Iraq 17: 99-year-old Iraqi Jew reaches Israel at last

July 28, 2003

* "99-year-old Iraqi Jew reaches Israel at last"
* Media forgets to mention the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Jews

 

CONTENTS

1. "Elderly Iraqi Jews taken to Israel in a secret airlift," (Miami Herald, July 28, 2003)
2. "52-Year separation ends as Iraqi Jews arrive in Israel" (New York Times, July 28, 2003)
3. "Israel-Iraqi immigrants" (Associated Press, July 28, 2003)
4. "Six of Iraq's 34 remaining Jews immigrate to Israel" (Reuters, July 25, 2003)
5. Reuters article from June 30, 2003, that makes no mention of the fact that the Jews were kicked out of Iraq or why there were only 34 left.


ONLY 28 JEWS LEFT IN IRAQ

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach five articles dealing with the immigration of six of the remaining 34 Iraqi Jews to Israel, with summaries first.

Among the six that arrived was a 99-year-old woman and her 70-year-old daughter, another 70 year-old woman who was the last Jew in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and a blind 90-year old Baghdad resident.

This was the first flight from Iraq to Israel since 1951, and the first ever between the former Saddam Hussein International Airport and Ben Gurion International Airport.

While the articles I attach below from the Miami Herald and the New York Times both acknowledge that 130,000 Jews "fled" Iraq in 1950-51, many other papers taking their cues from the Reuters and Associated Press news agencies do not. In the story attached below, for example, Reuters merely states "More than 129,000 Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel after its establishment in 1948." Associated Press writes "Iraq once had a community of 130,000 Jews, but about 120,000 made their way to Israel between 1949 and 1952, with smaller numbers of Jews leaving the country in subsequent years."

The same newspapers that repeatedly carry articles about Palestinian refugees being "forced or driven out" seem to have trouble writing about Jewish refugees. They do niot mention that Jews were systematically expelled by the Iraqi government. Iraqi legislation in 1948-51 first outlawed Zionist "behavior," then deprived Jews of their Iraqi nationality, access to education, and finally, of all their property. President Truman helped organize a massive airlift in 1951 to bring the desperate Iraqi Jewish community to Israel. (Information in this last paragraph from HonestReporting.)

Unlike Reuters, the Wall Street Journal front page article about Iraqi Jews, (on June 30, 2003) read "In 1948,anti-Jewish riots swept the Arab world. In Iraq, regulations modeled on Nazi Germany's Nuremberg laws restricted the role of Jews in commerce. By 1952, most Iraqi Jews were in Israel, while many of their homes became hostels for Palestinian refugees fleeing the other way." (Information courtesy of an anonymous subscriber to this list.)

Furthermore, the newspapers that so readily and wrongly describe Israel as an "apartheid" and "racist" state, seem to be lost for words when there is real ethnic cleansing and government sponsored apartheid against Jews in Arab countries. (Israel has a large Arab population which participates fully in most aspects of Israeli life; to the extent that there is discrimination against minorities, it is no greater than that suffered by minorities throughout Europe and north America, and pales in comparison with countries such as Saudi Arabia.)

-- Tom Gross

 

SUMMARIES

1. "Elderly Iraqi Jews taken to Israel in a secret airlift" (Miami Herald, July 28, 2003). "Word of the evacuation leaked to the Israeli press, and then around the world over the weekend, with photos gracing Israeli newspapers Sunday. Officials had not planned to publicize it but acknowledged that it was sponsored by the Jewish Agency, which hopes to arrange future flights for the last several dozen elderly remnants of Iraq's once-flourishing Jewish community."

2. "52-Year separation ends as Iraqi Jews arrive in Israel" (New York Times, July 28, 2003). "After more than a half century of separation enforced by Middle Eastern political strife, two Jewish sisters embraced today in a hotel lobby, tears forming in the corners of their eyes. Salima Moshe Nissim, 79, a lifelong resident of Basra, Iraq, was one of six Iraqi Jews who agreed to leave their homeland on a charter flight on Friday that took them directly from Baghdad to Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv. Her sister Marcel Madar, 83, who left Basra in 1951, during a period when the vast majority of Iraq's 130,000 Jews fled the country, was among several relatives waiting just down the road from the airport."

