The legendary Shlomo Hillel – secret agent, Haganah officer, politician and diplomat – passed away at the age of 97.
By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel
Shlomo Hillel was only 11 years old when his family moved from Baghdad to Tel Aviv in 1934, and he went on to become one of the legendary builders of the modern State of Israel as a secret agent, diplomat and politician.
After working in a secret munitions factory supplying the Haganah – the precursor to the IDF – during World War II, Hillel was sent back to Iraq undercover on an Iraqi passport, where he used his fluent Arabic, bribes, fake visas and a network of smugglers to move more than 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel, the New York Times reported.
Hillel passed away this month at the age of 97, leaving a legacy as one of Israel’s most brilliant stars. His career encompassed secret missions to rescue fellow Jews, a political career in the Knesset serving in multiple cabinet positions and as speaker of the house, and a stellar diplomatic career as part of Israel’s UN delegation, ambassador to four countries, and deputy-director of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
One of the most intriguing periods in his life was just after World War II when at the age of 23 he was sent to Iraq by the Haganah on a secret undercover mission to rescue Iraqi Jews – especially after several hundred Jews had been murdered there in a 1941 and the Jewish community was under threat.
Disguised as an Arab, Hillel was involved in several successful operations there, the Times reported. With the Iraqi government banning Jewish emigration, he not only taught Hebrew and helped organize the local underground, but also organized different routes to smuggle Iraqi Jews to Israel, ranging from sending them in trucks from Baghdad to the port in Haifa, a major port in Palestine, to an airlift that managed to sneak out 100 Jews.
In that operation in 1947, Hillel recruited two American pilots with a cargo plane, loading the Jews who had hidden at the end of the runway onto the aircraft as it waited for takeoff, knowing that the Iraqi security forces weren’t patrolling that area.
“The plan went perfectly. They took off just after midnight so that they could arrive [in British mandated Palestine] at daybreak, before the British were awake,” the report said. However, only two flights were completed before the 1948 War of Independence broke out, making more flights too risky.
As the war to create the modern Jewish state raged, Hillel flew in June 1948 to Iran disguised as a Frenchman, working with a French priest who had saved some 2,000 Jews during World War II by hiding them in monasteries. Together, they smuggled 12,000 Iraqi Jews into Iran, and then flew them to France where they were put on ships for Israel.
With a new government in Iraq in 1950 allowing Jews to emigrate for only one year, Hillel again traveled to Baghdad, this time disguised as a British citizen representing an American charter company that was owned by a pro-Israel American but funded by the Mossad.
In his disguise, Hillel met with the Iraqi prime minister, who happened to own a share of a travel agency. Present at the meeting was Hillel’s cousin, the head of the Baghdad Jewish community, who failed to recognize him and didn’t blow his cover. Hillel and his cousin convinced the skeptical prime minister that the plan was a good way to get rid of Jewish “troublemakers,” the Times related.
“He thought it would just be seven or eight thousand hotheaded youngsters,” Hillel said in a 2006 interview, but instead, eventually 124,000 flew to Israel on 950 flights even though they could take only one suitcase each and a small amount of money and valuables. The scheme was called “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah,” after the biblical prophets who led the Jews out of ancient Babylon.
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he said in the interview.
In 1984, he published Operation Babylon: The Story of the Rescue of the Jews of Iraq, which was translated into seven languages, including Arabic, and in 1988 he was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian award.
While serving as interior minister in 1977, he spearheaded the move to bring Ethiopia’s Jewish community to Israel. In the following years, some 120,000 made aliyah, including a young Ethiopian woman named Enatmar Salam who married Hillel’s son Ari after they met in college. The couple have three daughters.
“Only after the marriage did they realize that Ari’s father had made their relationship possible,” the Times reported.
“Isn’t that a miracle?” Ari Hillel said at his father’s funeral earlier this month. “How many times has a person been rewarded for his actions already in this world?”
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