Daring Exploits of the Man who Brought 120,000 Jews to Israel
Like Queen Esther, Shlomo Hillel risked his life to miraculously save Jews of Babylonia, a province of Ancient Persia.
Shlomo Hillel was known for serving as Speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Minister of Police, Minister of Internal Affairs, and also working as an Israeli ambassador to several African countries.
But few people realized that Hillel was one of Israel’s most daring spies and secret operatives. In the 1940s and 1950s, he worked behind the scenes, paving the way for over 120,000 Iraqi Jews to flee and move to safety in Israel.
Hillel passed away on February 8, 2021 at the age of 97, just a few weeks before the Jewish holiday of Purim, when we recall the dramatic rescue of the Jews of ancient Persia. In some ways, Shlomo Hillel’s remarkable life – and the incredible odds he overcame to rescue Iraqi Jews – shares some of the danger and intrigue of the Purim miracles.
Jewish Community in Iraq
Jews lived in Iraq since ancient times. Annie Green, a fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that “The history of Jews in Iraq is a very long one, going back to 597 BCE when Jews from the Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylonia (Bavel in Hebrew).”
After the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, he forced many of the nation’s Jews into exile in the North, in regions of present-day Iraq. The prophet Jeremiah described the heartbreaking scene: “By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137).
The Iraqi Jewish community became one of the most important in the world. Much of the Talmud was written there, and many Iraqi Jews were incredibly educated and successful, forming trading networks throughout Asia and the Middle East. Yet no matter how successful they became, Iraqi Jews lived largely separately from their Muslim and Christian neighbors, maintaining their own distinct traditions.
In the 1930s, some Iraqis began embracing Nazism. Mein Kampf was translated into Arabic and published in a Baghdad newspaper in 1933 and 1934. During World War II, Iraq was occupied by the British, but pro-German Nazi sympathies roiled throughout Iraqi society. In 1941, there was a coup in Iraqi leadership with an overtly pro-Hitler politician briefly gaining local power. During this period of turmoil, some Iraqis began turning on the Jews in their midst.
Looters destroyed Jewish-owned shops in the Iraqi city of Basra in 1941. According the US Holocaust Museum, some local Basra Muslims sheltered Jews from the violence in their homes. In the larger Iraqi city of Baghdad, however, the riots – known as the Farhud – turned deadly. Over a two-day period, looters ran wild, attacking 1,500 Jewish-owned homes and stores. Between 150 and 180 Iraqi Jews were murdered during the Farhud. 600 Jews were injured, and an untold number of Jewish women were attacked.
Growing up Jewish in 1930s Iraq
Like many Iraqi Jewish families, Shlomo Hillel’s family was large; he was the youngest of eleven children. And the Hillels were involved in international trade, specializing in importing tea and clothes into Iraq. Hillel had siblings who worked in India, England and Japan, and he travelled widely with his parents.
The Hillel family was intensely Zionist. Shlomo Hillel attended a Jewish school in Iraq, and he and his friends learned Hebrew, read Hebrew-language newspapers, and prepared to move to the land of Israel. By the 1930s, Hillel recalled that anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi sentiment was rising. When it became illegal to teach Hebrew in Iraqi schools, Shlomo’s older brother Eliyahu decided to move to the land of Israel.
My father said, "If this is what they do Christians, what’s going to happen to us?”
Then in 1933, a tragic event convinced the rest of the family to leave. Dozens of Assyrian Christian villages in the Dohuk and Mosul districts of present-day Iraq were attacked by Iraqi Muslim forces. Sometimes named the Simele Massacres, after one of the villages, the barbarity was horrible, with men, women and children murdered in gruesome ways, targeted for their Christian faith. “I remember the victory parade of the Iraq army through the main road of Baghdad,” Shlomo Hillel later recalled of the returning soldiers who were doused with rosewater and bedecked with flowers after killing the Assyrians. “My father said, ‘If this is what they do Christians, what’s going to happen to us?'” Shlomo and his family moved to present-day Israel soon afterwards.
Joining the Haganah
When he was 23, Hillel joined the Haganah, the Jewish community in Israel’s underground fighting force that became the Israeli Defense Forces when Israel finally achieved independence in 1948.
His first assignment was overseeing the construction of a top-secret underground bullet factory on a kibbutz near the Israeli town of Rehovot. There, underneath the noses of British troops who swarmed the area, 45 young Jews managed to manufacture over 4 million bullets that Israeli troops would soon need as they fought for survival in the Israeli War of Independence. It was an amazing accomplishment, but Hillel felt that more than bullets, Israel would need Jewish refugees to help it grow.
