Muslim Brotherhood member’s eyes, cringing with fear, softened a little. The guards turned on Robbie savagely and told him to beat the prisoner or else. He would not. A gang of guards then set upon Robbie, savagely beating him, while the Moslem Brother pleaded with the guards to stop beating Robbie. As long as he could, Robbie stoically refused to cry out and give the guards any kind of satisfaction.
After months of this kind of treatment they were finally brought to trial. The verdict was predetermined from the start, a fact which was known as long ago as 1956. The sentences were a compromise between the extremists of the new government, who wanted all of the spies put to death, and those more moderate members of the government, who preferred to win the world’s sympathy for their regime by a more humane approach. This was confirmed by the court’s presiding judge, Gen. Fuad el Digwi, when he fell into Israeli captivity during the 1956 campaign. At the time he was the military governor of the Gaza Strip. He told his interrogators, “The verdict was dictated to me by my supervisors, who decided how many were to be sentenced to death, how many to imprisonment, and for what terms.”
The trial went on for two weeks. As a show trial, it was staged for two purposes. “Abroad, it was to stress the story that ‘Israel tried to undermine Egyptian-American friendship’; at home, it would show that the regime’s severity was not confined to the Muslim Brotherhood alone.”
The trial was given “unusual publicity.” The press emphasized again and again how dangerous the Israeli spies were to Egypt and demanded severe punishment. Naturally, the press pronounced the Jews guilty before the court did. Such intensive and ongoing press coverage had a deeply demoralizing effect on the families of the imprisoned Jewish spies. In court, however, they showed smiles of encouragement from the spectators’ gallery, as did the spies themselves. Ninio was completely healed by then – it is unlikely they would have permitted her to be shown to the outside world in any other way.
Marzouk publicly took responsibility for the group and everything that they had done. The presiding Military Judge, General Digwi was taken aback by the admission. On only one point did Moshe concede to his companions’ pleas not to reveal more about their activities, and that was not to admit that they had undergone military training in Israel.
After the trial, the men were transferred to Tura Prison. Marzouk and Azar were sentenced to be hanged. Massive world pressure was applied on the Egyptian Government not to hang the condemned men. President Eisenhower intervened, as did the Indian President Nehru – and even the Pope.
The Egyptians, aware that the United States had hung the Rosenbergs, American Jews who had spied on behalf of the Soviet Union, responded; “Egypt (will) treat its spies in precisely the same manner adopted by the United States.” Marzouk and Azar were hung in early 1955.
Ninio was sentenced to 15 years in the women’s prison of Kanather – the longest sentence ever for a female political prisoner in Egypt. The previous high had been 8 years.
After the hangings of Marzouk and Azar, relations between Egypt and Israel considerably worsened. Palestinian infiltration from Gaza into Israel, with Egyptian connivance, considerably increased, as did Israeli retaliatory raids. Border tensions were reflected in the prison. The Egyptian guards frequently incited the Muslim prisoners against their fellow Jewish prisoners. When the prisoners were sent out to the quarries to undergo grueling, back-breaking labor cutting and hauling rocks, the “Zionist spies” were under constant threat of falling rocks loosened by ill-intentioned fellow prisoners.
The Jews did have an advantage, however; Robbie was known in their old prison (the Sigan Harbi), as someone who had helped the Muslim Brothers who had been tortured by the prison authorities. They saw that he refused to beat a fellow prisoner and had been beaten in return. He also helped many other prisoners beaten so badly that they could hardly walk to get back and forth to the bathroom when they needed to. When he was transferred to Tura, word was passed that Robert had helped the Brotherhood, and that henceforth he was to be treated as one of them. In fact, Robert and the other Jewish prisoners formed friendships with men whom, on the outside, they would have been bitter enemies with.
Although tensions heated up during the 1956 war, after it many Muslim guards and prisoners told the Jewish prisoners that they had every reason to be released in a prisoner exchange, and wished them the best.
It seemed logical that they would be released; Israel held 5,000 Egyptian prisoners after the conquest of the Sinai. Israel traded them all, however, for one Israeli pilot. Israel did not even ask for the spies. It is not clear why this was the case. Either Israel did not want to ask, and thereby admit their involvement in the affair (which could have endangered Israel’s relations with the United States), or the Israelis simply did not want to get involved. Many of the Israelis originally involved in the “Lavon Affair” or “Esek HaBish” had been forced out of office and no longer wanted anything to do with it. They did not raise their voices in protest over the abandonment of the spies; they simply did not bring the subject up. Whatever the case, the spies continued to languish in prison, long after the last of the Egyptian prisoners returned home.
