Airlift rescues 6 Iraqi Jews, carries them 'home' to Israel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

YEHUD, Israel - The frail woman was found living in a hovel in Basra, in southern Iraq, alone, scared and dirty. For more than three decades, Salima Moshe Nissim survived as Basra's only Jew. She had no idea that two of her three siblings had long since died in Israel.

Now, at 79, Nissim is on Israeli soil for the first time, having been part of an airlift Friday that took six of Iraq's 34 remaining Jews on a small Royal Jordanian charter plane from Baghdad to Tel Aviv.

"Israel is my family," a tired Nissim said in a brief interview yesterday in her hotel room near Ben Gurion International Airport after returning from a doctor's checkup. "This is my country. Israel is very dear to me."

For Israel, the airlift was part of a continuing effort to rescue Jews in trouble spots around the world. In 1991, Israel organized an airlift to help 15,000 Ethiopian Jews escape the aftermath of a civil war.

More than 110,000 Jews were flown out of Iraq in 1950 and 1951 during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, to save them from ethnic violence after the establishment of the Jewish state. The 400,000 Iraqi Jews form Israel's fourth-largest immigrant group.

Nissim sat on the bed in her hotel room yesterday, dressed in a blue shirt and a pressed white skirt decorated with hearts. Her silver hair was tied in a tight ponytail. A relative put new slippers on her feet. She clutched the hand of her only surviving sister, Marcel Madar, 84, whom she last saw in 1951.

Like others who arrived as part of Operation Aid From Zion, Nissim was in emotional turmoil, experiencing a new culture, hearing a new language, receiving the joyous surprise of finding another sister alive, and learning of a half-century of family tragedies, including the deaths of a brother and sister.

Friday's flight was coordinated by the Jewish Agency and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which sent an advance team that included two Americans to Iraq to find Jews and determine whether they wanted to come to Israel.

Despite the difficult conditions in Iraq and tensions between Arabs and Jews, 28 chose to stay there. Some had non-Jewish family members they were reluctant to leave behind. Others did not want to uproot their families or had property they did not want to abandon.

"I had elderly people who told me, 'We're very old, we can't start anew, we got used to the situation,'" said Shlomo Grafi, who went to Iraq on behalf of the Jewish Agency and searched for Jews using outdated addresses, often going house to house in war-torn Baghdad. "Another told me that he waited 20 years to die and said he has no desire now to start a new life. I told him to come, we'll take care of you. It didn't help."

None of the six on the airplane Friday had ever flown before or been out of Iraq. Most were reluctant to come.

One woman, 99 years old, was found living in a Baghdad apartment in heat that exceeded 100 degrees. Seats on the plane had to be removed so she could lie down during the flight. Another man has yet to utter a sentence; his only words thus far are yes and no.

"Some of these people were living in subhuman conditions," Grafi said in an interview. He said he found the Jewish community decimated, with one synagogue in Baghdad surrounded by a fence and a wrought-iron gate, with two elderly men living inside with 13 Torah scrolls and guarded by a Muslim.

Baghdad's other Jews are too old to reach the synagogue, he said, and can never assemble the 10 men needed to say Sabbath prayers. There is no kosher meat, and most don't or can't perform the minimum Sabbath requirements, such as blessing the wine or lighting candles.

Friday's secret operation went quickly, and Jews who wanted to participate had only days to make up their minds. They were collected at their homes in unmarked buses and carried their scant belongings in suitcases.

U.S. military vehicles escorted the bus to the airport, where senior American officers shook the hands of the emigrants. The unannounced flight on the 20-seat plane flew out of Baghdad on Friday flanked by U.S. fighter jets, then continued alone over Jordan and into Israel, where the Israeli air force escorted it to Tel Aviv.

Yesterday, the six immigrants gathered with friends and family in the Evia Hotel in Yehud.

Ezra Dayan, 34, traveled here from Holland to meet his mother and grandmother, whom he had left behind when he fled Iraq with forged papers 13 years ago.

"It was very exciting to see them," Dayan said as his relatives rested in their rooms. "Even an insect should have a life and not suffer. My mother and my grandmother suffered under very miserable conditions. This is a new beginning."

Dayan said his grandmother, Naima Eliyahu Halleil Dayan, 99, and his mother, Katy Dayan, 70, lived in Baghdad just blocks from an Iraqi army building and a communications tower that was bombed repeatedly during the Iraq war.

"They kept saying, 'We're not leaving,'" Dayan said. "They said that God would help them."

Although the plight of Jews living in Baghdad is well-known, nobody knew that Nissim was still alive in Basra until the vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Rachel Zalon, went there this month.

The American woman found Nissim living in squalor, without food and running water. Nissim said Zalon bathed and fed her, then offered to take her to Israel.

"I had two days to decide," Nissim said yesterday.

Upon arriving in Israel, Nissim was welcomed by a long-lost friend and neighbor. Simha Shem-Tov had left Iraq in 1971, and thought Nissim had died. Nissim had been the baby-sitter for her three children, then 1, 4 and 5.

On Friday, Shem-Tov got a telephone call at her Tel Aviv home with the news that her friend had been found.

Nissim "remembered the names of all my children," Shem-Tov, 60, said yesterday, smiling at the reunion.

Shem-Tov knows two people who decided to stay in Iraq.

"They have money and property," she said. "It is difficult to leave."

But the decision for Nissim was easy. The chance to see Israel and her surviving family before she died was too good to pass up. She had chosen to stay behind in Iraq with her parents during the airlifts in the 1950s, even as her two sisters and brother left for Israel. Her parents died in the 1960s, as did her husband, to whom she was married only two years. Nissim had lived alone in Basra since 1967.

The daughter of wealthy merchants, she once had a good life. That changed over time, and she spent years in poverty.

Nissim said she rejoiced when the war began and coalition soldiers marched into Basra, the first major city taken by allied British forces.

"When the Americans and Britons came, I was very, very happy," she said. "I was very afraid of the riots. The people robbed the banks and the hospitals."

Nissim said she plans to spend time with her sister and other relatives and to see as much of Israel as she can. She speaks only English and Arabic, but upon getting off the plane in Tel Aviv, she mustered a small Jewish prayer she had memorized as a child.

She said it in Hebrew.

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