3. "Israel-Iraqi immigrants" (The Associated Press, July 28, 2003). "Six of the estimated 34 Jews remaining in Iraq have arrived in Israel, including a 99-year-old woman, officials said... Iraq once had a community of 130,000 Jews, but about 120,000 made their way to Israel between 1949 and 1952, with smaller numbers of Jews leaving the country in subsequent years."

4. "Six of Iraq's 34 remaining Jews immigrate to Israel" (Reuters, July 25, 2003). Six of Iraq's 34 known remaining Jews immigrated to Israel on Friday, the first members of the tiny community in Baghdad to do so since the U.S.-led invasion, an Israeli immigration official said. "We have a lot of respect for these people who carried the Jewish burden and maintained their Judaism all these years," Giora Rom, director-general of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said about the newcomers, all of them elderly. "I am happy to come here today," Ezra Levy, 82, said in Hebrew in an interview with Channel Two from inside the airport arrival hall. "I haven't spoken Hebrew since 1930."

5. Reuters article from June 30, 2003, that makes no mention of the fact that the Jews were kicked out of Iraq or why there were only 34 left. It states: "migration and the simple march of time may end Jewish history in Iraq... Iraq's Jews trace their roots to the capture of Jerusalem nearly 2,600 years ago by King Nebuchadnezzar... Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Iraq still had a vibrant Jewish community some 280,000 people by Safer's recollection."



FULL ARTICLES

ELDERLY IRAQI JEWS TAKEN TO ISRAEL IN A SECRET AIRLIFT

Elderly Iraqi Jews taken to Israel in a secret airlift
By Carol Rosenberg
Miami Herald
July 28, 2003

Ezra Levy, 82, who until last week was a lifelong resident of Baghdad, didn't hesitate a second Sunday when he was asked what he liked best so far about his new life in the land of Israel.

"All the beautiful women I've seen," he replied with a partially toothless grin. "The beautiful women of Israel are different than those of Baghdad."

Levy arrived Friday, along with five other elderly Jews aboard a secret airlift from Iraq, a country where Jewish women are scarce these days.

He expects his son, Imad, 37, to follow soon from his service as the bachelor rabbi of Baghdad, tending to an aged community without a wife.

"I was very glad to come to Israel. I decided to leave everything behind, not to look back and look forward," Levy said in a burst of Arabic, then offered this in a more hesitant Hebrew, the language of his new country: "I haven't spoken Hebrew since 1930. But I'm beginning to understand."

MEDIA ATTENTION

Word of the evacuation leaked to the Israeli press, and then around the world over the weekend, with photos gracing Israeli newspapers Sunday. Officials had not planned to publicize it but acknowledged that it was sponsored by the Jewish Agency, which hopes to arrange future flights for the last several dozen elderly remnants of Iraq's once-flourishing Jewish community.

Jewish Agency envoy Shlomo Grafi, who traveled to Iraq on a U.S. passport, acknowledged that American troops cooperated with the effort, and dispatched armor to escort a minibus around Baghdad to collect those who chose to come. Friday's flight brought the first six, including a 99-year-old woman who was so feeble that Grafi had to carry her aboard a special Jordanian charter plane for the under-three-hour flight.

Not only was it the first direct Baghdad-Tel Aviv air link since 1951, it was also the first flight of the six Jews' lives, departing the former Saddam Hussein International Airport and arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport just ahead of the Jewish Sabbath.

Iraq broke ties with Israel in the early 1950s, but not before tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews teemed into the newborn Jewish state from the land where their ancestors were exiled 2,500 years ago by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Almost all the rest fled in the 1960s and '70s, and when Saddam Hussein rose to power the last several hundred got special protection from his secular, Baath Party regime.

By the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq this year, they numbered about 35. They recently have been mostly homebound and fearful to even go to synagogue because of chaos in the Iraqi capital since the collapse of Hussein's government.

