Codename: Operation Mural

At the start of 1961, David Littman's life seemed to be moving along nicely. He was 28 years old at the time, from a wealthy Jewish family, a graduate of prestigious Anglican schools. About a year earlier he had married Giselle, the daughter of a Jewish family that had immigrated to Britain from Egypt (today Giselle Littman, under the pseudonym "Bat Yeor," is a well-known historian and writer focusing on Jews and Christians in Islamic countries). They already had their first child, Diana, and had moved to Switzerland. Littman's original plan was to continue the family's real estate business, but he was not pressed for time, as he had already inherited considerable wealth from his father. And so he spent his time reading journalist William Shirer's thick volume, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."

The book, he says, left him unsettled. "I asked myself two questions: What should a Jew who lived in neutral countries like Switzerland or Sweden have done in those times, and what could I do today for the sake of the Jewish people?" He decided to knock on the doors of all the Jewish organizations in Geneva to ask them to give him something to do. But none of the groups had anything to offer him. And then, just as he was about to give up, he approached an organization called OSE (Oeuvre de secours aux enfants - the Organization for the Rescue of Children), which dealt with rescuing Jewish children during and after the Holocaust.

For the director of the organization, Prof. Jacques Bloch, Littman was heaven-sent. Only two days earlier, the emissary of the Jewish Agency in Switzerland, Naftali Bar-Giora, had asked him for help in finding a volunteer for a secret mission to get Jewish children out of Morocco. Ever since 1956, when Morocco had won its independence from France, the authorities had prohibited Jews from leaving the country freely. Many Moroccan Jews suffered from harassment and the Mossad was organizing clandestine departures. But in January 1961, a disaster had occurred: The illegal immigrant ship Egoz, which had left Morocco in the dark of night, sank and all 44 passengers (about half of them children) perished.

A new route to Israel was needed, which was why the Mossad had come up with the following idea: One of the secret service's emissaries would pretend to be the representative of a Swiss humanitarian organization and would make the following proposal to the Moroccan government to take hundreds of children (not necessarily Jewish) for a vacation in Switzerland. The Jewish children gathered by the volunteer, who would be posted in Casablanca, would indeed go to Switzerland first - but after a brief stay they would continue on to Israel.

To carry out this mission, a person was needed whose appearance and biography would befit that of the representative of a Swiss humanitarian organization. The tall, wealthy and supremely self-confident Littman seemed to fit this description like a glove. Thus Operation Mural (a name chosen at random) was born, in the course of which 530 Jewish children from Morocco immigrated to Israel. Last night, Channel 1 aired a documentary film about the affair, directed by veteran documentary film-maker Yehuda Kaveh ("Operation Mural - Casablanca 1961").

Gad Shahar, a Mossad immigration emissary in Morocco during those years, relates that in order to maintain the mission's secrecy and also to prevent Littman from revealing unnecessary information by mistake (or under interrogation), "Throughout the entire length of the operation, he [Littman] himself did not know that he was working for the Mossad. He thought he was working for the Jewish Agency and that the masses of children and parents who were knocking at the door of his office in Casablanca had come to him in response to advertisements that had been published in the Moroccan press. In fact, hardly a single Jew had seen those notices. They were important only for the cover. The parents and children came to him as a result of our secret work, going from door to door and to reach the members of the community."

Beyond the difficulty of deceiving the Moroccan government, it was of course anything but simple to separate young children from their parents. In order to tempt the parents, the Mossad emissaries promised that those who agreed to send their children would be given priority on the list for immigration of adults. This was definitely a significant catalyst, but still the decisions were not easy. Yossi Shahar (no relation to Gad Shahar), one of the children who came to Israel as a result of Operation Mural, relates: "Some of my friends had signed up for immigration to Israel, and I very much wanted to go, too, especially since some of my relatives had already immigrated and I was in charge of the correspondence with them. But I knew that my parents would not agree because I was their eldest child and I was only 11 years old. So I started to organize the initial arrangements for myself. At a certain stage it was no longer possible to conceal this from my parents and the immigration emissaries came for a talk with them.

"This conversation was far from easy, but in the end my father agreed. I think that in the end he realized that if I did not leave, the family would never leave, because it was hard for him to give up his shop. The moment he consented, he did not even need my mother's agreement. In our patriarchal family, it was enough that he had decided."

His mother, Rachel Sabbagh, remembers a different story: "I very much wanted to immigrate to Israel, because most of the family from my side already lived there and I had remained pretty much alone. But my husband was opposed, because he was a merchant and made a good living, and he was afraid to leave everything behind. I knew that only the immigration of one of our children could possibly persuade my husband. Therefore I agreed that Yossi would immigrate. In fact, one of the girls was supposed to go with him [it had been decided to try to send at least two siblings from every family so the children would not be entirely alone in Israel], but the children needed permission from the principals of their schools and it just so happened that right then her principal was not in Morocco. After Yossi immigrated, my husband also began to talk about immigration and 10 months later we were already in Israel."

Another problem was linked to the question of what to do with the Muslim children who had signed up for the program. Littman relates that it was the parents' propensity for haggling that saved the operation. "To make the story credible, we charged the parents a symbolic sum of 10 francs per day for each day of the vacation. The price was very low but the [non-Jewish] parents nevertheless wanted to negotiate the sum. We haggled and haggled and each time I dropped the price a little, but by the time the negotiations were completed the project had already come to an end."

Nevertheless, the fact that all those who left were Jewish nearly scuttled the operation. When the list of children came to the desk of the police commander in Casablanca, who was supposed to sign it, he exploded: "You know you are partner to a Zionist plot," he said to Littman. "All the names here are Jewish." Littman responded with surprise and anger: "I attacked him - how dare he accuse me of serving Zionist interests. At the same time, I hastened to meet with one of the heads of the Moroccan secret service, with whom I had formed a social relationship earlier on and I complained to him about the police official who was making problems for the wonderful humanitarian initiative and even daring to accuse me of Zionism."

Littman's playacting was successful. The senior official ordered his subordinate to approve the list and the operation took its course. Moroccan policemen even helped the children load their baggage onto the buses.

But the risks were far from over. It was clear from the get-go that it would be impossible to take all the hundreds of children who had signed up in one go. Back in those days, the planes were too small and one large group was liable to arouse suspicion. The 630 children who had signed up were supposed to fly to France in six separate groups (all of them were set to leave during the summer vacation, before the first group was supposed to return to Morocco), and to continue on to Switzerland to spend a number of weeks there. Only then would the children travel to Israel. But Gad Shahar relates that as the first group was settling into the guesthouse in Switzerland, the Mossad emissary in France decided that such a stay was a waste of money for the Israeli taxpayer and that it was better to put the children on a flight to Israel directly from the airport in Marseille.

When the first groups landed in Israel, rumors began to circulate and ultra-Orthodox circles kicked up a political and public storm about how religious children from Islamic countries were once again falling into the clutches of secular education. To the horror of those involved in the operation, this allegation was even broadcast on Israel Radio, even though some of the children, as well as Littman and his family, had not yet left Morocco, which could have endangered all of them.

Shahar says that to this day he does not understand how the censor allowed the report to be broadcast on the radio. Fortunately, the argument did not come to the attention of the Moroccan authorities. Nevertheless, the heightened sense of anxiety did cause the operation to come to an early end and one of the groups was canceled. In the end five groups, numbering a total of 530 children, left in the operation.

Yossi Shahar says that he never regretted leaving his family in the framework of the operation: "Of course I experienced moments of sorrow, especially because I did not witness the birth of my little brother in Morocco, but I never had any regret. I was sent to a wonderful Youth Aliyah boarding school, Shfeya, near Zichron Yaakov. I received an excellent education there and it changed my whole life for the better."

Journalist Shmuel Segev, who published a book in the 1980s about the larger immigration operation, which was known as Operation Yakhin, says there was no direct connection between it and Littman's activity: "The main connection is that Operation Mural was among the factors that persuaded King Hassan II that in any case his country was wide open to the Israelis and that it was better for him to reach an agreement with them that would serve his interests. At that time he was a new ruler, with quite a number of enemies, and he needed help. The Israelis provided him with money and, what was more important, we helped him organize his security services and we also provided him with important information about his enemies at home."

The one who was forgotten in all this was Littman, a hero of Operation Mural. No only did he not request and has never received payment for his work - apart from the funding of his stay in Morocco - to this day he relates bitterly that, "After the operation, they offered me an invitation to Israel and a tour. I said to them: Don't waste your money. Just send me a thank-you letter. They didn't even do that. Three months after the operation had ended, the Jewish Agency held an exhibition in Geneva on the subject of immigration. They didn't even send me an invitation. That is why I told my wife that I didn't want to set foot in Israel. Only in 1964 did she manage to convince me to come anyway and Moshe Kol [then head of the Youth Immigration department at the Jewish Agency] insisted on honoring me."

But the public and official rectification of the injustice came only many years later. In 1986, on the 25th anniversary of the operation, a gathering was held in Ashkelon of all of the children who had immigrated in its context. The Littmans (who to this day live in Switzerland) were invited, they met with the now grown-up children and Littman was awarded an official certificate of recognition for his activity.