Saving the Jews of Iraq

Just 26 years old, Shlomo Hillel played a major role in bringing 125,000 Iraqi immigrants to Israel.

Police minister Hillel inspects his troops in the 1970s ; (right) Let my people go: Aliya agent Hillel in Baghdad (photo credit: COURTESY SHLOMO HILLEL)
Police minister Hillel inspects his troops in the 1970s ; (right) Let my people go: Aliya agent Hillel in Baghdad
ON MAY 14, 1948, Shlomo Hillel was working a mere 100 meters from the Tel Aviv hall where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, eight hours before the British Mandate of Palestine was due to end.
“I heard Ben-Gurion was going to make a speech, but the times were so tense, with so many problems, and I figured, ‘So what,’” Hillel recalls today. “To my eternal shame, if I had only walked 100 meters I could have been present when the State of Israel was officially proclaimed.”
The next day war broke out as the neighboring Arab states invaded what had just ceased to be territory of the British Mandate.
Hillel had been working as an agent for Aliya Bet bringing illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Just a little less than a year after the War of Independence was over, Hillel, who had emigrated from Baghdad to Palestine in 1934, would play a major role in bringing 125,000 Iraqi immigrants to Israel. The biggest airlift population transfer in history, in those days, it meant the near-total uprooting of the Middle East’s most ancient Jewish community.
Hillel would eventually become a diplomat and politician, Knesset speaker, minister of police and minister of the interior during historic events and decisions, world chairman of Keren Hayesod, and an Israel Prize laureate. But it was for his role in that dramatic mass immigration in the face of Iraqi Jews’ sense of impending doom for which he is chiefly known.
Now, at the age of 91, he relates the story of those events in his airy, modest Ra’anana apartment, lined with pictures of his family and historic photos. Hillel is typically self-effacing in retelling the story.
“I didn’t plan on being a hero. People felt they hadn’t done enough to get the Jews out of Europe. We had to try,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
The tradition in Hillel’s family was that Jews had lived in the region for 2,500 years and his own family was descended from the Babylonian religious leader Hillel.
“Who can disprove this?” he asks wryly.
After World War I, the British took over the country and appointed a king, and in 1932 Iraq became independent. “Suddenly the situation changed,” explains Hillel.
“Already by 1933, my father understood this was the end.”
That was the year of a massacre of Assyrian Christians in the north of the country.
“We were watching the Iraqi army’s ‘victory’ parade from our house in Baghdad and we thought if that’s what they can do to the Christians, what can they do to us?” Hillel moved to Palestine in 1934 to be with his older brothers and was followed by his parents in 1935.
During World War II, a Nazi-inspired pogrom (farhud) erupted in Baghdad in 1941, finally bringing to an end any hopes of continued peaceful existence for the city’s Jewish minority. “This was a huge traumatic event for Iraqi Jews. Young Jews started to organize self-defense organizations and an underground,” Hillel relates.
“In Palestine, we started to organize escape routes for them.”
At the time, Hillel was working at a Hagana munitions factory, disguised as a laundry facility, in Rehovot and decided to volunteer for the Mossad l’Aliya Bet, the illegal Hagana-run operation to bring Jews to Mandatory Palestine. “I probably thought naively that they’d send me someplace romantic, like Rome or Paris, but when they understood I was from Iraq and could speak Arabic, I was sent to Iraq,” he recalls.
The challenge was getting Jews out of Iraq and then to British-controlled Palestine with huge distances to be covered. One desperate attempt involved six young men who traveled on foot and donkey through 600 miles of barren desert. They eventually made it to Palestine but were mistreated by their Arab smugglers. Successive overland attempts were also thwarted.
“This was hardly the breakthrough we had hoped for,” says Hillel. “Out of 150,000 Jews, we only managed to bring out a handful – at this rate it would have taken 500 years.” Bitterly disappointed about the meager results in illegal immigration, and feeling a lack of help from headquarters in Palestine, he quit in 1947 and returned to his preparatory group “Hatzofim Aleph” at Givat Hakibbutzim near Rehovot. (In fact, many in the group were producing ammunition in an underground clandestine factory, code named by the Hagana “the Ayalon Institute.”) But not for long.
One week later he was sent for, again.
Suppose you could bring out 50 people at a time on an airplane, his Aliya Bet bosses asked. “Until then, no one in the service had ever flown; since I had already flown in an airplane twice, I was an “expert,” Hillel says.
