Operation Ezra and Nehemiah

Stand for Israel  |  August 20, 2020

Iraqi Jews at Lod Airport in Israel after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, 1951
Iraqi Jews at Lod Airport in Israel after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, 1951

Yesterday, we told you about an Israeli You Should Know whose family came to the Holy Land via Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. In the Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah led the Israelites back to the Holy Land from their exile in Babylon. And in more recent times, their namesake mission returned Jewish people to their homeland, Israel. It ultimately brought more than 100,000 Iraqi Jews to the Jewish state.

The Jews of Iraq

A community of Jews had called Iraq home for nearly three millennia by the time the 20th century dawned. Throughout earlier centuries, Iraqi Jews had faced anti-Semitism, but after World War I, more than 100,000 Jewish people contributed to Iraqi life. As World War II began, however, Jews in Iraq would face the same hatred their European brothers and sisters had begun to experience from the Nazi regime.

The Beginning of the End

In 1941, Baghdad had been ruled by a pro-Nazi regime, itself. This regime, however, collapsed, leaving the Iraqi capital in a state of chaos. The Jews of the city, of course, supported the British and the Allies.

Those Iraqis who wished to remain on the Axis side with the Nazis objected. Today, the resulting violent pogrom, called the Farhud, is remembered as “the beginning of the end of the Jewish community of Iraq.”

A Pentecost Pogrom

The Farhud took place on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (also known as Pentecost), June 1-2, 1941. A group of Jews traveled to meet with the British-supported regent, and pro-Nazi Iraqis violently attacked them. The violence grew worse the next day when the Iraqi police, who should have been protecting Baghdad’s Jewry, joined in the attacks. Jewish shops burned. Rioters destroyed a synagogue.

In the end, nearly 200 Jews lay dead, 1,000 suffered injuries, and 900 Jewish homes were destroyed. Iraq’s Jews knew they were no longer welcome.

Leaving Iraq

Iraqi law forbade emigration by the nation’s Jews until 1950. That year, the law changed, and Jews felt hopeful they might make aliyah (immigrate) to the newly independent state of Israel.

The law, however, expired the next year, 1951. While leaving still seemed possible, Iraq outlawed Jews to sell any property, and limited what they could bring with them if they left. Tensions remained high, with Jewish targets being bombed, and two Jews even being executed for Zionist actions.

‘Out of Babylon’

In March of 1951, the Israeli government took action. Operation Ezra and Nehemiah began, as Israel airlifted her people home. In the first month, 50,000 Iraqi Jews signed up to leave. The next, 90,000 more joined them. A Zionist publication called for Iraq’s Jews to make aliyah, saying: “O, Zion, flee, daughter of Babylon…Jews! Israel is calling you — come out of Babylon!”

And come out, they did. By the end of the airlift, only 5,000 Jews remained in Iraq. By the end of the 1960s, that number dropped to 2,000. Today, less than 100 Jews call Iraq home. But, thanks to Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the giant airlift by the Jewish state, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Jews and their descendants now live in their historic and biblical homeland, Israel.