The People of Gibraltar

1961 - The Sinking of the Pisces - Jack Garofalo

During 1956 France and Spain ended most of their colonial ambitions in North Africa and Morocco became an independent state. Almost immediately – and for reasons which are still hard to understand - emigration of Jews to Israel was prohibited by the newly installed Moroccan authorities.  Adding insult to injury the Jews were mostly treated as second-class citizens – this in a country in which a sizable part of the Sephardic community had settled during the days of the Diaspora in the early 15th century. The inevitable result was that the Jewish people were forced to leave the country illegally albeit with a little help from the state of Israel. 

In 1960 a ship called the Egoz - but originally named the Pisces - was hired by the Mossad , Israel’s covert operations service. It was used to smuggle Jews from Morocco to nearby Gibraltar in batches of about 50 each go. Over 300 Jews were smuggled out of Morocco during the three months that the scheme was in operation.  

RAF Motor launch used during WWII which was very similar to the Pisces

In January 1961 the Egoz set off from Al Hoceima – a city on the northern edge of the Rif and on the Mediterranean coast – with 44 Jewish immigrants on board. On its way it encountered unknown difficulties and sank. All the immigrants were drowned including an Israeli radio operator and one of the Ship’s crew members.  The other three members were rescued.  Twenty two bodies were recovered but the rest were lost at sea. 

A Jewish family in transit from Morocco to Israel outside their camp near the east end of North Front – they must have arrived just before the tragedy - From the look on their faces they must have already been made aware of what had happened.

A curious coda to this affair was a controversial interpretation of what had happened. Dr Yigal Ben-Nun - a French Moroccan born Israeli who was lecturer at the Sorbonne - suggested that the sinking of the ship should be laid at the door of Golda Meir - Israel’s Foreign minister at the time - and Isser Harrel, the head of the Mossad. 

They hadn’t sunk the boat as such but they had more or less allowed it to happen. Despite being aware that the Pisces was unseaworthy they had nevertheless allowed Mossad to operate the boat for the transfer of people from Morocco to Gibraltar. The idea, claimed Ben-Nun, was to create a spectacularly tragic event that would force the Moroccans to rethink their policy - even if it meant the loss of Jewish lives in order to do so. 

I do not know enough to comment on Ben-Num’s theory but my feeling is that it seems unlikely. But then in the world of Real Politics, ends usually justify means – and not only by the Israelis. In any case in this sense the tragedy worked and the Moroccans more or less caved in and allowed the Jews to leave their country legally. 

Recovered bodies in a hospital in Al Hoceima

The man who took the above photographs was Jack Garofalo (1923-2004), one of the leading photographers for Paris Match magazine. His images were the cover story for Match in October that year.