In 1946, the Haganah sent the then-twenty-three-year-old Shlomo Hillel undercover to his native Iraq, where he promoted Zionism among local Jews and helped small numbers to sneak out of the country. A year later, Hillel, who died on February 8 at the age of ninety-seven, returned to Mandatory Palestine, but wanted to do more to help his brethren. Clay Risen writes:
As he watched ships full of Jews arrive from Europe—one carried his future wife, Temima—he decided that Iraqi Jews deserved the same opportunity. But Iraq forbade them to emigrate, and the British had severely limited how many Jews could move to Palestine. Hillel would have to act in secret. With the Haganah’s support, he found American pilots who had a cargo plane and an itch for adventure. “Someone in the United States had told two of them, ‘Look, . . . there are some crazy people who are willing to pay a lot of money to smuggle Jews to Palestine,’” Hillel said in a 2008 oral history.
One morning in August 1947, the three men flew to Iraq, where they had initially planned to rendezvous with about 50 Jews in the desert. It would have been much easier to leave from the Baghdad airport, but they knew that Iraqi guards would check the plane. Then Hillel had an idea. He had watched planes taxi to the end of their runways, then wait five minutes before takeoff while their engines warmed up. If he had the Jews hiding just off the edge of the runway, they could use that brief window to hurry aboard, and the Iraqi authorities would never know.
When the War of Independence made these operations too dangerous, Hillel grew even more ambitious, setting up what would become known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, an effort that brought some 124,000 to Israel from Iraq, where they faced increasing violence and anti-Semitism. Hillel later spent many years in the Knesset, and held various ambassadorial positions. But bringing Jews to their homeland remained his life’s work:
In 1977, as interior minister, he decreed that Jews in Ethiopia, who had long been excluded from aliyah, would be included. Over the next several years some 120,000 Ethiopian Jews—almost the entire Jewish population in the country—moved to Israel.
Among them was a young woman named Enatmar Salam. She met Hillel’s son, Ari, in college, and they fell in love. It was only after they married and had three daughters that they realized Ari’s father had made their relationship possible.