This is the story of the immigration of Iraqi Jewry, the oldest Jewish Diaspora on our planet, and their settlement in Israel.
On Friday, May 19, 1950, at 2:00 p.m., nine years after the two-day, bloody pogrom against Baghdadi Jewry on the Shavuoth holiday of 1941, a remarkable event took place:
A plane with eighty-six Jewish immigrants, accompanied by an Iraqi police officer, prepared for take-off at the Baghdad Airport. It headed for Nicosia on the island of Cyprus, touched there for a brief landing, and after a short stay, took off again for Lydda [Lod Airport, later renamed for Ben-Gurion]. Six hours after leaving Iraq, it landed at Lod. An hour later, another plane landed in Israel with another eighty-nine immigrants, also from Iraq. These pioneering travelers, most of whom had never been abroad nor on planes before, were the first of some 120,000-130,000 to be airlifted in the relatively short time span of 1950-1952, with most coming to Israel in l951. They were elderly and anxious adults, excited teenagers, many young children, and infants. They were uprooted from their homes, jobs, friends, schools, neighborhoods, environments, and their native tongue, and headed for a voyage into the unknown, to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel which filled their dreams but of which they knew very little.
The massive airlift Aliyah of Jews from Iraq, dubbed by the “Ma’ariv” newspaper as “Operation Ezra and Nechemia,” was the name that stuck. Others called it at that same time the “Ali Baba Operation,” the “New Magic Carpet,” and “Operation Babylon”-indeed the title of Shlomo Hillel’s fascinating book on such events. Each unique name is a window on the drama and excitement that such Aliyah provoked.
The Iraqi mass Aliyah and the successful absorption of “Bavli” [Babylonian Jews] immigrants is not an inconsequential number, as today it is estimated that there are more than a quarter million Jews of direct Iraqi birth or descent in Israel. It is the fourth largest ethnic group in Israel, superceded only by Russian Jews, Moroccan Jews, and by a tiny margin of Rumanian Jews. Other ethnic groups in Israel, of lesser numbers than the “Bavlim,” in descending order, are Polish Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Iranian Jews-1999 statistics. Indeed, the size of the emigrating Iraqi community, some 120,000-130,000 thousand Jews, was equal in size to the number of Jews in the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C. Jewish community of the l970’s-for comparison’s sake.
More statistics-in 1950 there were 137,000 Jews in Iraq, including 10,000 from Iran, and 5,000 who did not register with the Jewish community. In 1950, some 31,627 Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel; in 1951 some 88,161 Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel; and in 1952 some 282 Iraqi Jews arrived in Israel. Sub-divided again, of 110,618 who flew to Israel, 38,000 flew via Cyprus and 72,618 flew directly to Israel. Some 9,352 refugees escaped from Iraq to Iran and then went to Israel. Some 8,000 Jews of Iranian origin, in Iraq, flew to Iran, and from Teheran to Israel. And some 9,030 Jews stayed behind in Iraq after the mass emigration.
The depletion of the Jewish community did not go unnoticed by the Iraqi [Arab] administration and its economy. The Jewish community of Iraq had had six guaranteed seats in the Iraqi Parliament-unheard of civil rights in other Arab nations-with three seats saved for Baghdadi Jewish representatives, two seats for Basra Jews, and one seat for Mosul Jews. Thus, it was debated in a January 1952 session in the Iraqi Parliament, if such seats should still be reserved for a “turn-coat community,” abandoning a country that had treated them so benevolently. It was suggested during that debate that Iraqi Jews should be held in concentration camps and be divested of their rights.
Such background information sheds light both on the status of Iraqi Jews-who could become Members of Parliament-and yet also live in the shadow of the threat of concentration camps, loss of rights, and certainly the loss of their property and their wealth.
By 1997, only about sixty Jews were left in Baghdad, mostly elderly, centering their lives at the only remaining “Meir Tweig” synagogue. Apart from them, who else was left? The tombs of the Prophets Yechezkel and Yona, the tombs of the Scribe and the Prophet Nachum Alkosh, and the tombs of many of the great Rabbis of the Babylonian era. Also left were [the estimated] 180 Jews killed in the 1941 Shavuoth pogrom, as well as Yousif Basri and Shalom Saleh, Jews executed in public on January 21, 1952. They supposedly threw bombs on Jews at the Masooda Shemtob Synagogue on January 14, 1951 and killed some of them, in order to “speed up” the registration process of the masses to exit Iraq. Also left behind were the graves with the bodies of Iraqi Jews hung in 1969 in the Public Square, to the dancing and cheering of the Arab masses.