Just last week, amid reports that U.S. troops had killed Hussein's sons, Iraqis "were shooting all over the place," presumably in celebration, Levy said. "It was worrying."

Levy, for his part, said it was a tough decision to leave. But he said he did it to see his baby sister, Dalia, 60, who left at age 8 and has raised an Israeli family, and to see other relatives, including a nephew, Eli Levy, a Miami psychologist who expects to visit soon.

HARD CHOICE

Grafi said some of the Jews took some convincing to leave, and for all it was an emotional, uncertain choice. Levy, for example, only agreed to go after he went to a Baghdad cemetery, lay down on his wife's grave and wept in a final farewell. She died in 1991.

Levy is by far the fittest and most telegenic of the bunch. One elderly woman went straight to the hospital, after Grafi found her emaciated and in a near coma at her Baghdad home, without water or electricity.

Israeli officials said they will give them geriatric housing and other support to let them live their last days in dignity.

But Levy seemed already accommodating to his new life.

Saturday brought visits from cousins, nieces and nephews, native Israelis born after his brothers and sisters fled Baghdad in 1951. Sunday brought a battery of medical checks, including X-rays to inspect a pin that Iraqi surgeons put in a broken hip; a new immigrant's card; and 1,700 shekels in cash, or about $425, his first government pension.

Today, unless he is too tired, he plans to travel to Jerusalem, and visit Israel's parliament.

 

52-YEAR SEPARATION ENDS AS IRAQI JEWS ARRIVE IN ISRAEL

52-Year separation ends as Iraqi Jews arrive in Israel
By Greg Myre
New York Times
July 28, 2003

After more than a half century of separation enforced by Middle Eastern political strife, two Jewish sisters embraced today in a hotel lobby, tears forming in the corners of their eyes.

Salima Moshe Nissim, 79, a lifelong resident of Basra, Iraq, was one of six Iraqi Jews who agreed to leave their homeland on a charter flight on Friday that took them directly from Baghdad to Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv.

Her sister Marcel Madar, 83, who left Basra in 1951, during a period when the vast majority of Iraq's 130,000 Jews fled the country, was among several relatives waiting today at the Avia Hotel, just down the road from the airport. She was the only one Ms. Nissim had met before.

"I was all alone in Basra, and I was never happy because I could not see my family," Ms. Nissim said. Her last surviving relative in Iraq, her mother, died in 1967, and for years she knew of no other Jews living in the southern Iraqi city.

During Saddam Hussein's long rule, Iraq and Israel traded frequent recriminations and occasional airstrikes. But with the Americans in charge of Iraq for now, Israel is pushing to develop contacts and relations that have not existed since Israel's founding in 1948.

Two Jewish organizations, the Jewish Agency and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, organized the flight with the cooperation of the American military. The Jewish Agency is also working with the Americans to obtain Jewish archives that were seized by the Iraqi government.

Israel has raised the possibility of a peace deal with a future Iraqi government, and last week Israel's Finance Ministry ended a ban on commercial trade with Iraq.

But those projects are in the future, if they happen at all. For the sisters, today was all that mattered.

Ms. Nissim recalled that her two sisters and brother left Iraq in 1951, while she remained with her parents. Ms. Nissim married, but her husband died two years later.

After her parents died, she managed to support herself by giving English lessons, feeling tolerated but not particularly welcome.

After the fall of Mr. Hussein, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society sent representatives to Iraq and located 34 Jews, almost all of them old, in poor health and living in a single Baghdad neighborhood, near a synagogue that rarely opened.

Most decided to stay, at least for now. But six, all but one 70 or older, chose to leave.

The Jewish Agency organized the flight, while the American forces provided a military escort to the Baghdad airport, according to Michael Rosenberg, a Jewish Agency official.

The oldest member of the group, 99-year-old Naima Eliyahu Hallali, came with her 70-year-old daughter. Ms. Hallali was treated for exhaustion immediately upon her arrival.

All have relatives in Israel, but in most instances contact was severed decades ago.

During the 1950's, Ms. Nissim was able to send letters to family members in Israel via another relative in Iran. But that channel was closed around 1960.

