Iraqi Immigrants to Israel Enjoy Their New Lives—but Miss Home

by Loolwa Khazzoom • April 25, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was published on June 30, 2003, in Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

TEL AVIV, Jul. 29 (JTA) –

“I sacrificed my life for my parents,” says Salima Moshe, 72. “I gave everything to them. I didn’t think about myself.”

As a 20-year-old in 1951, Moshe watched her family and friends flee to Israel in an exodus that grew to include some 90 percent of the Iraqi Jewish community, or about 120,000 people.

Though she wanted to join them, she says she felt an obligation to stay in Basra.

“My mother and father were elderly,” she explains. “I needed to stay and take care of them.”

With all her sisters and brothers married, the duty of tending to her parents fell on Moshe’s shoulders.

Moshe is one of the six Iraqi Jews brought to Israel last Friday in Operation Ezra Mitzion, or Help From Zion.

On June 11, Jeff Kaye, an official of the Jewish Agency for Israel, went on a fact-finding mission to Iraq, checking on the status of the remaining 34 Jews. At the same time, Rachel Zelon, vice president for operations at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was in Iraq to identify the remaining Jews and check on their condition and needs.

“All the Jews were distressed,” Kaye says, noting that the period since the U.S.-led war to unseat Saddam Hussein has been “a very unsettling time” in Iraq.

“Paradoxically,” he says, “though Saddam’s regime is no longer there, and coalition forces are, the situation is more volatile than ever before, because nobody is in charge.”

Kaye reported back to Yossi Shraga, director of Middle East immigration at the Jewish Agency, that the remaining Jews were mostly elderly and frail, lacked proper medical attention and lived in poverty.

“Most of the Jewish community had left already,” Kaye says, “so they didn’t have the support system that the rest of the population had, like children to look after them.”

Meanwhile, Shraga was acting to bring to Israel all the Jews who wanted to come. He contacted Shlomo Garafe, a Jewish Agency liaison from Israel with an American passport, who was born in Yemen and was fluent in Arabic. Garafe agreed to lead a mission to Iraq.

HIAS was prepared to co-sponsor the operation. The two organizations rented a Jordanian plane in Baghdad and made arrangements with the American army to fly out the six Jews who wanted to make aliyah.

“This small Jewish community has lived under a repressive regime for decades,” HIAS’ Zelon said in a statement. “They have lived in a society where the vast majority of the population despises Jews and Israel. Most have lived trying to hide their Jewish identities except with close friends, colleagues or neighbors. This is clearly a community at great risk given the increasing tensions within Iraq, and the increase in open anti-Semitism. We are delighted to have played a part in helping these initial six immigrate to Israel.”

They weren’t the only ones excited about the operation.

“According to what was reported to me from Iraq, American soldiers were very happy with this,” Shraga says. “Among them were Jewish soldiers who celebrated this happening. They helped Garafe and Zelon to get the Jews on board.”

Exactly two weeks after launching the operation, six Iraqi Jews landed safely in Israel on July 25.

“Emotions were very high,” Shraga recalls. “Here in Israel, family was waiting for them — family that had not seen them for 50 years.”

After the new immigrants appeared on television, 20 relatives called the station and showed up at the Avia Hotel within two hours for a family reunion.

One young woman, who is to get married in coming weeks, handed an invitation to her grandmother from Iraq, whom she had never seen before.

New immigrant Ezra Salah Levy, 82, spoke at the Knesset on Monday and then visited the Kotel, where he put a note in one of the cracks in the wall.

He recited the Shehecheyanu prayer thanking God for keeping him alive to have a wonderful new experience and then said Baruch m’chayeh ha’metim — Blessed be the One who breathes life into the dead.

Asked why he recited the latter prayer, Levy responded, “Because I am starting a new life in Israel, at 82 years old!”

But not all the immigrants are so at ease in their new surroundings.

“Baghdad is my city; I was born there,” says Salah Sasson Abdul Nebeh, 90, who now is living in a geriatric home in central Israel. “Of course I stayed there. It’s my country.”

As little as a week ago, Abdul Nebeh did not want to come to Israel.

“I am a bachelor. I had my own house. I was quite comfortable. I didn’t think of coming to Israel,” he says. But “a couple of Americans” — Garafe and Zelon — “persuaded me to come here.”

Garafe and Zelon, he recalls, “were so good to me, so nice, kind, generous, they were very, very good with me, so I was ashamed to say no, to insist,” Abdul Nebeh says. “I gave up.”

One Israeli politician — Labor legislator Colette Avital, head of the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee — accused the Jewish Agency of caring more about the publicity it would reap from the operation than about the Iraqi Jews’ wishes.

A Jewish Agency spokesperson said it was the duty of the agency and the State of Israel to rescue Jews in distress whenever possible.

For his part, Abdul Nebeh says he misses his friends in Baghdad.

“I left people there, and they cried about me going away. I don’t want to break the hearts of people, especially women. I hope I’ll be happy here after another one or two months.”

Though he doesn’t regret the decision to come to Israel, he says that at 90 he feels too old for such drastic changes in his life.

“I thought of ending it there,” he continues. “There is nothing much left.”

Down the hall from Abdul Nebeh, Moshe — who for years dreamed of making aliyah — has tears in her eyes when she recalls her departure from Iraq.

“It was very hard for me to separate from my friends there,” she says.

Though she had many friends during her last years in Basra, Moshe notes that life was not always comfortable as a Jew.

“We lived in a lot of fear,” she says, mentioning pogroms and hangings that took place through the 1970s. For extended periods, she says, Jews stayed confined to rooms in their homes and offices.

In the past few decades, however, she felt safe to roam around as she wished, Moshe says. She always wore her abaya — the full-body veil — to avoid harassment by men, but she did not feel hassled as a Jew — as long as she didn’t mention Israel, that is.

Of her sudden immigration to the country whose name she could not utter, Moshe says she is reminded of the biblical Moses.

“It’s so amazing to be here in Israel,” she says, “with my family and with the nation of Israel together. I am very, very happy that God granted me my wish to come.”

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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