When the State of Israel was established there were some 135,000 Jews living in Iraq. More than half of them resided in the capital city of Baghdad. The community was largely a wealthy one, and enjoyed a high social status.
With the acceptance in 1947 by the United Nations of the Partition Plan, the Iraqi government introduced measures against the Jews. When the War of Independence broke out, Iraq joined in the battle against the new State, and was the only Arab country that refused to sign the cease-fire agreement at the conclusion of the war.
In 1948, following the declaration of the establishment of the State, thousands of Iraqi Jews were arrested and imprisoned and the Zionist organizations were declared illegal. Jews who requested to make aliyah faced the death penalty. Various additional restrictions were imposed upon Iraqi Jews; among them the prohibition against moving from one location to another within Iraq, restrictions preventing attendance at schools and hospitals, and other harsh measures. The government of Israel, aware of the difficulties facing Iraqi Jews, looked for ways to bring them to Israel. One solution was the creation of a secret overland escape route. Despite the length and the dangers of the route, some 3000 Jews managed to escape between December 1949 and February 1950. A much-awaited change came in 1950, when the Iraqi government gave permission to the Jews to immigrate on condition that they renounce their Iraqi citizenship, relinquish their property, and forfeit the right to ever return in the future. The reasons behind this permission are not clear, but seem to have been a combination of the desire of the Iraqi authorities to stop monitoring the Zionist activities of the Jews, the government’s wish to appropriate Jewish property, and their need to improve their international image and reputation.
The Immigrants and Their Journey
As a result of the special permission to leave Iraq, the State of Israel made preparations to undertake a rescue operation. The Iraqi Jews, who were obliged to renounce their Iraqi citizenship, were required to register and to wait for their turn to depart for Israel. At first only a small number of Jews registered thanks to fears that the purpose of the law was to expose Zionists amongst the Jewish community. However, after a short time, once the Jews realized that the Iraqi government was truly willing to allow them to depart; ever-greater numbers began to renounce their citizenship and to register for aliyah.
The aliyah of each community was managed via local communal Jewish organizations, including registration for aliyah, waiting for a passport, and payments to the Iraqi government for each family member. Each flight was assigned a date, and as the date approached, each community made its way to Baghdad to wait amongst relatives or others members of the Baghdad Jewish community. Organization for the flights was handled by shalichim of the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee.
The government of Israel engaged an American airline company to transport the immigrants from Baghdad to Cyprus, from whence the Jews were brought to Israel. As the rate of aliyah increased, the government of Baghdad ceased to ensure that each flight would be via Cyprus, and planes began to fly directly to Lod airport. During Operation Ezra and Nehemiah more than 120,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel, almost the entire Iraqi Jewish community.