When Iraq Expelled Its Jews to Israel: The Inside Story
After Adolf Hitler’s defeat in May 1945, many Nazis melted away from the Reich, smuggled out by such organizations as the infamous Odessa group and the lesser-known Catholic lay network Intermarium, as well as the CIA and KGB. They ensured the continuation of the Nazi legacy in the post-war Arab world.
Egypt was a prime destination for German Nazi relocation in the Arab world. Dr. Aribert Heim was notoriously known as “Dr. Death” for his grotesque pseudo-medical experiments on Jewish prisoners in the Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen concentration camps. He was fond of surgical procedures including organ removals without anesthesia, injecting gasoline into prisoners to observe the manner of death, and decapitating Jews with healthy teeth so he could cook the skulls clean to make desk decorations. Dr. Heim converted to Islam and became “Uncle Tarek” Hussein Farid in Cairo, Egypt, where he lived a happy life as a medical doctor for the Egyptian police.
Two of Goebbels’s Nazi propagandists, Alfred Zingler and Dr. Johann von Leers, became Mahmoud Saleh and Omar Amin respectively, working in the Egyptian Information Department. In 1955, Zingler and von Leers helped establish the virulently anti-Semitic Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo. Hans Appler, another Goebbels propagandist, became Saleh Shafar who, in 1955, became an expert for an Egyptian unit specializing in anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist hate propaganda. Erich Altern, a Gestapo agent, Himmler coordinator in Poland, and expert in Jewish affairs, became Ali Bella, working as a military instructor in training camps for Palestinian terrorists. A German newspaper estimated there were fully 2,000 Nazis working openly and under state protection in Egypt.
Franz Bartel, an assistant Gestapo chief in Katowice, Poland, became El Hussein and a member of Egypt’s Ministry of Information. Hans Becher, a Gestapo agent in Vienna, became a police instructor in Cairo. Wilhelm Boerner, a brutal Mauthausen guard, became Ali Ben Keshir, working in the Egyptian Interior Ministry and as an instructor for a Palestinian terrorist group.
Egyptian society was so enamored with the Nazi war against the Jews that a young army officer felt compelled to write a postwar letter to Hitler via the Cairo weekly, Al Musawwar, as though Hitler were still alive. “My dear Hitler,” the officer wrote. “I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart. Even if you appear to have been defeated, in reality you are the victor. You succeeded in creating dissensions between Churchill, the old man, and his allies, the Sons of Satan … Germany will be reborn in spite of the Western and Eastern powers … The West, as well as the East, will pay for her rehabilitation—whether they like it or not. Both sides will invest a great deal of money and effort in Germany in order to have her on their side, which is of great benefit to Germany … As for the past, I think you made mistakes, like too many battlefronts and the shortsightedness of [Foreign Minister Joachim von] Ribbentrop vis-a vis the experienced British diplomacy … We will not be surprised if you appear again in Germany or if a new Hitler rises up in your wake.” The letter was signed “with affection” by Col. Anwar Sadat, later president of Egypt and the first Arab leader to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Nazism enraptures Iraq; the Farhud follows
Egypt was hardly alone in reinventing the Nazi war against the Jews. German Nazis also took up postwar positions of influence in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. But Iraq, long a Nazi Arab stronghold, was arguably among the most agitated in the Arab world.
From the moment Hitler took power in 1933, Iraq had distinguished itself throughout the Arab world as a top Nazi ally. The nexus was continually stoked by resident gestapo agents such as Fritz Grobba. Grobba employed such tactics as dispensing lots of cash among politicians and deploying seductive German women among ranking members of the army. From 1933, Radio Berlin began broadcasting hate messages in Arabic including fallacious reports about non-existent Jewish outrages in Palestine. Grobba, cultivated many Iraqis as surrogate Nazis. Iraqi Arab Hitler-style youth marched in Nuremburg torch light parades hosted by their Berlin counterparts. German was taught in Iraqi schools. When World War II broke out in 1939, Nazism became a fervent cause among many Iraqis.
