Monday, February 22, 2021

How Shlomo Hillel helped 120,000 Iraqi Jews flee to Israel

Tributes to Shlomo Hillel, the architect of the Iraqi 'aliya' have appeared in The New York Times (the identical piece is in the Irish Times). (With thanks: Solly)

Shlomo Hillel in a photo taken in 2018

Shlomo Hillel, a Baghdad-born Israeli operative who in the late 1940s and early 1950s used bribes, fake visas and a network of smugglers to move more than 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel, died on February 8th at his home in Ra’anana, Israel. He was 97. His death was confirmed by his son, Ari, who did not specify a cause. 

 Hillel was just 23 when the Haganah, a paramilitary organisation in what was then British-controlled Palestine, sent him undercover to Iraq. Jews had lived there for centuries, mostly in harmony with their neighbours, but growing Arab nationalism and anti-Zionist sentiment, including a 1941 pogrom in which several hundred Jews were killed, were making their situation precarious

 Hillel, disguised as an Arab, was there to lay the groundwork for migration, teaching Hebrew and rousing pro-Zionist sentiment. He also helped smuggle small numbers of Jews to Israel in trucks travelling between Baghdad and Haifa, a major port in Palestine. 

 After a year he returned to Israel, but he soon grew restless. As he watched ships full of Jews arrive from Europe – one carried his future wife, Temima – he decided that Iraqi Jews deserved the same opportunity. 

But Iraq forbade them to emigrate, and the British had severely limited how many Jews could move to Palestine. Hillel would have to act in secret. 

 With the Haganah’s support, he found American pilots who had a cargo plane and an itch for adventure. “Someone in the United States had told two of them, ‘Look, in Palestine there are some crazy people who are willing to pay a lot of money to smuggle Jews to Palestine,” Hillel said in a 2008 oral history. 

 The pilots were to be paid upon arrival in Israel, but in Baghdad one of them suddenly changed his mind, and demanded the money before they left. Knowing that the pilot had an account with a bank in New York, Hillel lied and said he had one with the same bank, and wrote him a cheque, drawn on a fake account number.

 The plan went perfectly. They took off just after midnight so they could arrive at daybreak, before the British were awake. When they landed in a field near Yavne’el, a town on the Sea of Galilee, an agent from the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, handed the pilots a bag of gold coins. Hillel retrieved his fake cheque. 1948 war The Haganah ran the operation, called Michaelberg – derived from the pilots’ names – one more time, bringing back 50 more Iraqis, before the outbreak of the Israeli war for independence in 1948 rendered the flights too risky. 

In June 1948, with the war still raging and the situation growing worse for Iraq’s Jews, Hillel went to Iran, this time disguised as a Frenchman. He had passed through Paris, where he encountered a priest named Alexander Glasberg, who had converted to Roman Catholicism from Judaism.

 He had saved some 2,000 Jews during World War II by hiding them in monasteries, and was now involved in getting European Jews to Israel. The two decided that if Jews could make it across the porous border to Iran – and if Hillel could bribe Iranian police to look the other way – then Glasberg, who was friends with the French interior minister, could arrange visas for them to get to Israel. 

Over a few months, about 12,000 Jews made the trip. But even this was not fast enough for Hillel, who had since returned to Israel. In 1950 a new government in Iraq passed a law allowing Jews to migrate for one year. Here was his chance to get tens of thousands of Jews out of the country. Hillel travelled to Baghdad once more, this time disguised as a Briton named Richard Armstrong, representing an American charter company called Near East Air Transport. The company, owned by a pro-Israel American, was real, although it received much of its funding from the Mossad. 

Post by Lyn Julius (Times of Israel)

Jewish Chronicle obituary by Natasha Dangoor

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