Mordechai Ben-Porat: Organizer
With them the seed of wisdom did I sow
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow
And this was all the harvest that I reaped
"I came like Water and like Wind I go!"
The year was 1966, long after Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, when most of the Jews had left Iraq, to freedom, to Eretz Yisrael. The location: Or Yehuda, then a small town in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
Winter was knocking on our doors. I was setting my watch when suddenly a strange feeling that autumn was giving way to winter struck me. I buttoned my coat and looked at the sky. Staring at my watch again, I reminded myself that I had a rendezvous with my parents and siblings shortly.
There was my family and everybody else, and the ceremony was beginning.
Mordechai Ben Porat, one of the leading organizers of the clandestine Zionist organization in Iraq during the years before the mass immigration, stood broad-shouldered and bespectacled and opened his speech at the unveiling ceremony of the monument commemorating the Iraqi martyrs. He addressed the buzzing crowd: “The monument we have erected in memory of the two hanging victims is a mere token of reverence for the two heroes, Yosef Basri and Salah Shalom ….”
His voice was loud and clear, but my thoughts took me back to “Zaki" (his nickname in the clandestine movement), the young man I remembered so well, who used to come to our house, which served as a hiding place for activists of the underground movement, and to two decades of adventures and ups and downs.
He told the congregation about Yosef Basri, who prior to the War of Independence had asked to emigrate to Israel but had been refused permission. Consent came only in 1949. A day later, he was already in Iran. There, the authorities kept him on hold involving him in the organization of mass illegal immigration. He engineered the escape of over ten thousand young Jews from Iraq, like me, to Iran, and on to Israel.
Yosef Basri reiterated his desire to immigrate but the authorities in Israel saw things differently. Yosef was a strikingly charismatic, intelligent and broad-minded lawyer with exceptional contacts in the Iraqi government. Indeed, he was instructed to leave Iran, but not for Israel. Instead, he was ordered back to Iraq, where a task beckoned him. And it was there, in the heart of Baghdad just one day before their tentative date of emigration on June 9, 1951, that he and his collaborator Salah Shalom were arrested and accused of planting a bomb in the U.S. library in Baghdad.
At Salah Shalom's arraignment in court, the prosecution submitted a confession purporting to incriminate him. He even led the police investigators to the library building to reenact the crime. But in court, Salah Shalom blurted out the truth. The confession, he said, had been extracted from him after a week of sadistic torture such as hanging him by his wrists from the ceiling for hours, after being beaten into unconsciousness. The chief interrogator had waved Salah Shalom's passport in his face, promising to send him abroad if he confessed as they desired.
Salah Shalom succumbed. He revealed everything he knew, and that was quite a lot. He was the Underground defense organization's arms cache expert, and knew all the hiding places. But his interrogators did not stop at that. They wanted to implicate him somehow in the bombing incidents. Young Salah, spiritually and physically shattered, signed anything set before him, as long as it brought relief from the torture.
Yosef Basri, on the other hand, did not break. He, too, endured brutal torture, but signed no confession of any kind. This did not spare him, though. In an arms cache found in his home, the Iraqi police discovered explosives. The Iraqi regime was anxious to pin the blame for the bombings on the Zionist Movement for an obvious reason. The vast extent of immigration to Israel put the governor, Nuri a-Said in an uncomfortable position. When the Iraqi government decided to grant exit permits, the ministers never expected the enormous response of thirty thousand to fifty thousand Jewish emigrants, willing to leave their country. Despite Nur A-Said's hope that that wave of refugees would topple young Israel's economic and social infrastructure, Israel remained steadfast, and Nuria-Said became prey to attacks of the opposition who accused him of lending a helping hand to Zionist immigration.
Yosef Basri did not confess, and even Salah retracted his confession, baring the marks of torture on his body as testimony before the judges. But the two were convicted and given the death penalty. With them was an Israeli emissary who was arraigned and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mordechai Ben Porat continued with his story as everybody listened attentively.
A bearded and pensive rabbi was the only Jew who came to part with them and offer words of encouragement, but he collapsed, grief-stricken. The two supported him in an embrace as tears flowed down his cheeks, running off his graying beard. Did they have one last wish only a rabbi could hear? They asked him to tell everyone that they felt uplifted, their spirits were unfailing, and they were glad to die for the Israeli cause. Their final wish was to be buried in Israel.
During their transfer, handcuffed and shackled, from one police station to the next, they were bludgeoned mercilessly with rifle butts. Iron chains were wrapped around their throats, and hair plucked out of their scalps, brows, lashes and mustaches.
They were executed on January 19, 1952, at a time when Baghdad was already emptied of its Jewish population. At 6am, the two were lead to the gallows in Baghdad's hanging square. At the cry of “Long live the State of Israel” their souls took flight.
Mordechai Ben Porat wiped a tear from his eyes, and so did many of those present.
Beside me stood all my family. They had finally arrived in Israel. Father was whispering in our ears, “He is still the spitting image of that same young man who, on the eve of his departure from Israel to accomplish his mission in troubled Iraq in 1949, assured his worried mother with these words: ‘If I don't return to Israel, imagine that I was killed in battle’. ” Father whispered these words as Mordechai Ben Porat continued his speech. Materializing before me were all the scenes and pictures of my life in Iraq, the Jewish community and the oppression we suffered, and the stormy episode of the “Ezra and Nehemiah Operation” of which Ben Porat had been the driving force.
Throughout the mass emigration he had continued his activities. At times, with justification, he felt the end drawing near. He stood and told about his hideaway in our own house at Orfali Street 32/7/1 in the highly developed center of Baghdad, and about all the families like my father's that exposed themselves to considerable danger by allowing underground agents to use their houses as hideouts.
Iraqi Jewish immigrants after their arrival at Lod Airport in 1951
He told us stories that were not new to me, yet I was deeply stirred as I stood beside the monument, and thought to myself: waters aplenty had flowed through the Tigris from that summer's day when the Underground Movement was established until March 3, 1950, when the historic telegram was relayed from Baghdad to Tel Aviv saying: “….reached consensus to permit Jewish emigration …..”.
As I stood there and listened to those stories, I saw the figures of Yosef Basri and Salah Shalom (may they rest in peace) and those of the Underground who single-handedly induced this historical turning point. I recalled tales of the hundreds who were caught and tortured in prison, the dozens who took part in daring missions, the handful of young people who walked hundreds of kilometers through the desert dressed as Bedouins, those who crossed the border on mules and camels, the hundreds who ran the border illegally with fake documents into Syria and Lebanon, the runaways who made it to Israel under the patronage of the Royal Jordanian Court, and those who set out never to arrive at their destination, and the emissaries from Israel who operated in enemy territory under the hangman's shadow, among them Mordechai Ben Porat, who had just unveiled the monument commemorating the Iraqi martyrs. And how could I forget myself, who had taken the road of the others who were lost who had experienced the Great Escape illegally, trying as much as possible to avoid the vigilant eyes of border police and security officers?
We listened, we remembered, and the wind of December grew stronger. It whisked under stones, picking up straw and old leaves. The air and the sky darkened, but we were all engulfed in a world of old memories that refused to recede and scorned burial. Rain began to fall. People dispersed. My head was heavy with thoughts, mostly about the price man is willing to pay for the sake of freedom … Israel for us meant, and still means, freedom!
Emil Murad is the author of “The quagmire - deep into the soul” and recently “The flesh and the soil”.