In May 1941, Iraqi fascists backed by popular support tried to overthrow the pro-Western monarchy and seize British oil fields in Iraq to facilitate the oil-dependent German advance east to Russia. That failed. The Iraqi coup plotters in Baghdad decided to do the next best thing, exterminate its Jews in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in their homes, and their doors were marked with a red hamsa. At the last minute, the extermination plot fell apart. But as the coup leaders fled, in that momentarily power vacuum on June 1-2, 1941, dejected swarms of soldiers, in concert with police, common criminals and nondescript mobs rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easily found. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some decapitated. Babies were sliced in half and thrown into the Tigris river. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children. Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted, then burned.
The carnage continued unabated for almost two days until finally the British-backed monarchy was induced to restore order.
This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.”
Throughout the last years of the war, the murder spree was celebrated across the Arab world and in German ceremonies.
Many Iraqis seemed driven more by their obsession with Jewish Palestine and perpetuating Nazi precepts and anti-Jewish campaign than by a desire to rebuild their country or strengthen their democracy. Everything escalated fiercely in February 1947, when the United Nations agreed to vote on the question of Palestine’s partition. The 1937 Peel Commission’s recommendation for partition had now evolved from a white piece of paper into a binding international ballot among the world’s governments. The possibility of a legitimized and recognized Jewish state in the midst of Arab lands in Palestine was more than unthinkable. The Palestine conflict still dominated and defined the Iraqi national agenda, paralyzing action on Iraq’s other vital needs, such as the economy, infrastructure, health services, and education. The country’s newspapers warned that if “the Zionist entity” came into nationhood, no Iraqi government could control the Arab street in Baghdad.
Uniformly, the Arab regimes, including the Baghdad government, officially threatened that if the UN dared vote yes to partition, the Arabs would exact reprisals against the approximate 850,000 Jews who dwelled in countries throughout the extended Middle East and other Arab countries.
Violence against Iraqi Jews intensified in the months leading up to the vote. For example, on May 9, 1947, a Baghdad mob killed a hapless Jewish man after hysterical accusations that he gave poisoned candy to Arab children. In the Jewish quarter of Fallujah, homes were ransacked and local Jews were compelled to move in with friends and relatives in Baghdad. Large Jewish “donations” were regularly extorted and sent to Palestinian Arabs. The names of the “donors” were read on the radio to encourage more of the same.
Yet the Jews still deluded themselves that as loyal Iraqis, they belonged in the nation where they had dwelled for 2,600 years. This hardship would pass, they believed. But the Jewish Agency emissary in Iraq, encouraging relocation to the Jewish state, reported back to Jerusalem: “No attention is paid [by the Jews] to the frightful manifestations of hostility around them, which place all Jews on the verge of a volcano about to erupt.”
On November 29, 1947, the UN voted 33 yes, 13 no, with 10 abstentions, to create two states: one Palestinian Arab, the other Jewish.
Once the UN vote registered, a new anti-Jewish campaign exploded in Iraq. This time, it was not just pogroms but systematic pauperization, taking a cue from the confiscatory techniques developed by the Nazis who had now infested the government. Jews were charged with trumped-up offenses and fined exorbitant amounts. All the while, mob chants of “death to the Jews” became ever more commonplace.
Israel was set to declare its independence on May 14, 1948. In April 1948, Iraq shut down the Kirkuk-Haifa oil pipeline, thereby slashing its own income from oil royalties. Production at the Kirkuk field was immediately cut by 25 percent, from 4.3 million tons annually to 3.1 million tons. Moreover, the pipeline closure convulsed the delicate negotiations between the Baghdad regime and the British Petroleum-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company over a number of vital issues, such as calculation of royalties in gold as compared to pounds sterling, which had recently declined in value. By necessity, the question of hiring Iraqis as key company officers, and even a much-needed £3 million IPC loan to the Iraq government, were also sent to the back burner. In Iraq’s view, business and the national economy were overshadowed by the need to confront Israel.
The day after Israel declared its independence, on May 15, 1948, the new nation was invaded from all sides by armies contributed by most of the Arab states. It was not termed a war of liberation by the Arab leadership but a war of utter extermination. “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres,” promised Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League.
Iraq’s military forces saw very limited action. But martial law was imposed by Baghdad, so the dismal battle news was censored. The Arab armies, although more numerous, and rich in death rhetoric, were poorly organized, disunified, and militarily unprepared. Israel was not defeated. The UN negotiated and implemented an armistice with Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Only Iraq refused to sign, continuing its state of war and demanding what it called “a second round,” or another chance to fight. Ironically, as a result of the war, Israel now controlled even more of the land of Palestine. It was very convenient to once again blame Iraq’s Jews and Zionist gangs for this latest military disaster.
Every Jew a ‘criminal’
On July 19, 1948, Iraq amended penal code 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. As every Jew was thought to be a Zionist, every Jew was thereby criminalized. Only two Muslim witnesses were needed to denounce a Jew, with virtually no avenue of appeal.
In urban sweeps, thousands of Jewish homes were searched for secret caches of money thought destined for Israel. Frequently this necessitated demolishing walls as part of the search. One man was sentenced to five years’ hard labor for merely possessing a scrap of paper with an Old Testament Hebrew inscription; the paper was presumed to be a coded Zionist message. Hundreds of Jews were now arrested, forced to confess under torture, punished financially, and sentenced to long jail terms.
The greatest shock to the Jewish community occurred when the single wealthiest Jew in Iraq, Ford automobile importer Shafiq Ades, was accused of sending cars to Israel. Ades was tried by a military tribunal, quickly found guilty, fined $20 million and handed a death sentence. His entire estate was liquidated. A few days later, on September 23, 1948, Ades was publicly hanged in Basra. His body was allowed to languish in the square for hours, to be abused by the celebrating crowds.
Many more arrests, executions, and confiscations followed. In October, all Jews — an estimated 1,500 — were summarily dismissed from their government positions. This satisfied those with animus against the Jews, but crippled such key infrastructure organizations as the Irrigation Department, the Basra port, the Telephone and Telegraph Office, and the Railways Administration. For example, about 25 percent of the Basra port staff suddenly became unavailable. Some 350 Jewish workers were dismissed from the Railway Administration alone; there was no one to replace them and no personnel to train replacements, so workers were imported from Pakistan. The Jewish banks, key to foreign commerce, lost their licenses to import money.
Soon, the familiar sequence of Nazi-style pauperization began. Once a prosperous, generously spending community, the Iraqi Jews stopped purchasing and general spending, from the bazaars to the restaurants. Jewish businesses were boycotted; their owners were arrested; funds dried up. Many Jewish firms went out of business and their Arab employees soon became ex-employees, which only further punished the weakened consumer economy. Many purged Jewish government employees, highly skilled and formerly well paid, were now destitute and reduced to selling matches on the streets to avoid being arrested for vagrancy. Jewish home values dropped by 80 percent. What’s more, the national treasury was crippled as a result of a 50 percent drop in oil revenues due to the Haifa line shutdown and the considerable military expenditures for the unproductive venture against Israel in the 1948 war.
The once genteel and gracious life of Jews in Iraq was about to terminate. The Zionists had seen the process during prior years in Germany, Austria, Poland, Holland, Hungary, and elsewhere. Now it was time for the Zionist underground to step up its activities. It had been smuggling Jews out of Iraq for years, generally through Transjordan and Lebanon. But the war for Israeli independence had obstructed those westward routes. The refugee caravans now looked east to Iran.
Exiting, to the east
The first 26 persons were smuggled through in November 1948, even though Islamic Iran had not recognized Israel. But now, the transit operation would not be limited to dozens but to thousands. A little bribery helped immensely; $450,000 was given, mainly to the Iranian prime minister, but also to other government officials and media sources. Bribes in hand, Iran’s prime minister announced that his country would open its doors as a grand humanitarian gesture in keeping with its 6,000-year tradition of tolerance. Iraqi Jews in large numbers were now permitted to transit via Iran. Eventually the number of such travelers rose to 1,000 per month.
With the escapees went their money and some possessions; in other words, it was a flight of capital as well as people. This further battered Iraq’s national economy. A debate gripped Iraq. Should the Jews be expelled? Expelling Jews to Israel would only provide more manpower to the Jewish state. On the other hand, every Jew was considered a spy and an enemy; why keep them in the country? Should all their economic holdings be seized? That would only glut the market with cheap land, homes, and possessions, especially since Jews were already sacrificing their assets at just 5 or 10 percent of their worth — anything to extract some value and flee. One refugee recalled, “When the Jews left, they sold their possessions for pennies. A rug worth 2,000 to 3,000 dinars sold for 20 to 30 dinars.”
