Operation Ezra and Nehemiah

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From 1950 to 1952, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah airlifted between 120,000 and 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel[1][2] via Iran and Cyprus. The massive emigration of Iraqi Jews was among the most climactic events of the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. By 1968, only 2,000 Jews remained in Iraq. Today,[when?] fewer than 100 Jews remain, all of whom live in Baghdad.[citation needed]

The operation is named after Ezra and Nehemiah, who led the Jewish people from exile in Babylonia to return to Israel in the 5th century BC, as recorded in the books of the Hebrew Bible that bear their names.


The critical change in Iraqi Jewish identity occurred after the violent Farhud or pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad, on June 1–2, 1941 following the collapse of the pro-Nazi Golden Square regime of Rashid Ali al-Kaylani. At least 180 Jews were killed during two days of riots, and the Baghdadi Jewish community was irreversibly hit. After the Farhud, Jews began fleeing Iraq at an increasing rate.

After 1945, there were frequent demonstrations in Iraq against the Jews and especially against Zionism. In 1947, with the affirmation of the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, and Israeli Independence in 1948, the Jews began to feel that their lives were in danger. Immigration to Mandatory Palestine (later Israel) was banned in 1947, and following Israeli independence, Zionism was declared a capital offense. Jews working in government jobs were dismissed, and hundreds were arrested for Zionist or Communist activity, both real and imagined, tried in military courts, and were given harsh prison sentences or heavily fined.[3]

On October 23, 1948, Shafiq Ades, a respected Jewish businessman, was publicly hanged in Basra on charges of selling weapons to Israel and the Iraqi Communist Party, an event that increased the sense of insecurity among Jews.

Iraqi Jews began fleeing to Iran, from where they were flown to Israel. By 1949, the Iraqi Zionist underground was smuggling Jews out of the country at the rate of 1,000 a month.[4] In March 1950, the Iraqi government passed a special bill permitting Jewish emigration on condition that Jews renounce their Iraqi citizenship. The law was motivated both by economic considerations (the assets of departing Jews would be confiscated by the government), as well as a belief that Jews were a potentially troublesome minority who Iraq would be better off without. At first, few would register, as the Zionist movement suggested they not do so until property issues had been clarified. After mounting pressure from both Jews and the Government, the movement relented and agreed to registrations.

At first, the Iraqi emigration law allowed the Jews to sell their property and liquidate their businesses. However, later on the government would confiscate the property of Jews relinquishing their citizenship, including those who had already left. Departing Jews were permitted to take no more than $140 and 66 pounds of luggage out of the country, and were also prohibited from taking jewelry with them.[5]

A series of bomb attacks against Jewish places and people, known as the 1950–1951 Baghdad bombings, began in March 1950 and sped up the desire for emigration to Israel.


Immigrants from Iraq leaving Lod airport on their way to ma'abara, 1951

In March 1951, the Israeli government organized an airlift operation. Waiting in Baghdad was a tense and difficult period. Some 50,000 Jews signed up in one month, and two months later there were 90,000 on the list. This mass movement stunned the Iraqi Government, which had not expected the number of immigrants to exceed 8,000, and feared that administrative institutions run by Jews might collapse. At the same time, the Zionist movement issued a manifesto calling on the Jews to sign up for immigration. It started with the following: "O, Zion, flee, daughter of Babylon," and concluded thus: "Jews! Israel is calling you — come out of Babylon!"

The operation was conducted by the Near East Transport Company and the Israeli national airline El Al. The flights began in mid-May 1951, when Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Cyprus, from where they were flown to Israel. Several months later, a giant airlift operated directly from Baghdad to Lod Airport. Operation Ezra and Nehemiah ended in early 1952, leaving only about 6,000 Jews in Iraq. Most of the 2,800-year-old Jewish community immigrated to Israel.


After the initial emigration, the number of Jews in Baghdad decreased from 100,000 to 5,000. Although they enjoyed a brief period of security during the reign of Abdul Karim Qassim, later regimes would seriously increase the persecution of Iraqi Jews.[6] In 1968 there were only about 2,000 Jews still living there. On January 27, 1969 nine Jews were hanged on charges of spying for Israel causing most of the remaining community to flee the country. Today fewer than 100 Jews remain.

Until Operation Ezra and Nehemiah there were 28 Jewish educational institutions in Baghdad, 16 under the supervision of the community committee and the rest privately run. The number of pupils reached 12,000 and many others learned in foreign and government schools. About 400 students studied medicine, law, economics, pharmacy, and engineering. In 1951 the Jewish school for the blind was closed; it was the only school of its type in Baghdad. The Jews of Baghdad had two hospitals in which the poor received free treatment, and several philanthropic services. Out of sixty synagogues in 1950, there remained only seven after 1970. Most public buildings were seized by the government for paltry or no compensation.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pasachoff, Naomi E.; Robert J. Littman (2005). ""Operation Magic Carpet" and "Operation Ezra and Nehemiah"". A Concise History of the Jewish People. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 301. ISBN 0-7425-4366-8. Retrieved June 28, 2008. 
  2. ^ "Operations Ezra & Nechemia: The Aliyah of Iraqi Jews". Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Retrieved June 27, 2008. 
  3. ^ Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, Sasson Somekh
  4. ^ R. S. Simon, S. Reguer, M. Laskier, The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times (Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 365
  5. ^ Operation Ezra & Nehemiah
  6. ^ a b Nissim Kazaz, the end of an exile, life of Jews after the exodus, 1951–2000


  • Mordechai Ben-Porat To Baghdad and Back: The Miraculous 2,000 Year Homecoming of the Iraqi Jews, Gefen Publishing House, 1998. ISBN 965-229-195-1
  • Mahir Ünsal Eriş, Kürt Yahudileri – Din, Dil, Tarih, (Kurdish Jews) In Turkish, Kalan Publishing, Ankara, 2006
  • Shlomo Hillel, Operation Babylon Fontana, Collins Press, 1988/89, translated from the Hebrew by Ina Friedman.

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