In 1935, Marcelle Bensimon was born into a Moroccan Jewish family in the town of Larache in northwestern Morocco. Years would pass before she’d become a “first lady” in a country other than her own, and play a “pivotal” role in the immigration of its Jewish citizens to a third country that was still being established when she came to the world - Israel.
During her early years, the young Marcelle moved to Gibraltar, an autonomous region belonging to the British Crown. The outward reason for her travel was to work as a nurse. But in reality, “she was part of several networks that were emigrating Jews to Israel in the 1960s,” according to the Moroccan newspaper, “Assahifa”. The paper also states that it wasn’t long before the young Jewish woman took over the management of the transit camp for Moroccan Jews, and “aided thousands of them to reach the ‘new state’ that was being established on the lands of historic Palestine.”
Marcelle also helped care for and treat the pains and wounds of the immigrants during their arduous journey.
Historical records indicate that about 5,000 Jews fled from Morocco through a land passage under the city of Melilla, and from there to Gibraltar on boats, before continuing the journey to Marseille, and finally to the port of Haifa.
She played a pivotal role in the immigration of thousands of Moroccan Jews to Israel, and in strengthening the relations between Israel and Gibraltar... Moroccan nurse Marcelle Bensimon died at the age of 86
The Israeli website ‘i24 News’ asserted that Marcelle “had played a pivotal role in the immigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel in the 1960s, and then went on to become one of the most prominent female figures with both political and social influence.”
After arriving in Gibraltar, Marcelle met Joshua Hassan, lawyer, politician, and Chief Minister of Gibraltar. A close friendship developed between them, and soon turned into marriage following the end of his first term in 1969. Joshua, who was twenty years older than her, said that he admired her “humanity and empathy”.
In 1972, Joshua returned as Chief Minister of Gibraltar, and remained in the position for 15 years, during which Marcelle retained the title of First Lady in the territory.
Israeli media describe Joshua as a “proud Zionist”. He gave his immediate approval to make the territory a crossing point for Moroccan immigrants to Israel after the Jewish Agency contacted him over the matter. It was during that time that he met the director of the immigrant transit camp, Marcelle, who during her husband’s reign, came to be known as Lady Hassan and became his mentor, advisor, and assistant throughout his long political career.
A state tribute
On Sunday, June 19, Marcelle passed away at the age of 87. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo announced the news via his Twitter account lamenting the loss of a “prominent figure” in the Gibraltar community.
He said, “We will miss her dearly. She was the wife of Sir Joshua Hassan and, as such, was a prominent part of Gibraltar’s public sphere during the years his period as chief minister. I extend the deepest condolences of our entire community to the two daughters of Lady Hassan, who looked after her up until her final days. They were with her when she passed away. Our thoughts and prayers are now with her two daughters, her grandchildren, her friends and family during this sad time.”
During her early years, a young Marcelle Bensimon moved to Gibraltar to work as a nurse, and to “play a pivotal role in the immigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel,” later on marrying the chief minister and becoming the “First Lady” 15 years ago
Marcelle continued to have remarkable moral authority and influence among the citizens of Gibraltar even after the death of her husband in 1997, as she continued to provide her support and aid to vulnerable groups. It is said that she played an important role in consolidating relations between Israel and Gibraltar, as evidenced by the settlement of one of her two daughters in Israel, obtaining citizenship and leading a prominent political life there.
Currently, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum — the eldest daughter of Marcelle and Joshua — is the Deputy Mayor of occupied Jerusalem in charge of foreign relations, international economic development, and tourism in the city. She is also a founding member of the Israel Business Council.
Marcelle’s second daughter, Marlene Hassan-Nahon, is a Gibraltar historian, journalist, and politician who has been a member of Parliament there since 2015.