As she sat down to a meal at the hotel, she was handed a cellphone, which was clearly alien to her. On the line was a nephew in Belgium. She inquired about every relative who sprang to mind, and in each case the response was the same.

"Everybody I ask about is dead," Ms. Nissim said.

Sitting quietly nearby was Sassoon Abdul, 90, a retired railroad worker and a lifelong bachelor, who had no relatives waiting for him.

"I think I have a nephew here, but I'm not sure," Mr. Abdul said. He speaks fluent English, learned long ago when Britain was running Iraq.

His life in Baghdad was difficult, and the war this year made it unbearable. "When the war came, there was no electricity and I couldn't rest," he said. "They asked me if I wanted to come, and I agreed."

By the time Mr. Hussein came to power three decades ago, the Jewish community in Iraq, as in most Arab countries, had dwindled to a small number, and Jews were mostly ignored.

The Iraqi government seized Jewish archives and stored them in the basement of an intelligence building, according to the Jewish Agency. The United States bombed the building this spring, smashing water pipes that flooded the basement and damaged the archives, which are currently in American possession.

Israel's limited dealings with the Arab world have suffered during the last three years of fighting with the Palestinians. But the last few months have produced renewed contacts.

Silvan Shalom, Israel's foreign minister, met today with his Moroccan counterpart in London, and recently held talks with the foreign minister of Qatar and the crown prince of Bahrain.

According to the Israeli news media, Friday's charter was believed to have been the first direct flight between the countries since an airlift in 1950-51 that brought thousands of Iraqi Jews to Israel.

Upon his arrival, Ezra Levy, 75, brushed off the Hebrew he had rarely used in decades and recited a poem he had learned as a boy.

"Do you bring me friendly greetings from my brothers there in Zion, brothers far yet near," he said on Israeli television. "O the happy! O the blessed! Do they guess what heavy sorrows I must suffer here?"

 

IRAQ ONCE HAD A COMMUNITY OF 130,000 JEWS

Israel-Iraqi immigrants
The Associated Press
July 28, 2003

Six of the estimated 34 Jews remaining in Iraq have arrived in Israel, including a 99-year-old woman, officials said.

The six were elderly and the effort to take them out of Iraq was considered a humanitarian mission, said Giora Rom, director general of the Jewish Agency, the organization responsible for bringing Jews to Israel.

Iraq once had a community of 130,000 Jews, but about 120,000 made their way to Israel between 1949 and 1952, with smaller numbers of Jews leaving the country in subsequent years.

Only 34 Jews were found in Iraq by a Jewish Agency envoy who visited the country after the U.S.-led defeat of Saddam Hussein's government, Rom said.

The other 28 Iraqi Jews did not want to come to Israel, said Rom speaking on Israel's Channel 2 TV. The agency supplied those who stayed with religious articles.

Among the six that arrived over the weekend was a 99-year-old woman and her 70-year-old daughter, another 70 year-old woman who was the last Jew in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and a blind 90-year old Baghdad resident.

The names of the six were not released, and the Jewish Agency kept the mission a secret until they landed in Israel.

Rom said that one of the women spoke to her son in Israel for the first time in 35 years during a stopover in Amman, Jordan. Two of the women were taken by ambulance for medical checkups immediately after landing in Tel Aviv.

Channel 2 reported that the six had been flown from Iraq to Jordan with British aid and from there to Israel on a specially chartered plane.

 

SIX OF IRAQ'S 34 REMAINING JEWS IMMIGRATE TO ISRAEL

Six of Iraq's 34 remaining Jews immigrate to Israel
Reuters
July 25, 2003

Six of Iraq's 34 known remaining Jews immigrated to Israel on Friday, the first members of the tiny community in Baghdad to do so since the U.S.-led invasion, an Israeli immigration official said. "We have a lot of respect for these people who carried the Jewish burden and maintained their Judaism all these years," Giora Rom, director-general of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said about the newcomers, all of them elderly.

"I am happy to come here today," Ezra Levy, 82, said in Hebrew in an interview with Channel Two from inside the airport arrival hall. "I haven't spoken Hebrew since 1930."

