Operation Ezra & Nechemia

Immigration to Israel
Immigration to Israel

From 1950 to 1952, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah airlifted 120-130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel via Iran and Cyprus. By 1968 only 2,000 Jews remained in Iraq. 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.

Some 130,000 Jews arrived in Israel in Operation Ezra and Nechemia. Flying the Iraqi Jews to Israel lasted several months, and started after the Iraqi Government passed a special bill permitting their emigration in 1951. The Iraqi Jews were mostly wealthy and the local authorities gave them special privileges. When the Jews learned about the special permit they had been given, thousands arrived in Baghdad and gathered in registration centers where they registered for immigration to Israel.

According to Iraqi law, the Jews had to sell their property and liquidate their businesses before they could leave. Many sold large properties for ridiculous sums in order to win the right to immigrate.

Immigrants from Iraq leaving Lod airport on their way to ma'abara, 1951 (courtesy of www.gpo.gov.il)
Immigrants from Iraq leaving Lod airport on their way to ma’abara, 1951 (courtesy of www.gpo.gov.il)

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 first planes flew to Israel via Cyprus in mid-May 1951. Several months later, a giant airlift operated directly from Baghdad to Lod airport. Operation Ezra and Nechemia ended at the beginning of 1952, leaving only about 6,000 Jews in Iraq. Most of the 2,500-year-old Jewish community immigrated to Israel.

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