*One person who became convinced that something had gone amiss, and that people in Israel were to blame - was David Ben-Gurion. In a Commission of Inquiry into the Affair published in December 1960, Pinhas Lavon, (the Defense Minister at the time of the capture of the spies in 1954) was declared not guilty of authorizing the operation. All the ministers accepted this ruling except Ben-Gurion.
A bitter debate ensued which subsequently went on for years. But by then most of those involved in the affair had been removed from their posts. Motke Ben-Tzur, head of a section of Military Intelligence in 1954, had been dismissed in October of that year. Pinhas Lavon resigned from the post of Defense Minister on January 2, 1955. Binyamin Gibli, the Director of military Intelligence, was replaced as well.
The only man to emerge unscathed was Avraham Seidenberg who was subsequently referred to in Israel as “the Third Man.” He had given the order to the cell to act and he was the only one who escaped. Israeli Intelligence even sent him on another mission to Germany.
Isser Harel, head of the Shin Bet and the Mossad from 1952-1963, became suspicious of Seidenberg and ordered him back from Germany. In October 1956, Harel removed him from intelligence, but Seidenberg was not accused of anything at the time.
To soften the blow, Seidenberg was asked to write reports on his activities in Egypt and Germany. He was given access to archives, and years later, it was discovered that he took some top-secret documents. He served a short prison term. After his discharge, he was forbidden from entering Germany but went anyway and contacted an Egyptian named Nuri Otman. Seidenberg let it be known that he was prepared to sell important information to Egypt for a sizable payment.
Harel confirmed that Seidenberg was not authorized to go to Germany or to contact a foreign agent. It was particularly concerning that he had met with the Otman who, as deputy commander of military intelligence and head of the Egyptian Army’s security services, had overseen investigating the “Zionist network” in 1954. This led Harel to suspect that Seidenberg might have been a double agent working for Egypt as well as Israel. By implication this meant that he might have turned over the Jewish spy network to his Egyptian handlers and permitted them to be caught and then jailed while he got away.
Harel offered Seidenberg a job that would allow him to maintain a connection with intelligence. A senior intelligence officer interviewed Seidenberg about the position while other officers listened to the conversation. The first question was, “Tell me, Avry, could you swear by everything holy that you have never spied against the state of Israel?”
Unsurprisingly, Seidenberg denied spying for Egypt. An investigation concluded he had committed perjury. A search of his home turned up bundles of illegal, highly sensitive intelligence material which resulted in his conviction and imprisonment for ten years. There was, however, insufficient evidence to try Seidenberg for betraying his colleagues to the Egyptian police in 1954.
After serving his ten years as an exemplary prisoner, he was released, and briefly sold television sets in Tel Aviv before emigrating to California in 1972, still denying everything.
Meanwhile, the spies who had been caught remained in prison. After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Israel negotiated for their release. Although it took months, they were finally allowed to go to Israel in February 1968. They quietly built new lives and did tell their stories until after Nasser’s death. The Israeli public only learned about the affair in 1971 when Golda Meir announced she would attend Ninio’s wedding.
In March 2005, nearly 40 years after their release from Egyptian prisons, the last surviving members of Operation Susannah – Ninio, Dassa, and Zafran – were given military ranks in the IDF in recognition of their service to Israel. Dassa considered this the culmination of the wishes of his deceased comrades, who wanted the survivors not to rest “until the State of Israel recognizes all of us.”
A document released in 2015 excerpted the diary of Nehemiah Argov, Ben-Gurion’s military secretary. On October 18, 1954, he wrote, “We set up a unit…that could have been a terror unit and a commando unit behind enemy lines, in the deepest heart of enemy [territory], and who knows what crucial and decisive missions those guys could have fulfilled during an emergency.” Argo said Lavon made a mistake by having the operatives “attack some British objectives to create the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood [was responsible].” He added the decision should have been “a political question, not a security one.”
Sources: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1992-2005, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente. This material may not be republished without the permission of the copyright owner;
Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services;
Aviezer Golan, Operation Susannah;
Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community;
Ofer Aderet, “IDF declassifies docs in still-rotten Lavon Affair,” Haaretz, (May 11, 2015).