Operation Ezra and Nehemia Begins

May 19, 1950

Although Jews in Iraq had periodically suffered violence and discrimination throughout their history, they led prosperous and secure lives.  Their situation deteriorated in the 1930s, as Iraqis responded to events in Palestine with local demonstrations against and harassment of Jews in Iraq.  In June 1941, over a period of two days, a pogrom in Baghdad claimed the lives of 180 Jews.

Following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, life for Iraqi the Jews became increasingly insecure. The low point came in September 1948 when Shafiq Adas, the wealthiest Jew in Iraq, was accused of selling weapons to Israel.  Even though Adas had been an anti-Zionist, he was convicted and hanged in front of his house at Basra after a trial that produced no concrete evidence against him.

At that time, it was illegal for Jews in Iraq to leave the country.  In March 1950, the Iraqi Government passed a law that permitted Jews to leave—as long as they renounced their Iraqi citizenship and gave up their property.  The law was to remain valid for only one year.

Led by Mordechai Ben-Porat, an Iraqi-born Jew who had made aliyah in 1945, the Ministry of Aliyah planned “Operation Ezra and Nehemia.”  Also known as “Operation Ali Baba,” it began with Israeli emissaries disguising themselves as members of Iraq’s Jewish community, and registering Jews to leave for Israel.   On May 19, 1950, the first two flights left from Baghdad for Israel, via Cyprus, with a combined total of 175 Jews onboard.

The number of Iraqi Jews registering for emigration reached 102,000 by August and overwhelmed the organizers.  Officials had difficulty keeping up both because of the numbers and because priority was given to the concurrent immigration to Israel by Jews from Romania. Planes from Iraq were diverted to Romania.  Many Iraqi Jews who registered to leave were left in limbo with no property and little money.

In January 1951 Israel provided more planes and Operation Ezra and Nehemia gained momentum.  At its conclusion in January 1952, nearly 120,000 Iraqi Jews had been airlifted to Israel.

The photo shows Iraqi immigrants arriving in Israel during Operation Ezra and Nehemia in May 1951.