Mordechai Ben-Porat, an Israeli Leader Who Rescued Iraq's Jews, Dies at 98

The Baghdad-born Ben-Porat, who became a Knesset member and cabinet minister, left Iraq in 1945, only to return to organize the immigration to Israel – initially clandestinely and then openly – of 120,000 Iraqi Jews

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Ben-Porat in 2006. Dedicated himself to commemorating the heritage of Mizrahi Jews.
Ben-Porat in 2006. Dedicated himself to commemorating the heritage of Mizrahi Jews.Credit: Matty Stern
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Mordechai Ben-Porat, an Israeli statesman responsible for bringing over 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, passed away on Monday at the age of 98.

Ben-Porat was born in Baghdad in 1923, the eldest child in a large Jewish-Iraqi family. He joined the underground Hehalutz Zionist movement in his youth and, following a countrywide anti-Jewish pogrom in 1941, his parents decided to leave Iraq. They managed to escape in 1944 on a seaplane they rented, landing on the Dead Sea.

Ben-Porat remained in Iraq and followed his family a year later. He described how he “walked and hitchhiked via Syria and Lebanon” until he reached Kfar Giladi, in the north of what was then British Mandatory Palestine.

Once in the country, he joined the Haganah underground Jewish army. During the 1948 War of Independence, he attended the Israeli army’s first officers’ course. In 1949, he was dispatched to organize a mission to smuggle Jews out of Iraq via Iran.

On receiving the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2001, he described the airlift of Iraqi Jewry in the 1950s, saying it was “the largest operation in Jewish history.”

Ben-Porat receives the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, in 2001. "Found himself organizing the largest operation in Jewish history," it read.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / Government Press Office

“The situation in Iraq at the time was terrible,” he recounted a few years ago to the Makor Rishon newspaper. “The Jews were suffering severe persecution, oppression and imprisonment. The courts accused them of supporting Zionism and hanged them in the streets.”

He spent two years in the country and was arrested several times in the course of his efforts. Then in 1950, the Iraqi government permitted the Jews to leave for Israel. In the operation, which he organized with Shlomo Hillel, who was later to become speaker of the Knesset, 120,000 Iraqi Jews were brought to Israel in what is known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

In his book “To Baghdad and Back,” which was also translated into English, he recounted a telegram that he received informing him that the operation was to begin. “We deserve to burst into tears on seeing the fruits of our labor, and the fruits of the labor of those who preceded us. And here the redemption of this miserable Jewish community had arrived. The Iraqi cabinet decided by a majority vote to permit the Jews to leave.”

“At first, the planes departed Iraq for Cyprus and from there to Israel,” he wrote in his book. “When the pressure increased, the Iraqi government permitted El Al to fly from Lod [now Ben-Gurion International Airport] to Baghdad and back. This was the only time that the Iraqi control tower worked directly with an Israeli plane.”

He spoke of having witnessed the abuse that the Jews leaving the Iraq suffered at the hands of government bureaucrats and the plunder of their meager possessions on their way out. “I had pangs of conscience and wanted to do something for this Jewish community in the cultural sphere,” he said.

Ben-Porat signs the Ministers' oath after being appointed minister without portfolio, in 1983.Credit: Nati Harnik / Government Press Office

Ben-Porat also devoted efforts to preserving the heritage of the Jewish communities from Arab countries. In 1975, he founded the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries and became its president. He later worked to establish the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda and served as head of its museum, which opened in 1988.

Ben-Porat then devoted himself to public life in Israel. He was mayor of Or Yehuda for 14 years. As he later described: “In 1955, the late cabinet minister Giora Yoseftal approached me and said to me: ‘There’s a jungle near Tel Aviv and it needs to be brought under control.’”

At the time, Or Yehuda consisted of two immigrant transit camps. “There wasn’t electricity there and there weren’t any basic services. During the winter, everyone sank in the mud,” he related. “On the first evening, they threw a stone at my porch. My late wife, Rivka, was terrified. An hour later, they came to me with a bouquet of flowers and that encouraged my wife. All in all, Or Akiva’s residents very much appreciated my dedication.”

Ben-Porat also served as a member of Knesset and cabinet member. At the time that the government was headed by Menachem Begin, Ben-Porat proposed a rehabilitation program for Palestinian refugees. “The Palestinians have a right to establish a state of their own,” he later said. “I’ve toured the camps near Jerusalem as well as in Lebanon.

I proposed a plan designed to eliminate the camps and the refugee situation. It included orderly towns with residential centers, commerce and religious institutions. The ones to oppose it were Jordanian King Hussein and Yasser Arafat,” he said, referring to the Palestinian leader.

Following the death of his wife Rivka, he married his second wife, Nehama. He had three daughters as well as a number of grandchildren.

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