He asked to be reassigned, and the Haganah sent him to Iraq. Disguised as an Arab, Hillel was tasked with laying the groundwork for immigration to Israel. He taught local Jews Hebrew and helped smuggle some Iraqi Jews into Israel on trucks. No one knew his true identity: when dealing with Iraqi Jews, Hillel was known as “Shammai” (in Talmudic times, Hillel and Shammai were the heads of rival Jewish schools). In his relations with Iraqi Arabs, Hillel went by the name Amu Yusuf.
A plane filled with Iraqi Jews photographed on arrival at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv in early 1951 (Teddy Brauner, GPO)
Iraq at the time was occupied by British troops. Some Jewish soldiers aided their Iraqi Jewish brethren, Hillel recalled: “Iraqi Jews, disguised as British soldiers, went into the backs of army trucks. These were mainly daring youngsters and a few hundred of them managed to flee this way.”
Planning the “Michaelberg” Flights
“I began to feel that this system of helping people escape individually or in small groups was challenging and inadequate if our goal was to enable the escape of thousands,” Hillel later described. “Yet at the time we had no other ways or means.” Iraq at the time was forbidding Jews to leave the country – and the British, who governed the land of Israel, let very few Jews into the country.
Hillel heard that there were some American pilots who had served in World War II had managed to acquire a cargo plane, and were looking for business opportunities. The Haganah got in touch with the pilots, saying – in Hillel’s telling – “Look, in Palestine there are some crazy people who are willing to pay a lot of money to smuggle Jews to Palestine.” Hillel recalled that “The pilots, who were not Jewish, agreed, saying, 'As long as they pay well, we’re in.'” One pilot’s name was Leo Wessenberg; the co-pilot was named Mike – Hillel never learned his last name. Combining the pilots’ names, Hillel came up with “Operation Michaelberg” to help bring Jews from Iraq into the land of Israel.
The Iraqi authorities would inspect any airline that was flying officially into or out of the country, so the Haganah’s original plan was for the “Michaelberg” plane to land in the desert and pick up Jews in secret. Hillel was charged with putting this plan into practice, but he had no idea how to pull it off. “The arrangement was made so quickly that I didn’t even have the time to think it through,” he later recalled.
“I literally left the kibbutz (where he lived) in the morning for a meeting with my bosses in Tel Aviv, and they asked me to leave immediately for Iraq. The three of us – the pilot, the copilot, and myself – took off the same day for Baghdad. As we neared the Baghdad airport, I gazed down on the vast desert to try to identify a good spot from which to pick up the passengers and take off. I realized there was no way for me to determine such a thing from the air. I suddenly panicked, feeling that I was in way above my head – that this whole secret airlift thing was a wacky idea.”
But watching planes taxiing for takeoff at Baghdad’s International Airport, Hillel had an audacious idea. Back then, it was common for airplanes to taxi to the end of runways, then wait there for about five minutes for their engines to warm up before taking off. The runways were about a mile long. What if Jews somehow hid nearby – a mile away from the airport itself – and then rushed onboard before the plane took off?
Hillel explained his idea to the pilots. “They thought I was out of my mind,” he remembered years later. “Eventually I convinced them,” he recalled.
The plane could carry 50 passengers, and within two days Hillel had arranged the operation. Fifty Iraqi Jews waited under cover of darkness near the edge of the runway; they’d already cut a hole in the airport fence. At dawn the airplane took off and flew to Yavniel, a farming community in the north of Israel, before the local occupying British soldiers were awake. Mossad agents met the airplane and handed sacks filled with money to the pilots. “We had succeeded – we had a system in place,” Hillel later explained.
The “Michaelberg” system was also used to ferry Jews from Italy into Palestine. Later on, it was also used to help smuggle desperately needed arms into the nascent Jewish state.
No Choice But to Help
Once Israel declared its independence and began fighting for its life in the War of Independence, the situation of Iraqi Jews became intolerable. “After the war broke out,” Hillel recalled, “we began to receive telegrams from our emissaries in Baghdad… The telegrams said, ‘The situation is horrible. Jews are being arrested and harassed. Please come and help us.’”
Given Israel’s dire situation – it was fighting for its very life – Hillel didn’t think there would be anything he could do. But he realized that giving up was not an option.
Giving up was not an option.
Two thousand years before, when the Jews in ancient Persia were in grave danger, our ancestor Queen Esther was asked what to help. The situation felt overwhelming and Esther hesitated. Given such bleak odds, how could she possibly succeed in saving her fellow Jews? But Esther rallied and intervened. Against all odds, she miraculously succeeded in saving the Jewish people.
