"To Baghdad And Back" by Mordechai Ben Porat is the remarkable true story of the mass immigration of many Iraqi Jews to Israel between 1949-52. The book portrays both moments of courage, and loyalty, as well as some of the worst traits of human nature. It is an extremely moving account of the difficulties faced by the Jewish community in Iraq, and those trying to facilitate the Aliyah of almost 130,000 Jewish men, women and children, a number which represented over 80% of the Jews in Iraq at that time.
Sent to Iraq as an emissary by The Mossad in 1949, Ben Porat writes first-hand, describing the way in which he was smuggled into Iraq assuming a false identity. Ben Porat's family had left Iraq themselves in 1944, and his Iraqi appearance, and fluent Arabic helped him spend nearly two years there with his true identity remaining undiscovered.
The book begins almost as a spy novel, with descriptions of the activities of the underground Zionist movement in Iraq, "The Halutz", and the methods of smuggling many people illegally across the borders. However this book is also much more than that. Ben Porat describes intricately the way in which influential members of the Jewish community in Iraq were asked, persuaded, and even pleaded with, to use their connections to put pressure on the Iraqi government to allow Jews to emigrate. He also depicts the balancing act in which emissaries from Israel found themselves, juggling the desires of the Jewish community, members of the Halutz movement, and the Iraqi authorities, all the while pushing the emigration process forward.
At points, the detail with which Ben Porat describes events become tedious, although his memory is astounding, and situations he relates can sometimes be confusing in their complexity. This is only a problem towards the middle of the book where the busiest period during 1952 of the 'Ezra and Nehemiah Campaign', as the emigration process became known, is described.
Overall, this is merely a minor fault, in a book which has the qualities of covering many attributes of its subject, such as 'political manoeuverings' and maintaining radio communication with Israel, and also has the benefit of the strong sense of emotion which only a first-hand account can give.
One aspect of the book which Ben-Porat feels especially strongly about is the issue of the bombing of Baghdad. In 1951 a number of bombs were thrown at a synagogue, and a shop owned by a Jew, amongst other Jewish targets. Eventually Yousif Bari and Saleh Shalom, both Jewish, were accused of carrying out the attacks, and they were subsequently hanged for this crime. It was claimed that The Halutz Movement were behind the bombs, in an attempt to scare more Jews into leaving Iraq for Israel. "To Baghdad And Back" contains the full report of an Israeli Inquiry Commission on The Bombing of Baghdad which was produced in 1960, and since then the Halutz, and all its activists have been 'completely vindicated' of an accusation which to Ben Porat 'is almost like a blood libel'. The book contains an incredibly distressing account of the tortures Basri and Shalom were forced to endure before they signed their confessions admitting to the bombings, and it seems highly likely that the pair were framed by Iraqi police, desperate to charge someone for the crimes.
Apart from the tragedy of these two young men, and others who were taken prisoners in Iraq, overall the Ezra and Nehemia campaign was a success. A huge number of Jews managed to leave Iraq in a short space of time, and settle in the land of Israel. Ben Porat concludes by hoping that although many Jewish treasures had to be left behind in Iraq, the rich heritage of Babylonian Jewry will not be lost, and this is something which we must all make sure of.
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