The month of May commemorates the start of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, which successfully brought over 120,000 Jews to Israel to escape persecution in Iraq. The mission was a success, thanks to a partnership between Israeli and American groups, and prompted the Knesset to pass the law of return in 1950.
The Holocaust Reached Beyond Europe…
After WWI, Iraq was under de facto British rule. Iraq was of great interest to Hitler because he wanted access to oil, which the British had control over. He made it a priority to push anti-Semitic propaganda in Arabic newspapers and radios.
Due to the then-recent failed uprisings against England and Israel in nearby Palestine, there were many Iraqis and former Palestinians who came to Iraq and took an interest in anti-Semitic Nazi philosophy.
When WWII broke out in 1939, Iraqi prime minister Nuri Pasha al-Said sided with the British who had helped him come to power, officially severing relations with Nazi Germany. In 1941, a pro-Nazi faction of the Iraqi military called The Golden Square launched a coup that overthrew the pro-British government and terrorized Iraqi Jews living in Baghdad.
Today, the event is known as the Farhud, which means pogrom in Arabic. During the Farhud, synagogues and Jewish shops were destroyed, and hundreds of Iraqi Jews were killed or wounded, while others barely survived thanks to the help of neighbors who protected them from the riots.
Like in Nazi Germany, the Iraqi Jews had lived in large cities and in well-respected communities for centuries, but when their governments succumbed to hatred and fear, the persecution and oppression began.
After the Farhud, and even after the fall of Nazi Germany, Iraqi Jews were stripped of their wealth, property, and jobs because of allegations that they were communist spies or conspiring to support Israel. These rumors were often propagated by former Nazis who fled Germany to take on Arabic names and then became Iraqi citizens.
In July of 1948, not long after Israel declared independence, Iraq made Zionism a crime punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment. Any Jew could be accused of being a Zionist, and the state persecuted many despite lack of evidence or fair trials.
Most famously, in September 1948, Shafiq Ades, a well-respected Jewish businessman living in Iraq, was publicly executed for being an alleged Zionist and selling weapons to Israel.
His death sparked terror in the Jewish population, who realized nobody was safe. To make things worse, Iraq forbade emigration of Jews, because they did not want to enable the growth of Israel.
Hatred Is a Double-Edged Sword
Ironically, Iraq’s persecution of Jews was disastrous to the Iraqi economy, while Israel continued to flourish. In Iraq, there were thousands of positions that Jews once held in government as well as businesses—some cities lost nearly a fourth of their labor force by firing all the Jews—there were just not enough people in Iraq to refill the voids that were created.
As raids, imprisonment, and violence toward Jews continued, Zionist underground groups helped Jews escape Iraq by crossing over to Iran and then flying from Tehran to Israel. The first groups to be smuggled out of Iraq were dozens strong, but soon their numbers increased. The fleeing emigrants took resources and business out of Iraq, which weakened its economy even further.
Eventually, in 1950, Iraq passed laws to allow Jews to emigrate, thinking that only the poorest and most oppressed Jews would flee in desperation. At first, few signed up because there was mistrust in the government and many believed the invitation was some sort of trap.
After realizing it wasn’t, nearly every Jewish person signed up to leave—many taking the overland route to Iran. Refugee camps sprung up in Iran, becoming overcrowded. The Iraqi government became furious that so many of its citizens were leaving and weakening their economy.
In response to the mass emigration, the government of Iraq declared that the Jewish refugees had no rights and stripped them of their wealth and assets by freezing bank accounts and confiscating possessions.
Many were harassed at checkpoints and sometimes forbidden to leave. With clogged exits, thousands were left stranded in refugee camps or on the streets. The government threatened to force them into concentration camps if they were not removed soon.
The circumstance created an uncomfortable ultimatum for Israel, who was already accepting Jewish refugees from post-Holocaust Europe and around the world at a pace it could hardly keep up with.
Some of the Iraqi Jews were not allowed into the country immediately due to the overflow of refugees coming in from Poland and Russia. But Israel would not abandon her people. In 1950, the Knesset passed the Aliyah law, which was the law of return that would grant any Jewish person Israeli citizenship upon entering the country. It was time to bring the Iraqi refugees home.
Eager to act fast, Mossad Le-Aliya, an Israeli organization that helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust, decided to airlift as many Jews as possible. The Mossad Le-Aliya partnered with Alaska Airlines president James Wooten of the United States to fly Jewish refugees to Israel.
Together, they disguised American and Israeli planes as part of a new airline called NEAT (Near East Air Transport), which flew the first 175 emigrants in May 1950. The operation was officially named Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in honor of the prophets who led the Jewish people out of Babylon thousands of years ago.
Within the next few days, 30,000 Jews signed up to leave Iraq. Over the next year, 120,000 Iraqi Jews would be taken to Israel.
The Legacy of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah
Today, the law of Aliyah is still in effect, giving Jewish people all over the world a permanent path to escape from oppression. Many immigrants and refugees who have come to Israel found opportunities to work and live in kibbutzim, or collective communities typically based in agriculture.
These communities have been fundamental in the development and growth of Israel’s population and economy, providing a fresh start for millions. To take on so many refugees, Israel has encouraged the development of these communities that develop the land, as well as provide viable settlement for newcomers.
Today, there is more opportunity than ever before to expand…
Most kibbutzim began in Northern Israel, where it is hot and dry, but not as much as in the Negev Desert in the South. The Negev Desert accounts for more than half of Israel’s landmass, and the area is largely unsettled due to its harsh climate, which outwardly appears unfit for agriculture.
But with more access to water and technology than ever before, Israel has been able to develop the land, making it arable. And their trusted American partner, My Olive Tree, has been working with them every step of the way! We plant olive trees, providing them with water… and the land changes, crops flourish, and opportunities abound!
Let us welcome refugees to Israel with olive trees, the ultimate symbol of solidarity and peace.
Your My Olive Tree sponsorship covers the cost of planting the tree and providing it with water. The hard-working Israelis can take care of the rest. Together we can continue the time-honored tradition of providing for immigrants with US-Israeli partnerships.