In 1948, Shlomo Hillel felt that his situation was impossible too. “I didn’t think I could succeed there given the situation” in Iraq at the time, he later explained. But giving up wasn’t an option. “I recall thinking, ‘Let us not put ourselves in the position later in which we will have to answer when people say that we never responded to their calls for help when they were in the midst of such dire circumstances.’” Hillel felt that anything he could do, no matter how desperate, would help give his fellow Jews in Iraq hope.
Working with a “Jewish” priest
In June 1948, Hillel embarked on a top-secret mission to scope out the Iran-Iraq border, disguised as a Frenchman. He first travelled through Paris, and there Hillel connected with a remarkable asset: a Russian Jewish-born Catholic priest named Alexander Glasberg.
A Jew by birth, Glasberg had converted to Catholicism and become a priest, but it seems that he still felt a keen attachment to his Jewish community and perhaps even his Jewish identity. During the Holocaust, Glasberg had saved 2,000 Jewish boys by hiding them in monasteries. Now he was willing to help desperate Jewish refugees move to Israel and rebuild their shattered lives in the Jewish state.
Glasberg told Hillel that he had contacts among Assyrian Christians who lived along the Iraq-Iran border. Perhaps these Assyrians could help smuggle Jews out of Iraq and into Iran, bribing the Iranian police along the way – and from there move Iraqi Jews into Israel? Glasberg and Hillel went to visit the Assyrians to find out.
The Assyrians “were so miserable themselves that they couldn’t possibly help anyone else,” Hillel found. “In the end, I gave them a truck which we intended to use ourselves, but I saw they were in desperate need of a vehicle in their remote location.”
Hillel began making contacts within Iran’s large Jewish community, as well as exploring ways to bribe various Iranian officials. Soon, Hillel had assurances from Iranian police officials that in exchange for a massive bribe, they would allow Iraqi Jews to enter the country and to leave for Israel. The only problem now was finding a way to procure false visas for the Jews allowing them to leave Iran.
Glasberg came to the rescue. He was close friends with high level French officials. “How many visas do you want?” he asked. “I just threw a figure out,” Hillel later recalled; “I said 250. And he said, ‘All right, give me the names’. I didn’t know what to say – I had no names because I didn’t even know who the people who be. He said, ‘Without names, I can’t get you the visas.’ So I sat down and in one night, out of thin air I made up the names of 250 people – entire families with their aliases.” Within days, the French visas arrived. Hillel quickly assigned false names to the Iraqi Jewish refugees, matching them up with the made-up names on their visas.
“Eventually, our people in Iraq understood the meaning of my messages and began sending people to me in Iran,” Hillel remembered. “First it was two people, then 10, and then 15, and so on. Suddenly I had so many people I didn’t know what to do with them all because they had to wait in Tehran for a period of time while I arranged their visas and flights.” At first, Hillel put the refugees in a hotel, but soon there were so many refugees he couldn’t do that anymore. Hillel set up a camp in an old Iranian Jewish cemetery. Despite the misery of their living conditions, more and more Iraqi Jews clamored for Hillel’s help in escaping. Within a year, Hillel smuggled over 12,000 Iraqi Jews into Iran and then on to Israel.
The route they took was circuitous. Jews crossed from Iraq into Iran, and then with their new French visas they flew to Paris. From there, they took a train to Marseilles. Then they boarded airplanes owned by a charter airline called Trans-Ocean – which was run by a British Jew named Ronnie Barnett and backed by the Mossad – and flew from France to Israel.
Going Undercover as “Mr. Armstrong”
In 1950, Hillel returned to Israel and continued working on underground routes to bring Jewish refugees into Israel. In 1952, he married Temima Rosner, a Jewish immigrant refugee, who was originally from Vienna.
The smuggling route that Hillel had established between Iraq and Iran soon became an open secret. A New York Times reporter even travelled there and wrote about what he saw. The fact that so many Jews were leaving Iraq became an embarrassment, Hillel believed. He credits the escape route he’d established with opening the door to even more Jewish emigration from Iraq.
In 1950, the seasoned Iraqi politician Tawfeeq Al-Suwaidi assumed Iraq’s premiership once again. Here, a series of coincidences began to come into play – much like the Purim story, in which the presence of God is hidden by a series of seeming “coincidences”.
Prime Minister Al-Suwaidi's next door neighbor happened to be a Jew by the name of Yehezkel Shemtov. Shemtov was a cousin of Shlomo Hillel – and he’d also recently taken over as the elected head of the Baghdadi Jewish community. Prime Minister Al-Siwaidi complained to Shemtov that so many Iraqi Jews were leaving the country in secret, it was making the country look back.
