Airlift of Iraqi Jews Begins

May 19, 1950

While Iraqi Jews are victims of violence and discrimination throughout their history, for the most part they lead prosperous and secure lives. Their situation worsens in the 1930s as demonstrations and harassment against Jews increase in response to events happening in Palestine. In June 1941, over a period of two days, a pogrom in Baghdad kills 180 Jews.

In 1948, Iraq is home to more than 135,000 Jews, with more than 50% residing in the capital city of Baghdad. After the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, conditions continue to get worse for Iraqi Jews. The low point comes in September 1948 when Shafiq Adas, the wealthiest Jew in Iraq, is accused of selling weapons to Israel. Even though Adas is an anti-Zionist, he is convicted and hanged in front of his house in Basra after a trial that produces no concrete evidence against him.

It is illegal for Jews to leave Iraq until the government passes a law in March 1950 that permits Jews to leave. To do so, Jews are required to renounce their Iraqi citizenship and give up their property. The law is to remain valid for only one year.

Led by Mordechai Ben-Porat, an Iraqi-born Jew who made aliyah in 1945, the Ministry of Aliyah plans Operation Ezra and Nehemia. Also known as Operation Ali Baba, it begins with Israeli emissaries, disguised as members of Iraq’s Jewish community, registering Jews to leave for Israel. The flight details are organized by on-the-ground representatives of the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee. On May 19, 1950, the first two flights leave from Baghdad for Israel, via Cyprus, with 175 Jews on board.

The number of Iraqi Jews registering for emigration overwhelms the organizers and reaches 102,000 by August. Officials have difficulty keeping up with the demand as priority is being given to the simultaneous immigration from Eastern Europe and planes are diverted there. Many Iraqi Jews who register to leave are left in limbo with no property and little money.

In January 1951 Israel provides more planes, and the operation gathers momentum. By its conclusion in January 1952, nearly 120,000 Iraqi Jews have been airlifted to Israel. Over the following decades, Jews continue to leave Iraq for Israel and for South and North America.

The photo shows Iraqi Jews en route to Israel. Source: Central Zionist Archives.