The group, which arrived on a flight from Amman, included a 99-year-old woman. Some were met at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport by family members who immigrated from Iraq to Israel decades ago.

"We want them to be able to end their days with dignity," Rom said.

He gave no other details of their exodus from Iraq, where the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that arranges immigration to the Jewish state, carried out a survey of the Jewish community last month.

It found there were no children among the Jews of Baghdad, half of whom are over the age of 70, and there had not been a Jewish wedding in the city since 1978.

The Jewish Agency said that while Jews in Iraq had faced some persecution and confiscation of property over the years, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had made sure they were not harmed.

But since Saddam's fall, fears have grown among Baghdad's Jews that they could become targets for radicals gaining strength in Iraq.

One Muslim cleric issued a decree last month forbidding followers from selling land to Jews and promised death to any Jew who bought real estate.

Iraq's Jewish community traces its roots to the deportation of thousands of Jews from Jerusalem some 2,500 years ago, after the city was captured by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

More than 129,000 Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel after its establishment in 1948.

 

WHY ONLY 34 JEWS LEFT IN IRAQ?

(Reuters article from June 30, 2003, that makes no mention of the fact that the Jews were kicked out of Iraq or why there are only 34 left.)

By Daniel Trotta
Reuters
June 30, 2003

Under Saddam Hussein, they were a privileged group, protected and left to worship as they wished.

Since U.S. troops toppled Saddam in April and Iraq cascaded into lawlessness, they have taken refuge behind high walls and closed their house of prayer. One Muslim cleric has made death threats against them and they say they fear for their future.

They are the 34 Jews of Iraq.

"I speak the truth: Saddam Hussein was good to us," said Tawfik Safer, 80, outside the now locked doors of Baghdad's last synagogue.

"I think it was because we had nothing to do with politics," he said on Monday in the courtyard of the synagogue, a plain building but for Hebrew script at the entrance and anonymously surrounded by high walls.

Safer has seen a thriving community that traced its roots back to the Babylon of biblical times, whittled to below three dozen, most of them old and frail like himself. There is little prospect of new births.

Saddam fired Scud missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War and gave money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

But the Jews of Baghdad, left behind by tens of thousands who departed for Israel over the past half-century, were afforded the direct telephone number of an Iraqi state security officer they could call if anyone bothered them.

"We did our fasting. We celebrated Passover. We read our religious books. Then the war came and the synagogue was closed because of the circumstances," Safer said.

There has been no trouble since Baghdad fell on April 9, said Mohammed Jasim, 30, caretaker of the building, which was put up in 1942 in what is now a largely Christian neighbourhood.

But around Iraq suspicion comes easily, of minorities all the more so. One notable Shi'ite cleric last week issued a decree, or fatwa, forbidding followers from selling land to Jews and promised death to any Jew who bought real estate.

DWINDLING NUMBERS

Whatever the ill intentions of others may bring, migration and the simple march of time may end Jewish history in Iraq.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which arranges immigration, has sent an envoy to Baghdad to make first contact.

The envoy, who spent three days in Baghdad two weeks ago visiting some of the 34 people the Agency says have presented themselves as Jews, found there were no children among them the last Jewish wedding in the city was in 1978.

Safer and two Iraqi Jews of the younger generation, Khalida and Nidal Saleh, sisters in their late 30s, said they had not heard from the agency but in any case they would not leave.

"I want to live here. We were born in Iraq," Khalida said.

Iraq's Jews trace their roots to the capture of Jerusalem nearly 2,600 years ago by King Nebuchadnezzar. He sent Jews to his capital Babylon, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, making it the cultural centre of the Jewish world for almost 1,000 years.

Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Iraq still had a vibrant Jewish community some 280,000 people by Safer's recollection. Nearly half that number settled in the newly created Israel. Others went to Europe or America.

Safer walks in slow motion with two canes and greeted a reporter in pyjamas and sandals. When asked about the days before 1948, he opened his eyes wide and smiled.

"There were 75 synagogues in Baghdad alone!" he said.

Now he is concerned about the state of postwar Iraq.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.