Moreover, the rapid subtraction of Jews from the financial, administrative, retail, and export sectors was devastating. One day, they were just gone. Unlike Germany, a nation of 60 million where non-Jews had rushed in to fill the professional and commercial vacuum, within the small Iraqi population, in many cases, there was no one to replace the Jews — certainly not overnight.
An estimated 130,000 Jews lived in the Iraq of 1949, with about 90,000 residing in Baghdad. The Baghdad Chamber of Commerce listed 2,430 member companies. A third were Jewish; and, in fact, a third of the chamber’s board and almost all of its employees were Jewish. Jewish firms transacted 45 percent of the exports and nearly 75 percent of the imports. A quarter of all Iraqi Jews worked in transportation, such as the railways and port administration. The controller of the budget was Jewish. A key director of the Iraqi National Bank was Jewish. The Currency Office board members were all Jewish. The Foreign Currency Committee was about 95 percent Jewish. Over the centuries, Jews had become essential to the economy.
On March 3, 1950, to halt the uncontrolled flight of assets and people, Iraqi Prime Minister Tawfig as-Suwaydi engineered the passage of an amendment to Law 1, the Denaturalization Act. The amendment authorized revocation of citizenship to any Jew who willingly left the country. The new measure mimicked similar legislation in Nazi Germany. Upon exit, Jewish assets were frozen but were still available to the emigrants for use within Iraq. Once Jews registered to emigrate, the decision was permanent, and they were required to leave within 15 days. The window would not be wide. The amendment to Law 1 would expire in one year.
The doors swung open, albeit only briefly. Iraqi officials guesstimated that 7,000 to 10,000 of the most undesirable Jews, mainly those already pauperized, would be the only ones to leave. The wealthier Jews, officials were convinced, would never abandon their lives. The state thought it could declare “good riddance” to just a fraction of its Jewish citizens and maintain the remainder. They were wrong.
The 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. In wave after wave, groups of refugees left the country via the overland route. Soon, large overcrowded refugee camps sprang up in Iran to accommodate the exodus.
Quickly it became clear that the land route was now insufficient for such a volume. Israel’s Mossad Le-Aliya, the clandestine group invented during the Hitler-era to smuggle Jews to safety, knew an airlift was needed to rescue as many Jews as possible before Iraq changed its mind.
The Mossad called in its most reliable partner for airlifting Jews: Alaska Airlines. Its president, James Wooten, had been instrumental in rescuing the Jews of Yemen just after the state was born. El Al, Wooten, and Alaska formed a new airline with a new identity called Near East Air Transport (NEAT). Israeli ownership was hidden, so NEAT appeared to be strictly an Alaska Airlines venture.
Israel’s original passenger projections vastly exceeded anything that the stunned Iraqi government officials had contemplated. Israel envisioned flying out about half the Iraqi Jewish population — 40,000 the first year, and more thereafter, for a total of 60,000. Flights would operate through Nicosia, Cyprus, or possibly direct to Tel Aviv if the fact of Israel-bound flights could be kept secret.
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah
NEAT needed an Iraqi partner to secure charter rights in Iraq. The perfect partner was the well-established Iraq Tours, based in Baghdad. Who was the chairman of Iraq Tours? It was Iraq’s 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 at first called the rescue Operation Ali Baba, but it later became known by the original code name, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, for the prophets who had led the Jews of Babylon out of exile back to Israel millennia before.
Within days of the airlift’s inauguration, some 30,000 Jews had registered at their synagogues and were therefore required to leave within 15 days. But only 7,000 of those first registrants had completed the lengthy and redundant bureaucratic process of obtaining all the right forms, from all the right people, with all the right stamps, in all the right order. Once at the airport, departing Jews were abused and humiliated. Rings were pulled from their hands and linings were torn from their hats as officials looked for valuables during a thorough search.
