For the earlier parts of this series see:
Near East Air Transport was built out of Near East Air Overseas, which had been setup by Alaska's old President James Wooten in partnership with EL AL. Some sources state that Wooten was the owner whereas others say Robert F. Maguire Jnr had set up NEAT. It's a little obscure as to what actually happened but it seems both men where heavily involved and Maguire would end up doing a lot of the flying again.
Yet again the reasons for the need for the airlift of Jews, this time from Iraq to Israel, were complex. Certainly persecution of the 2,500 year old Iraqi Jewish community was a major factor. In 1947 there were 150,000 Jews in Iraq but since Iraq's nominal independence in 1932 times had been tougher. The tensions in Palestine from 1947 led to renewed violence against the Jews in Iraq and things got gradually worse when they were effectively criminalised. The creation of Israel led to further crackdowns on Jews in Arab countries whilst the Law of Return, passed in 1950, promised all Jews the right to go to Israel as citizens.
In May 1950 the contract for the airlift operation went to NEAT following discussions between the company and the travel agency Iraq Tours, whose owner one of NEAT's management Ronnie Barnett had met whilst working for his previous company Trans-Ocean undertaking pilgrimage flights to Mecca. They won the deal as it was recognised that it would be a good earner for Iraq Tours and the Iraqi Prime Minister was on the board of that company. It was believed that only around 60,000 Jews would leave and it was agreed they'd be charged 12 dinars a ticket. The flights would go to Cyprus rather than direct to Israel thereby avoiding a diplomatic incident. The Jewish community agreed to collect the fares.
Interestingly the operation at first was nameless but it seems its official name came from reporting of an Israeli paper 'Ma'ariv' that used the name Ezra and Nehemiah. These are the names of two bible chapters that tell of the story of the Jews exiled from Babylon who return to build the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah were the two main leaders of that return. Popularly however the operation became known as 'Ali-Baba'.
The Meir Tweig synagogue was transformed into a government centre for the renouncement of citizenship and the Mesouda Shemtob synagogue became the transit station to the airport. Flights began on May 19 but NEAT only had a fleet of 2 C-54s (seemingly both aircraft that had been with Alaska during the Magic Carpet operations). These proved completely inadequate for the exodus of people. Jews who applied to leave had to do so by law within 15 days, but only a few days after the airlift began 30,000 Jews had registered. The Iraqi government was not impressed and the now stateless refugees were threatened with 'concentration camps' by Iraqi authorities - an ominous phrase coming only a few years after the end of WW2.
Worse the Iraqis now took the opportunity to use the refugees as a demographic weapon by passing a law change in March 1951 that effectively confiscated all the financial assets of the refugees. Previously they had been able to access and transfer funds but now the refugees were effectively penniless. Iraq also demanded that Israel absorb 10,000 refugees a month and ruled that as of May 31, 1951 no more exit visas would be issued.
The situation was getting out of hand and as soon as September 1950 the result was thousands of people facing literal starvation in Iraq after having renounced their citizenship and being forced to give up most of their belongings. Nonetheless Israel refused to allow anyone else to assist. Attempts to allow BEA or BOAC to fly out refugees were rebuffed and indeed Isreal threatened to impound any aircraft that tried to assist, going so far as to do just that to an Eagle Aviation flight that landed in Lydda.
Partly this seeming failure was due to Israel's inability to absorb such vast numbers of new citizens, most of whom arrived effectively penniless. The huge inflow of refugees almost did as Iraq hoped but somehow Israel managed to carry on taking in the refugees. The other side of the seeming intransigence of the Israeli authorities was more nefarious. Israeli survival was at stake and partly this relied on the Israelis painting a picture of a beseiged country and religion.
It was not the first time that the Israeli's resorted to terror, even against fellow Jews and other allies, to achieve their aims. It is clear that Mosad, sometimes working with British agents, worked to commit 'anti-Jewish' bombings (a series of five bomb attacks on Jewish targets from April 1950 through June 1951) to drum up the feeling of Jewish community that they had to leave. For more details see these sources:
It is unclear to what extent the bombings spurred a greater exodus but they certainly helped bolster the Israeli case for continued persecution of Jews by Arabs. Following the Iraqi proclamations in March 1951 flights stopped routing via Cyprus and flew straight to Lod in Israel in order to try and clear the refugee backlog. The operation ended in December 1951 and ultimately the Iraqi operation transported nearly 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. Only a tiny fraction of the original Jewish population remained in Iraq and in the long term this would prove both commercially and industrially detrimental to that country.
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah must be seen to have been a strategic success for Israel, but it came at a terrible cost for the immigrants themselves, who have nonetheless gone on to play an important role in Israel since. They formed a relatively small portion of the 850,000 Jews who came from the Arab world in the immediate years following the creation of the Israeli state. They no doubt have had better lives in Israel than if they'd have remained where they were, but the solidification of a dominant Israeli power in the region has done little to aid the ever elusive hunt for any kind of solution to the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has raged on and off ever since.
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah: The Airlift of Iraqi Jews. Jewish Virtual Library
Black, Edwin. The expulsion that backfired: When Iraq kicked out its Jews. The Times of Israel
Tucker, S & Roberts, P. The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social and Military History. ABC Clio
Shasha, D & Morad, T. Iraq’s Last Jews: Stories of Daily Life, Upheaval, and Escape from Modern Babylon. Springer
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: