Operative helped in flight of 120K Jews from Iraq
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 Feb. 8 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 organization in what was then British-controlled Palestine, sent him undercover to Iraq. Jews had lived there for centuries, mostly in harmony with their neighbors, 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 traveling between Baghdad and Haifa, a major port in Palestine.
After a year he returned to Israel, but he soon decided that Iraqi Jews deserved the opportunity to leave for Europe. But Iraq forbid 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 two American pilots who had a cargo plane and an itch for adventure.
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 traveled to Baghdad once more, this time disguised as a Briton named Richard Armstrong, representing an American charter company called Near East Air Transport.
By 1952, about 124,000 Jews had migrated to Israel on 950 flights in what the media called Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
In addition to his son, he is survived by three granddaughters. His daughter, Hagar, died in 2005.