Shemtov replied, “Probably the whole story is about hot-headed youngsters who have finished school and now your government is not letting them get public sector jobs and they are unemployed. Let them go. There can’t be more than five or six thousand of them. Why do you want to keep them here against your will? You get rid of them and we’ll be rid of them too.”
Incredibly, in 1951, Al-Suwaidi took Shemtov’s advice. Any Jew who wished to leave Iraq could do so. Within months, nearly the entire Jewish community – about 104,000 people – had registered to leave Iraq.
Hillel recalls that Israeli government officials were shocked. Israel was an impoverished nation and it seemed impossible that it could absorb so many refugees – especially after Al-Suwaidi made it clear that Iraqi Jews could bring no assets and nearly no luggage with them. Nonetheless, Israel began to prepare for the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews. “We began working on a way to airlift everyone out – and swiftly, before the Iraqi government could have a change of heart,” Hillel recalled.
Hillel adopted an alias of an American businessman named Richard Armstrong and travelled to Baghdad with a business proposition. He travelled with Ronnie Barnett, the British Jew who’d run Trans-Ocean Airlines, which ferried Iraqi Jews from France into Israel. This time, they represented another Mossad-backed travel venture, the Near East Air Transport Company. Based in the US, this travel firm was real: it was owned by James Wooten, the non-Jewish businessman who as owner of Alaska Airlines had overseen the airlift of Yemenite Jews to Israel. Ronnie Barnett was the managing operator. Together they wished to bid on a contract to fly Iraqi Jews to Israel.
“Mr. Armstrong'' managed to gain an audience with Prime Minister Al -Suwaidi himself. Also in the meeting was Yehezkiel Shemtov, Hillel’s cousin. Hillel was petrified that his cousin would betray some form of recognition, but Shemtov never said a word, treating his cousin as “Mr. Richard Armstrong” instead.
The Prime Minister opened the meeting by explaining to the businessmen that illegal emigration was terrible for Iraq because fleeing Jews were smuggling property out of the country and leaving behind unpaid debts and taxes. “I pretended to be sympathetic to this nonsense,” Hillel recalled, “then we got down to business.” They agreed to work with an Iraqi travel agency – which was partially owned by Prime Minister Al-Suwaidi. The men agreed on the cost for each Iraqi Jew’s passenger ticket – which included a hefty bribe – and Yehezkiel Shemtov assured the Prime Minister that the Jewish community of Iraq would guarantee the fares of each and every Jew who left.
Soon the details were agreed. The Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad became a center for Iraqi Jews to renounce their citizenship. Baghdad’s Mesouda Shemtov Synagogue was transformed into a departure station for Jews on their way to Israel. It was where departing Jews received their travel documents and instructions for which flight to catch.
The resulting operation – dubbed “Ezra and Nehemiah” after the Biblical leaders who led the Jewish people out of exile in Babylonia and back to the Land of Israel – saved 130,000 Iraqi Jews. The New York Times wrote that it was the biggest air migration that the world had ever seen. Only a few thousand Jews remained behind in Iraq; by 2008, fewer than ten Jewish men remained in all of Iraq.
Bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel
Shlomo Hillel went on to occupy a number of positions in Israeli politics, including serving as Minister of the Interior. In that position, he signed an ordinance to include Ethiopian Jews in Israel’s Law of Return, assuring citizenship to Jews around the world who request it. Because of Hillel's action, 120,000 Ethiopian Jews later immigrated to the Jewish State. The massive airlift dubbed Operation Solomon, which saw 14,324 Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel in one 36-hour period alone in 1991, recalled the joy and excitement of the airlifts of Iraqi Jews years before.
One of those Ethiopian Jews who entered Israel thanks to Shlomo Hillel was a young woman named Enatmar Salam. In college, she met Shlomo’s son Ari, and the two later married. They eventually realized that Shlomo Hillel had made it possible for Enatmar and her family to immigrate to Israel. “Isn’t that a miracle?” Ari Hillel asked at his father’s funeral. “How many times has a person been rewarded for his actions already in this world?”
When Esther hesitates for a brief moment to see the king and put her life in danger, Mordechai tells her, “Who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position?” (Book of Esther 4:14). Like Esther, we each are born into a moment where our unique skills and abilities are needed. Shlomo Hillel was a man who was blessed with seeing the results of his years of actions.
Like our Jewish forebears, he fought tirelessly for his fellow Jews. Countless thousands of Jews today reside in security in Israel due to Shlomo Hillel’s life of service.