Photo Credit: Courtesy of Desire Sakkal, Historical Society of Jews from Egypt)
Jewish men in Cairo, late 1940s. (Of note: Rav Ovadia Yosef is in front row in middle. This synagogue was disbanded when Jews left Egypt, and has since been reconstituted in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

An account published in a Jewish Press interview with Dr. Jack Cohen, a noted marriage and dating expert who was born in Cairo, inspires me to tell the story of a small contribution I made to the safety of Jews trapped in Egypt during the Six-Day War more than half a century ago.

I was a young lawyer who had attended Harvard Law School back in the day when merit reigned and Jewish students, including shomrei Shabbat, were welcomed. My performance on exams that were anonymously graded had won me a prized place and an officership on the Harvard Law Review (alongside Antonin Scalia, who placed lower in the class standings than I did). I was then fortunate enough to serve as a law clerk to Chief Judge J. Edward Lumbard of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and, in the following year (1961-1962) for Justice John M. Harlan of the Supreme Court. Both respected my Sabbath observance and accommodated my law-clerk schedule to avoid work on wintry Friday afternoons and Shabbat.


After spending several years with the Department of Justice where I assisted in the prosecution of Jimmy Hoffa and argued cases on the staffs of Solicitors General Archibald Cox and Thurgood Marshall, I was asked in April 1967 by Nicholas Katzenbach, who had become Undersecretary of State, to move to the State Department as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of passports, visas and other consular services.

I was in that role when the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967.

Although many meetings were called among the State Department officials at the sub-cabinet level before and during the war and I attended many, we recognized that the important calls were being made only in the White House, where President Lyndon Johnson was consulting with advisers who were, fortunately, friends of Israel.

I felt removed from important American decision-making. But I noticed that there was a subject that received little discussion or attention from the career foreign-policy experts at the State Department. This was the fate of the Jews in Egypt and other Arab countries who were being attacked economically, physically and psychologically by the antisemites in the Arab lands that were fighting Israel.

Few cables expressing U.S. support and defense of the embattled Jews were being sent from Washington to U.S. embassies and consulates in the countries where Jewish minorities had previously flourished.

So I began drafting cables and getting consent from needed signatories to defend the Jewish minorities.

One endangered community was the Jewish population of Egypt, and particularly Cairo, where frightening accounts of mistreatment of Jews was reported.

The ambassador of Spain in Cairo, Angel Sagaz Zubelzu, was making heroic efforts on behalf of the Jews of that city, even personally arranging for trips by entire Jewish families to Alexandria, where they could board ships to Europe and ultimately to Israel.

I encouraged and applauded these efforts in cables I drafted, secured the approval of the required bureaucrats, and sent them to U.S. embassies and consulates.

I was also receiving pleas for State Department assistance from various Jewish sources, including the Mirrer Yeshiva under the direction of Rabbi Shraga Moshe Kalmanowitz, z”l. He, as well as others, contacted me repeatedly during and after the war to urge that I be sure that the Jews in Arab countries were protected.

On a Friday shortly after the war ended, when Jews in Egypt were being fiercely persecuted, I left my office in the early afternoon to drive through Rock Creek Park to my home in the upper Northwest of the District of Columbia (Shepherd Park) in time for Shabbat. While driving through the park, I saw that I was being followed by a DC Police car that turned on its siren and pulled me over. I knew that I had not violated any traffic regulations, but before I could protest, the police officer came to my car with a message that my office had asked the police to find me. On the police phone (no cellphones back then) I was told to call Rabbi Kalmanowitz. He urged again that the U.S. take active steps in Egypt and the other Arab countries.

I continued to encourage Ambassador Sagaz, the Spanish ambassador in Cairo, and he continued after the war ended to assist Jews leaving Egypt. His project to release imprisoned Jews and enable them to leave Egypt was called “Operation Pasaporte 128.”

Dr. Jack Cohen revealed during his interview in The Jewish Press that his parents managed then to escape Cairo with Spanish passports. He credits me with persuading Francisco Franco to authorize the issuance of Spanish passports to Sephardi Jews in Egypt and personalizes the story with an account of my being stopped on a ride home from my office to deal with this crisis. I wish I could take credit for Franco’s historic decision, but my true role was more modest. Ambassador Sagaz and other influencers with siyata deshmaya were at work and saved many Jewish lives.

Sagaz became Spain’s Ambassador to the U.S. in 1972 and served until his death in 1974. Other Spanish diplomats in Arab countries may have followed his lead.

Although I can’t take credit for calling Franco to ask that Spanish passports be issued, my support on behalf of the U.S., expressed in encouraging cables from the State Department for the efforts being made to save the embattled Jews, may have made some small contribution to that life-saving decision.


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Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who specializes in white-collar criminal defense and in Supreme Court litigation.