“On 20 November 1949, I was on my way to Basra. Dressed in Bedouin robes, I crossed the Shatt-El-Arab waterway on a small boat with an outboard motor, accompanied by the smuggler Haj Aziz Ben Haj Mahdi. Neither my friends nor my parents would have recognized me in the black agal and keffiyeh (Arab headdress), adorned by a thick mustache on my upper lip.”
These are the words of Mordechai Ben-Porat in his 1998 memoir, “To Baghdad and Back: The Miraculous 2,000 Year Homecoming of the Iraqi Jews.” Thanks to Ben-Porat’s dangerous and clandestine efforts, over 130,000 persecuted Jews escaped Iraq in the early 1950s and made aliyah to the nascent Jewish state. Ben-Porat also helped some Jews in Iran escape the country on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. He passed away in Israel on Jan. 3 at the age of 98.
Ben-Porat was a visionary: a true public servant who served four terms in the Knesset, was awarded the Israel Prize and who founded the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda (est. 1973) and the Museum of Babylonian Jewry (est. 1988). A 2019 profile of Ben-Porat in The Jerusalem Report called him an “Israeli James Bond.” But guess how many Israeli Jews, or, for that matter, American Jews today recognize his name?
There are, however, some Israelis of a certain age who will assert that throughout the five millennia of Jewish history, there have been three luminaries who brought exiled Babylonian Jews en masse back to their ancestral homeland: the prophet Jeremiah, the prophet Ezra (both in the fifth century BCE), and Mordechai Ben-Porat in the twentieth century.
Ben-Porat was born in Baghdad in 1923 (his Arabic name was Murad Murad) and at the age of 19, joined the underground Iraqi branch of the Chalutz, a movement that prepared young Jews for eventual resettlement in Israel. Ben-Porat served with distinction as a company commander in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. He was wholly Arab, wholly Jewish, and totally committed to preventing a Holocaust in the Middle East. The horror of the 1941 Farhud, in which hundreds of Iraqi Jews were murdered and countless others raped and pillaged, never left his mind.
Ben-Porat could have stayed in Israel after the war ended, but instead returned to an even more dangerous Iraq, which had declared Zionism a capital offense and arrested hundreds of Iraqi Jews for trying to escape to Israel (immigration to the Jewish state was banned). Back in his country of birth, he assumed numerous personas on behalf of Mossad L’Aliyah over the course of two years—Habib, Zaki, Nissim, Salman, Nouri, Noa, and Dror—and orchestrated the escape of his brethren, mostly by air.
Thanks to Ben-Porat, 130,000 of Iraq’s then-137,000-strong Jewish community escaped, mostly by air. Some of them found their way to Israel by land, through Iran. Known as operations Jeremiah and Ezra, the unbelievable escape marked the end of a 2,400-year community that was once the global center of Jewish life. Today, not a single Jew remains in Iraq.
“Nearly all of my family and relatives left during these operations,” Joseph Samuels, an Iraqi Jewish speaker and author who lives in Santa Barbara told me. Samuels, who is in his nineties, was smuggled out of Iraq to Iran, and then to Israel in December 1949. “I knew Mordechai personally when I visited Israel numerous times; I was very supportive of his efforts. He emphasized the importance of telling our story of the forced expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries.” It was Ben-Porat who inspired Samuels to write his autobiography, “Beyond the Rivers of Babylon.”
The operation to rescue Iraqi Jewry ultimately resulted in Ben-Porat’s arrest and torture, but the information he had gathered about Iraqi Jews was lifesaving. One evening, as an armed warden from the Iraqi secret police escorted him through a crowded bazaar, Ben-Porat slipped away into the crowd, evading being hanged. And then, in what could only be described as an escape conjured by Hollywood (but all too real), Ben-Porat made his way in the darkness to an Iraqi airfield, where a rope awaited him. The rope, which dangled off of the tail of a commercial aircraft filled with passengers, was Ben-Porat’s final means of escape.
“He was a giant in his generation,” said Samuels, “and I and all the Jewish Iraqi community are indebted to his untiring efforts and his sacrifice and loyalty.”
Yes, Iraqi Jews—including their great-grandchildren who frolic on beaches in Netanya, create global start-ups in Tel Aviv, study eternal Torah wisdom in Jerusalem, or serve mouthwatering sabich sandwiches in Nahariya—owe their lives to Mordechai Ben-Porat. Why, then, is he not a household name among many Mizrahi or Sephardic Israelis, particularly youth?
For over a decade, Sephardim and Mizrahim have constituted the majority of Jews in Israel. But a new Israeli poll, which was presented to Israeli Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen a few weeks after Ben-Porat’s death, revealed that only 14 percent of Israelis polled recalled having learned anything about Mizrahim in school. Anything.
Israel’s educational system seems to have overlooked what is now the majority of Israeli Jews: non-Ashkenazim. For reference, 74 percent of respondents said they learned about Ashkenazim in school. Over half of those polled knew about Kristallnacht; only seven percent had ever heard of the Farhud. The worst part of the findings, if you ask me, is that 75 percent of people couldn’t recall a single school program or lesson plan that portrayed Mizrahim in a positive light.
Had he lived, Ben-Porat wouldn’t have been shocked by those results; he dedicated his life to fighting for Iraqi Jewish representation. Yes, his death inspired an outpouring of reverence from some Israelis, including politicians and journalists. But where was the grief of the average third-generation Iraqi-Israeli?
But that’s both the blessing and curse of Israel: It can’t be bothered to focus too much on the past. Looking forward—and only forward—is the only way Israelis have managed to flourish for over seven decades.
In addition to Samuels, there are younger American Jews of Iraqi descent who appreciate Ben-Porat’s legendary leadership, including Elan Carr, former U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
“Shortly before I deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army, I met with Mordechai and sought his wisdom about Iraq’s Jewish sites and about the few Jews that remained there at the time,” Carr told me. Ben-Porat was responsible for the escape of Carr’s family from Iraq and their resettlement in Israel in 1951. “His devotion to the State of Israel was conspicuous throughout his life, and throughout his remarkably distinguished career, Mordechai’s pride in his Iraqi heritage never waned.”
We all need to pick up the torch that Mordechai Ben-Porat worked so hard to light. “I had the great benefit of carrying his guidance with me as I set forth for that distant yet familiar land where the world’s oldest diaspora Jewish community had flourished for 2,500 years,” Carr recalled. “May Mordechai’s memory continue to inspire us. Yehi Zikhro Varukh.”
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and civic-action advocate. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.