Aliya Bet had arranged a deal with two Americans, former US army pilots who had purchased surplus C-46 Commando planes and hired themselves out for “jobs,” in varying degrees of legality. The agreed price of that first flight was 100 pounds per passenger, for a total of 5,000 pounds to be paid in gold coins upon landing in Palestine.
It would be the first ever flight of illegal immigrants.
“I suddenly found myself flying with these two giant Americans, me – the little shmendrik – in an impossible plan that seemed straight out of Hollywood,” he reminisces.
The tale of that ultimately successful “Phantom Flight #1,” which brought 50 young people from Baghdad to Palestine is included in the book, “Operation Babylon, The Story of the Rescue of the Jews of Iraq,” Hillel’s account of the operation, published in English in 1987 (translated by Ina Friedman, a former writer for The Report). There would only be three such C-46 flights bringing immigrants, because the Hagana prioritized the planes for smuggling arms. It was clear war was about to break out.
After the state was established in 1948, the defeated Iraqi army returned to Iraq.
The government adopted an anti-Jewish policy: Jews in government jobs were fired and hundreds were arrested for Zionist or Communist activities, given harsh prison sentences or heavily fined. A well-known Jewish businessman, Shafiq Ades, was publicly hanged in Basra for the dubious charge of selling weapons to Israel and Communists. But Jews were forbidden from leaving the country. In panic, they began fleeing to Iran. Hillel was sent to Tehran.
Initially, he started booking hotel rooms to accommodate the refugees, but with no funds and families streaming in daily, the situation was becoming desperate. In one year alone, 12,000-13,000 Iraqi Jews fled to Tehran.
“More and more wanted to come, and I had no way to transport them to Israel and I didn’t have any money,” recalls Hillel.
With the agreement of the local Jewish community, Hillel and his fellow agents set up a transit camp in the mortuary building in Tehran’s old Jewish cemetery.
In 1950, Hillel was back in Israel when the Iraqi government passed a special bill permitting Jewish emigration on condition that the Jews renounce their Iraqi citizenship.
They were given a year to decide.
“This was less than a year since the war [of independence] had ended; there was nothing here, no food, no work.”
Hillel was about to return to Baghdad to organize flights to bring Iraqi Jews to Israel when he was asked to meet Levi Eshkol, then head of the Jewish Agency Settlement Department, responsible for absorbing the immigrants about to pour into the country.
“I thought he was going to congratulate me,” recounts Hillel, but instead Eshkol told him, ‘If you bring them now when there’s no work or food or housing, they’ll start demonstrating against us. I’ll round them up and bring them to your kibbutz to deal with.’ So I hesitated and thought I wouldn’t go.
“Then I was called to see Ben-Gurion, and he said, ‘I hear you’ve been to see Eshkol. Everything he said is true – there’s no food, no work, no houses. Go get them now, as fast as possible. Who knows when the Iraqis will change their minds.’” And off he went, disguised this time as “Richard Armstrong,” an American representative of a charter company (secretly owned by the Jewish Agency) seeking to win a contract to fly the Jews out of Iraq.
Typically, Hillel downplays his role. “I found myself in Baghdad, a little Jew born in Iraq, negotiating with the prime minister of Iraq [Tawfiq al-Suwaida] to let my people go. It just happened that I was given the task,” he still marvels today.
The estimates had been that perhaps 10,000 would want to leave. In the end some 104,000 Iraqi Jews were flown to Israel via Cyprus in what was later called Operation Ezekiel and Nehemiah (more Iraqi Jews arrived but this was the number on the airlift).
Conditions for the Iraqi Jews when they arrived were harsh, indeed, as they were for the hundreds of thousands of newcomers pouring into the country, including from many other Arab countries. In a desperate attempt to provide the massive influx of newcomers with food and shelter, Israel had to improvise on a grand scale, which meant the infamous ma’abarot, or transit camps, and even tent camps.
“EVEN THE poorest Baghdadi Jews had lived in proper houses and here they suddenly found themselves in tents with no water, no toilets,” says Hillel. “Jews from Arab lands (Mizrahim) to this day retain resentment about the circumstances of their immigration and believe they were subjected to deep systemic discrimination.
The bitterness remains decades later.
“It’s true no one forced them to come, but this was a cruel Zionism. We were afraid that what happened in Europe would happen in the Arab countries. That was the reality of those days. There was nothing. The question was, come now or perhaps never. Could we have done better, yes, but the situation was so drastic here then,” Hillel stresses today.
The year 1951 saw Hillel’s reluctant entry into politics as he found himself on the list of the Mapai party (the precursor of Labor).
“The immigrants were very bitter, of course, so I was probably taken to run as a ‘Mizrachi’ to help get votes. I wasn’t even a member of the party, I had no interest, but they just put me on the list.” He failed to win a seat, but entered the Knesset in 1953 as a replacement for a deceased member.
“Golda Meir was minister of labor then and I criticized the fact that there wasn’t adequate housing for new immigrants,” he recalls. “She always hated me for this, she never forgave me,” he says ruefully.
In the 1955 elections, he again tried to beg off, wanting only to return to his kibbutz. “I thought I’d finished with this.
Then, at the last minute, they put me back on the list, and then I was back in the Knesset.”
Hillel quit the Knesset and joined the Foreign Ministry in 1959. “Africa was emerging as independent countries, and few people were interested in going. I saw this as a great opportunity.” He remained in the Foreign Ministry until 1969, when he again returned to the Knesset.
He would go on to serve as minister of police between 1969 and 1977, and as interior minister in 1974 and 1976-77 during several dramatic events.
On Hillel’s watch as police minister, in March 1976, six Arab Israelis were killed by police in Galilee protests against the planned expropriation of land for “security and settlement purposes.” Still a very explosive issue, the event is marked every year as Land Day. Hillel insists that, at the time, his ministry and the police had received no warnings that the expropriation law was about to cause any problems.
“There was simply no information or preparation about this. Maybe the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) knew, but for us it was out of the blue,” he says. Tensions he says had begun the day before, when Arab residents seized an army jeep and took the soldiers’ weapons, after which several police stations were attacked.
“There was a development on the Arab streets that wasn’t anticipated, and things started to escalate.”
Hillel acknowledges the reasons for the continuing bitterness today. “I believe the government has to do much more to help the Arab population. We have to act wisely and carefully. There is no other way to develop a country where there is nothing, and you have to make roads, trains, airports, and hospitals. Land has to be expropriated.
This also serves the Arab residents.
But, if you take for public reasons, you must compensate.”
His wife and daughter passed away several years ago. After decades living in Jerusalem, he moved to Ra’anana to be near his son and his family. A visitor to Hillel’s home can’t help but notice, among the many historical and family photos, pictures of his three stunning granddaughters, the daughters of his son and an Ethiopian immigrant.
THE SUBJECT of Ethiopians is one close to his heart. As interior minister in 1977, Hillel managed to push through legislation that would enable Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
Until then, they had not been considered Jews for purposes of immigration – at the time, both the government and the rabbinical establishment was against it.
But, basing his decision on a religious ruling by Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef that the community was Jewish according to halakha, Ethiopian Jews were deemed eligible to immigrate to Israel and granted full citizenship.
Although he maintains his own granddaughters have not experienced discrimination, Hillel says the problem of prejudice remains deeply ingrained. “Everything depends on the environment, the social circles they are in. In my mind, the problem is educational – not a matter of formal discrimination. How is it that we can build an advanced society and can’t do enough for 100,000 Ethiopians? It is really neglect,” he laments.
Today, viewing current events from the perspective of decades, Hillel calls himself a political realist with a critical look at what he calls “Zionist maximalist.” “I’m a Ben-Gurionist,” says the recent recipient of the Ben-Gurion Foundation Prize.
“Ben-Gurion had big eyes and stated he wanted a Jewish state in all of Eretz Israel.
But, once there was the UN decision on partition, he gave up the idea. He knew we had to accept reality.
“After [the 1967 Six Day War], Israel could have annexed everything,” he continues.
“I was head of the centrist stream in the Labor Party. We didn’t want to annex, but only to establish defensible borders with Jerusalem and Gush Etzion, where there were no concentrations of Arab residents.”
Hillel recalls that, as police minister in the 1970s, he was constantly trying to stop Ariel Sharon and Geula Cohen from establishing settlements in the West Bank.
“We opposed remote settlements in areas thickly populated by Arabs, or areas that were not part of the [Jordan Valley] Alon Project. The Likud came to power and declared they wanted everything; that began our tragedy.”
“I think there is still a way out of this mess,” concludes Hillel. “In my worlddview, if you want too much you get nothing.”