When Iraq Expelled Its Jews To Israel—The Inside Story
The day after Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, the new nation was invaded from all sides by Arab armies. That failed. So humiliated Arab governments turned on their own Jewish citizens to exact the revenge they had publically promised: confiscation of assets, denaturalization, and finally expulsion to the new state of Israel as a demographic time bomb. Iraq was the model. Here’s how they did it.
On July 19, 1948, Iraq amended Law 51 against anarchy, immorality, and communism, adding the word “Zionism.” Zionism itself now became a crime, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Every Jew was thought to be a Zionist, thereby criminalizing every Jew.
After The Third Reich fell, some 2,000 ex-Nazis escaped to Arab countries to continue the war against the Jews. Soon, the familiar sequence of Nazi-style pauperization began in Baghdad. Jewish businesses were boycotted; their owners were systematically arrested. Their funds dried up
The once genteel and gracious life of Jews in Iraq was about to terminate. Zionist groups stepped up activities. Thanks to big bribes paid to Iranian officials, Iraqi Jews in large numbers were now permitted to transit via Iran, eventually 1,000 per month.
With the escapees went their remnant money and some possessions. Quickly, the rapid subtraction of Jews from the financial, administrative, retail, and export sectors proved devastating to Iraq’s economy. Over 26 centuries, Jews had become essential to the economy. An estimated 130,000 Jews lived in the Iraq of 1949, with about 90,000 residing in Baghdad. Jewish firms transacted 45 percent of the exports and nearly 75 percent of the imports.
On March 3, 1950, to halt the uncontrolled flight of Jewish assets, Iraqi Prime Minister Tawfig as-Suwaydi engineered an amendment to Law 1, the Denaturalization Act. The amendment revoked citizenship to any Jew who willingly left the country. Once Jews registered to emigrate, they were required to leave within 15 days. The amendment to Law 1 would expire in one year.
Iraqi officials guesstimated that 7,000 to 10,000 Jews, mainly those already pauperized, would be the only ones to leave. They were wrong.
Exit doors became floodgates. Thousands immediately registered to leave. Household by household, Jewish families finally—almost unanimously—realized that their precious 2,600-year existence in Iraq was over. Wave after wave, groups left the country. But land routes were not enough.
Israel’s knew an airlift was needed. The Mossad called in its most reliable partner: Alaska Airlines. A new airline was formed, Near East Air Transport (NEAT).
NEAT needed an Iraqi partner to secure charter rights in Iraq. The perfect partner was the well-established Iraq Tours in Baghdad. Who was the chairman of Iraq Tours? It was Iraq Prime Minister Tawfig as-Suwaydi, the man who had engineered Law 1, the Denaturalization Act.
On May 19, 1950, the first 175 Jews were airlifted out of Iraq in two C-54 Skymasters. Israel called the rescue Operation Ali Baba, later codenamed Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, for the prophets who had led the Jews of Babylon out of exile back to Israel millennia before.
Israeli and Iraqi officials were stunned. Israel envisioned flying out 40,000 Jews the first year, and more thereafter, for a total of 60,000. But within just days of the airlift’s inauguration, some 30,000 Jews had registered at their synagogues and were therefore required to leave within 15 days. Once at the airport, departing Jews were abused and humiliated. Rings were pulled from their hands and scarfs linings torn from their neck. There weren’t enough hours in the day to possibly transfer the thousands who were now stateless in their own country, penniless amid all the wealth they had left behind, and reviled in the nation they had loved for two millennia.
The Iraqi government made clear: these Jews were now stateless refugees, devoid of legal rights in Iraq, and essentially all “Zionist criminals.” Many were now homeless and sleeping on the streets. Baghdad announced that if these Jews were not removed—and swiftly—the government would move them into concentration camps. The very phrase “concentration camp,” coming on the heels of the Holocaust, was chilling.
More planes were needed. British airlines BOAC and BEA agreed to participate. Iraqi Airways was given the ground maintenance contract, 30 dinars for every flight plus a 7.7 percent fee to Iraqi Airways for each British plane used. Who was the director-general of Iraqi Airways? It was Sabah Said, the son of the re-ascended Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Said. The prime minister’s son received an additional 5.5 percent “special fee.”
Tiny Israel did not know whether it had enough tents. The Jewish State tried to negotiate for fewer refugees per month.
Nuri Said now realized that his 120,000 captive Jews could be a demographic weapon against Israel. In March 1951, Nuri engineered yet another statute, this one, Law 5, permanently froze all assets of Jews denaturalized by the previous law. Law 5 was concocted in secret. Leading government officials only learned about it just before the vote. As the measure was being ratified, Baghdad’s telephones went dead so desperate Jews would not learn of the new law and use precious moments to transfer or save their property. To make sure Jews could not touch their funds, the government ordered all banks closed for three days.
Now, 120,000 Jews would arrive in Israel penniless with no hope of later calling on their former wealth. Concomitantly, Nuri demanded that Israel absorb 10,000 refugees per month, every month—this to intensify the strain on Israel’s resources. Exacerbating the crisis, Nuri ruled that as of May 31, 1951, no more exit visas would be issued. Then the concentration camps would be readied. Iraq’s parliament was already discussed such camps. Nuri clearly expected the Jewish State to crack beneath the weight of the humanitarian effort.
Estimates of the value of Iraqi Jewry’s seized assets ranged from 6 million to 12 million dinars or, at its highest valuation, some $300 million in twenty-first-century money. Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett declared, “the value of the Jewish property frozen in Iraq will be taken into account by us in calculating the sum of the compensation we have agreed to pay to Arabs who abandoned property in Israel.”
Israel had no choice but to absorb all 120,000 Iraqi Jews. The daily spectacle in Baghdad of forlorn Jews being hustled into truck after truck, clutching nothing but a bag and their clothes, was a cause for great jubilation on the streets of Baghdad. The crowds gleefully stoned the trucks that delivered the refugees to the airport. Jews were mocked every step of the way.
Between January 1950 and December 1951, Israel airlifted, bussed, or otherwise smuggled out 119,788 Iraqi Jews—all but a few thousand. Within those two years, Iraq—to its national detriment—had excised one of its most commercially, industrially, and intellectually viable groups, a group that for 2,600 years had loyally seen that country as their chosen place on earth. This dispossessed group, arrived in Israel with nothing but their memories, but rose to become some of the Jewish State’s most productive citizens.
Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the Muslim world, were also expelled to Israel during those first years, some 850,000 in all. They transformed the Jewish State from a European haven into a true Mideast country, now also vastly populated with citizens of Arab countries—but citizens who by religion were Jewish.
Today these families shudder for a posterity that may not remember.
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, and The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. To commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the 1941 Farhud pogrom, Black will lead ceremonies with Jewish groups and senior Israeli diplomats featuring candle-lighting, shofar blowing, and liturgical lamentation starting at the House of Representatives in Washington DC, New York City, London and finally in Jerusalem’s Knesset June 6. For further information, go to www.thefarhud.com.