Jews with roots in Iraq are today the third largest community in Israel – after the Soviet and the Moroccan. Did you ever wonder how they got there?
The mass aliya of some 120,000 Iraqi Jews between 1950 and 1951 is attributable largely to the efforts of one man — Shlomo Hillel, who died on 8 February 2021, aged 97.
The Jews of Iraq, the oldest diaspora in the world, had been through troubled times in the 1930s and 40s. Hundreds were murdered in the Farhud massacre of 1941, and the Arab war against the fledgling state of Israel had led to persecution, extortion and the criminalisation of Zionism. In defiance of a travel ban, 12,000 Iraqi Jews were smuggled over the porous border into Iran. Working with a Jewish-born priest, Alexander Glasberg, to get the Jews French visas for Israel, Shlomo bribed Iranian policemen to look the other way. Posing as a member of the crew, Shlomo Hillel arranged the first test flights, piloted by American freelance pilots, to smuggle 100 Jews from Iraq to Israel, Operation Michaelberg.
Before Israel had an official army, Shlomo led the construction and operation of a secret bullet factory, under the noses of the British. The factory, known as the Ayalon Institute, was built beneath the laundry room of a kibbutz in Rehovot.
When the Iraqi government briefly lifted the ban on immigration in 1950 on condition that the Jews relinquished their citizenship, Baghdad-born Shlomo returned to Iraq as a Mossad agent to facilitate their airlift, dubbed Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Aged 23, he posed as Richard Armstrong, the British representative of Near Eastern Airlines, to negotiate with the Iraqi government. Throughout the meeting he shifted in his seat, fearing he might be recognised by his cousin, the leader of the Jewish community. (He wasn’t). Shlomo Hillel published his story in Operation Babylon.
Shlomo was the youngest of 11 children of an Iraqi-Jewish merchant importing goods from India, Japan and Manchester. Iraqi Jews were not generally Zionist, but until the rise of pro-Nazi feeling in the 1930s, there was a small Zionist movement, Achi-ever, where Shlomo and his brothers learned Hebrew. In 1934, aged 11 on a family visit to Palestine, Shlomo insisted on remaining with two elder brothers, attending the prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. Having lived through the massacre of Assyrian Christians in Iraq in 1933, Shlomo’s father had a sense of foreboding: ‘If they do this to Iraqi Christians, what will they do to Jews? He moved the rest of his family to Israel.
A founder of kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Shlomo Hillel married Temima, who came as a refugee from Europe on the Patria. He reluctantly embarked on a political career, serving in seven Knessets, becoming a Minister and Knesset speaker. He also served as Israeli ambassador to several African countries, and was awarded the Israel prize in 1988. But he was always modest about his achievements.
Later Shlomo Hillel was involved in the mass emigration of Jews from Ethiopia. The wheel came full circle when his son Ari fell in love and married an Ethiopian girl. When asked what he thought of the match, Shlomo said he was delighted. The Jewish people was completing the ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’.