Shlomo Hillel
Outgoing Speaker of the Knesset Menachem Savidor passes the gavel to Shlomo Hillel as acting Speaker Abba Eban looks on. Image Credit: Twitter/@@IsraelinUSA

Shlomo Hillel, a Baghdad-born Israeli operative who in the late 1940s and early '50s used bribes, fake visas and a network of smugglers to move more than 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel, died February 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 organisation in what was then British-controlled Palestine, sent him undercover to Iraq. Jews had lived there for centuries, mostly in harmony with their neighbours, 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 grew restless. As he watched ships full of Jews arrive from Europe - one carried his future wife Temima - he decided that Iraqi Jews deserved the same opportunity. But Iraq forbade 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 American pilots who had a cargo plane and an itch for adventure. "Someone in the United States had told two of them, 'Look, in Palestine there are some crazy people who are willing to pay a lot of money to smuggle Jews to Palestine," Hillel said in a 2008 oral history.

Window of opportunity

One morning in August 1947, the three men flew to Iraq, where they had planned to rendezvous with about 50 Jews in the desert. It would have been easier to leave from the Baghdad airport, but they knew that Iraqi guards would check the plane.

Then Hillel had an idea. He had watched planes taxi to the end of the runways, then wait five minutes before takeoff while their engines warmed up. If he had the Jews hiding just off the edge of the runway, they could use that brief window to hurry aboard, and Iraqi authorities would never know.

The pilots were to be paid upon arrival in Israel, but in Baghdad one of them suddenly changed his mind, and demanded the money before they left. Knowing that the pilot had an account with a bank in New York, Hillel lied and said he had one with the same bank - and wrote him a check, drawn on a fake account number.

The plan went perfectly. They took off just after midnight so they could arrive at daybreak, before the British were awake. When they landed in a field near Yavne'el, a town on the Sea of Galilee, an agent from the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, handed the pilots a bag of gold coins. Hillel retrieved his fake check.

The Haganah ran the operation, called Michaelberg - derived from the pilots' names - one more time, bringing back 50 more Iraqis, before the outbreak of the Israeli war for independence in 1948 rendered the flights too risky.

Getting visas

In June 1948, with the war still raging and the situation growing worse for Iraq's Jews, Hillel went to Iran, this time disguised as a Frenchman. He had passed through Paris, where he encountered a priest named Alexander Glasberg, who had converted to Roman Catholicism from Judaism. He had saved some 2,000 Jews during the Second World War by hiding them in monasteries, and was now involved in getting European Jews to Israel.

The two decided that if Jews could make it across the porous border to Iran - and if Hillel could bribe Iranian police to look the other way - then Glasberg, who was friends with the French interior minister, could arrange visas for them to get to Israel.

The first group took a circuitous, transcontinental route; after crossing the Iraq-Iran border by land, they flew to Paris, then took a train to Marseilles, where they boarded a ship to Israel. Later groups flew directly, thanks to a charter airline backed by the Mossad called Trans-Ocean. Over a few months, about 12,000 Jews made the trip.

But even this was not fast enough for Hillel, who had since returned to Israel. 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. The company, owned by a pro-Israel American, was real, although it received much of its funding from the Mossad.

Working with an Iraqi travel agency, he set about bidding for the exclusive right to fly Jews out of Iraq, and soon arranged a meeting with the prime minister, Tawfiq al-Suwaidi, who happened to own a share of the travel agency.

During the meeting, the head of the Baghdad Jewish community - who was also one of Hillel's cousins - joined them. Hillel was sure his cover would be blown, but his cousin never recognised him. The cousin endorsed the plan, joining Hillel in pressing the skeptical prime minister, who worried the Jews would take their wealth with them. But Hillel's cousin said the plan was a good way to get rid of troublemakers.

"He thought it would just be seven or eight thousand hotheaded youngsters," Hillel said in a 2006 interview.

Instead, despite severe restrictions - they could take only one suitcase each, and a small amount of money and valuables - about 90,000 Jews registered to emigrate in the first two months. By 1952, about 124,000 had migrated to Israel on 950 flights in what the news media called Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, after the Old Testament prophets who had led the Jews out of Babylon. Just a few thousand stayed behind, and by 2008, there were fewer than 10 Jewish men left in Iraq.

Israel Prize

Although Hillel was later lauded for his work - in 1988 he received the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian award - he remained modest about his place in history. "I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he said in a 2006 interview.

Shlomo Hillel was born on April 9, 1923, in Baghdad, the youngest of 11 children of Aharon and Hanini Hillel. His father ran an import-export business, and his family was part of the city's sizable Jewish middle class.

In 1933 Iraqi soldiers massacred about 500 Assyrian Christians near the city of Mosul. Shlomo and his father watched the Iraqis march triumphantly through Baghdad. "If this is what they do to Christians, what will they do to us?" he recalled his father saying.

The next year the Hillels moved to Israel, where Shlomo attended Hebrew University before becoming a co-founder of Maagan Michael, a kibbutz in northern Israel.

He married Temima Rosner in 1952. She died in 2011. In addition to his son, Ari, he is survived by three granddaughters. His daughter, Hagar, died in 2005.

Diplomatic posts

Hillel served in the Knesset, the national legislature, from 1952 to 1959, and then in diplomatic posts, including as ambassador to several African countries, in the 1960s. He returned to the Knesset in 1969, and stayed until he was defeated in 1992. He was elected speaker of the Knesset in 1984.

As a member of the Knesset he served, at different times, as minister of the police and as minister for the interior, a job that involved overseeing Aliyah, the right of foreign-born Jews to immigrate to Israel.

In 1977, as interior minister, he decreed that Jews in Ethiopia, who had long been excluded from Aliyah, would be included. Over the next several years some 120,000 Ethiopian Jews - almost the entire Jewish population in the country - moved to Israel.

Among them was a young woman named Enatmar Salam. She met Ari Hillel in college, and they later married and had three daughters. Only after the marriage did they realise that Ari's father had made their relationship possible.

"Isn't that a miracle?" his son asked at Hillel's funeral. "How many times has a person been rewarded for his actions already in this world?"