Their papers were slowly re-registered and re-stamped, and only then were they finally approved for takeoff — generally, an additional six-hour ordeal. There weren’t enough hours in the day, seats on the small two-engine aircraft, or planes in the tiny NEAT fleet 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, furious over the mass departure, made it 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’s government announced that if these Jews were not removed — and swiftly — the government was prepared to move them into concentration camps. The very phrase “concentration camp,” coming on the heels of the Holocaust, was chilling.
More planes were needed. More firms were needed. The British wanted their national airlines, BOAC and BEA, to participate in the lucrative airlift. The Iraqis also wanted their national airline, Iraqi Airways, to join the project. So Iraqi Airways was given the ground maintenance contract, 30 dinars for every flight. British planes were used, but with a 7.7 percent fee to Iraqi Airways. 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.”
However, Israel’s fragile infrastructure was now so strained it could barely accept any more Iraqi refugees. Scores of thousands of refugees were also streaming in from war-ravaged Eastern Europe as well as other Arab nations. Tiny Israel did not know whether it had enough tents, let alone housing units. The Jewish state tried to negotiate for fewer refugees per month.
Nuri Said now realized that his 120,000 captive Jews constituted more than just undesirables. These Jews could be turned into a demographic weapon against Israel. In March 1951, Nuri engineered yet another statute, this one, Law 5, permanently freezing all the assets of the Jews who were denaturalized by the previous law. Technically, those seizures were deemed a mere “freezing” of accounts, not a legal confiscation; so under international law, the assets could never be claimed.
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 the 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. If Israel would not accept these stateless enemies now, the concentration camps would be readied. Indeed, the Iraqi parliament had already discussed establishing such camps.
Nuri clearly expected the Jewish state to crack beneath the weight of the humanitarian effort. Numbers negotiation commenced between Iraqi and Israeli go-betweens. However, Nuri was adamant that the Jews must transfer en masse, not according to Israel’s capacity to accept them, but according to Iraq’s roiling impatience to expel them. Otherwise, camps. It would be Germany all over again.
Jewish Agency emissaries in the field confirmed the dire conditions of refugees who would now arrive with nothing. “The number of destitute people is growing,” reported one agent. “After the passing of this law, we are liable to reach a situation where 80 percent are penniless and unable to [even] cover the cost of their emigration … In Basra, the situation is very bad. The immigrants leaving on the next three aircraft are all poor. They have sold their blankets in return for food.”
Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett vociferously condemned Iraq’s extortion and state-sponsored theft. Estimates of the value of Iraqi Jewry’s blocked assets ranged from 6 million to 12 million dinars or, at its highest valuation, some $300 million in 21st century money.
Sharett swore that Israel “considers this act of robbery by force of law to be the continuation of the evil oppression which Iraq has always practiced against defenseless minorities … We have a reckoning to conduct with the Arab world as to the compensation due to Arabs who left Israeli territory and abandoned their property there because of the war of the Arab world against our state. The act perpetrated by the Iraqi kingdom against the property of Jews that have not transgressed against Iraqi law, and have not undermined her status or plotted against her, forces us to combine the two accounts. Hence,” Sharett declared, “the government has decided to inform the appropriate UN institution and I proclaim this publicly, that 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 absorbs the dispossessed
Israel had no choice but to absorb all 120,000 Iraqi Jews. The flights increased, day and night, using twin engines, four engines, any craft available, through Nicosia or direct to Tel Aviv — as many as possible, as fast as possible. In some months, as many as 15,000 people were flown. 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. The Jews were mocked every step of the way.
Between January 1950 and December 1951, Israel airlifted, bused, 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 the three provinces of Mesopotamia as their chosen place on earth. This dispossessed group, who arrived in Israel with nothing but their memories, rose to become some of the Jewish state’s most productive citizens.
Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews from across the Muslim world were expelled to Israel during those first years, some 850,000 in all. They transformed the Jewish state from a European haven to a true Mideast country, now also vastly populated with citizens of Arab countries — citizens who by religion were Jewish.
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, May 31, continuing on in New York later that day, then in London on June 2, and finally in Jerusalem’s Knesset on June 6. For further information, go to www.thefarhud.com.