To understand this once glorious and ancient Jewish community, one should know that as long ago as 1864, when the USA was ending it’s Civil War, and President Lincoln had grown up in a log cabin; and Russian Jews still had 4-6 more decades of lives to be lived out in the “Pale of Settlement”-also in wooden huts-in that year of 1864 Alliance Francaise, for Jewish students, with European and modern education, was inaugurated in Baghdad-along with European clothing. By the 1920’s, there were Iraqi urban Jewish brides dressed in wedding gowns that imitated the “Charleston” dancers flappers’ dresses-sleeveless, relatively short straight shift dresses, with European blunt haircuts and European cloches on their heads. By 1951, a typical urban Iraqi immigrant to Israel might be fluent in Arabic, English, French, and Hebrew, or at least two or three of those languages-giving him or her a great head-start over other “oriental” Jews from North Africa and Asia. It was not at all unusual for an Iraqi Jewish man living in a “ma’abarah” [tent camp in Israel, in the early 1950’s] to dress in his own European clothing and go out to work each day as a Bank Manager, especially as such man had been a bank manager back in Iraq!
More statistics that would help explain the upward mobility of Iraqi Jews in Israel and thus their typically successful absorption-by 1900, a full century ago, there were already 600 modern education pupils in Iraq, by 1920 there were 7,000 such modern education pupils, and by 1949, before the mass Aliyah, there were 20,000 such pupils. As for graduates of Higher Education, between 1880-1920 there were 40 such graduates, between 1921-1940 some 300 such graduates, and in the decade of 1941-1951 some 650 such grads. The “traditional” Jewish school system in Iraq [i.e. religious schools and Yeshivahs] almost held their own, with a small decline from 2,500 in 1900 to 2,300 in 1920 to 2,000 in 1949. However, the Modern Schools expanded during those decades in explosive numbers-500 pupils in 1900, and 5,500 by 1950, and some 16,000 by 1949. By 1950, before the Iraqi Diaspora liquidated itself, the distribution of the main Jewish Baghdadi institutions were: only two large Yeshivahs, twenty-one synagogues, twenty-three Jewish schools, and two Jewish medical institutions-including a Jewish hospital and a Jewish medical clinic.
Indeed, some 11% of teachers in the young State of Israel and 17% of the doctors in Israel also, during those years, were Iraqi Jewish immigrants -dispelling the stereotype that Ashkenazim totally dominated the educational and medical infrastructures of the young State of Israel. One generation later, the 1970’s, Iraqi-born infants or Iraqi immigrant babies came of age, and entered “the system” in Israel in droves-in academia, law, politics, business, medicine, literature, music, the arts, the civil service, and the security forces.
Other clues as to why the Iraqi Jews integrated so well in Israel-they refused to be treated as “pitiful souls,” which became the tragic stereotype to this day of Moroccan Jews in Israel. Also, the great mass of Iraqis preceded the Moroccans by half a decade to a decade in settling in Israel, getting a head start in housing, jobs, education, and the armed forces. Young Iraqis, such as Shlomo Hillel, were courted by the Mapai/Labour Party Establishment-the ruling party of Israel for decades. Hillel became a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, at age twenty-seven, before he and his wife gave birth to their first child. As for successful integration into Israeli society, Iraqi Jews were more likely to marry fellow Ashkenazim, than other “oriental” ethnic groups in Israel, giving them a jump-start into mainstream Israeli Ashkenazi society. Both of the well-known Israeli Iraqi Jews Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Ben-Porat each married women who were Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors.
Typical Iraqi immigrants “owed allegiance” and gained “protexia” from the then Israeli ruling party--the Labour party--due to it’s inroads in Iraq via the Hagannah’s and the Jewish Agency’s presence in Iraq. They also gained "protexia" from the local “illegal” Zionist Movement in Iraq, with twenty-four branches all over Iraq, during the decade of 1942 until the mass Aliyah in 1951.
Logistically, most Iraqi Jewish immigrants refused to be re-located from the immigrant tent cities towards the peripheries-the under-developed “development” towns--insisting on remaining in the Tel Aviv area or in Jerusalem-closer to urban white-collar work, such as in banks, government offices, commerce, education, medical professions, etc. Other “oriental” minorities were more easily relegated to areas where they became factory workers or moshav [village co-operative] farmers-or unemployed.
Decades later, the Iraqi immigrants’ children lived in the shadows of Tel Aviv University or the Hebrew University, close to such institutions where they would study.
At the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehudah, one can see a letter written in French, by Iraqi immigrants, to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, insisting on their right to own a coffee house and not to be given a horse and buggy and live on a moshav.
Of all the “oriental” immigrant groups, the Iraqis are the least religiously observant, thus also “finding favor” with the establishment in Israel and enhancing their altogether successful absorption process into the young State of Israel.
Some of the more famous Iraqi Jews in Israel are: Mordechai Ben-Porat--founder of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center and former Member of Knesset; Shlomo Hillel-retired Speaker of the House of the Knesset; Dalia Itzik-Member of Knesset and government minister; Zadik Bino-a self-made millionaire who recently co-purchased the First International Bank; Shmuel Moreh-Israel Prize Laureate in Arabic literature; Sami Michael-leading novelist; Sassson Somekh-professor of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University; and Moshe Levy-former chief-of-staff.