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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Iraq Jews' spiritual move to Israel
By Verity Murphy
BBC News Online

Ezra Levy (left) and his sister Dina
Flanked by his long lost sister Dina, Ezra Levy danced for joy
At the venerable age of 82 Ezra Levy, one of just a handful of Jews remaining in Iraq, has turned his back on his homeland to begin a new life in Israel.

Mr Levy is one of six elderly Iraqi Jews - three women and three men - who were secretly flown to Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv on Friday by the Jewish Agency - the quasi-governmental organisation which oversees the immigration of Jews around the world to Israel.

In the wake of the Iraq war the agency tracked down all of the Jews still living in Iraq to see if they wanted to exercise their right to take up residence in Israel under the Law of Return.

I am a Jew. I feel very happy and privileged that I am at this place
Ezra Levy
Just 34 Jews were found - the remnants of a 2,500-year-old community that at its height numbered over 130,000 people and was known as one of the world's great centres for Judaism.

'By the rivers of Babylon'

The Jewish Diaspora in the area that now includes Iraq began in 722BC when the Assyrian monarch, Sargon II, forcibly relocated the northern tribes of Israel after he conquered the region.

Their lives were immortalised in the words of Psalm 137:

Iraqi Jew Salima Shemes
The group of six are aged between 70 and 99
"By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down, sat and wept, as we remembered Zion."

The arrival of the six, aged 70 to 99, received massive attention in Israel.

They include Naima Eliyahu Hallei Dayan, 99, and her 70-year-old daughter Katy; another 70 year-old woman, Salima Moshe Nissim, who was the last remaining Jew in the southern Iraqi city of Basra; and a blind 90-year old Baghdad resident.

Ezra Dayan, 34, travelled from Holland to meet his mother and grandmother, whom he last saw when he fled Iraq 13 years ago.

"It was very exciting to see them. My mother and my grandmother suffered under very miserable conditions. This is a new beginning," he said.

For Ezra Levy the move meant a chance to be reunited with his sister Dina whom he had not seen for more than half a century.

Dina was one of 120,000 Jews who fled to Israel after a backlash against the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 triggered a campaign of persecution in Iraq.

Repressive regime

Zionism was declared a capital crime in Iraq and its ancient Jewish community, which had begun in the 8th Century BC under the Assyrians, was repressed.

In 1950 Iraqi Jews were given the chance to leave the country - if they left within a year and agreed to forfeit their citizenship.

We have a lot of respect for these people who carried the Jewish burden and maintained their Judaism all these years
Giora Rom
Jewish Agency director general
But one year later hastily introduced laws froze the assets of those who had left and placed economic constraints on those who remained.

As the restrictions on Jews increased and conditions worsened, Israel organised Operation Ezra and Nehemiah - named after the two leaders who led the first returns of Jews back to Zion in the 5th Century BC.

Over the next few years the clandestine operation was responsible for the movement of about 120,000 people.

Keeping the faith

Reflecting on that period Mr Levy told the Associated Press news agency that he thought about trying to join his sister in Israel - but that he thought about it too long.

"By the time I made the decision it was too late - we were prohibited from leaving," he said.

On Friday, as he arrived in Tel Aviv, he was greeted by his overjoyed sister and sister-in-law.

Iraqi Jew Sasson Saleh
Despite lacking even the most basic religious artefacts, the group maintained their religion
"I am happy to be here," he declared in faltering Hebrew - a language he had not used since 1926 when he studied it as a primary school student.

This message was repeated as Mr Levy toured the holy sites of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, on Monday.

"I am a Jew. I feel very happy and privileged that I am at this place," he said.

Giora Rom, director general of the Jewish Agency, said one of the women spoke to her son in Israel for the first time in 35 years during a stopover in Amman, Jordan.

The 28 Jews who remained were reluctant to leave the only home they knew or felt that they needed more time before making a decision, Mr Rom said.

They are said to have been provided with religious items that they have been unable to get in Iraq since the 1950s to use in Baghdad's one functioning synagogue, which is in the Batawine quarter - once a thriving Jewish area.

"We have a lot of respect for these people who carried the Jewish burden and maintained their Judaism all these years," Mr Rom said.

However, with over half of the Jews left in Baghdad aged over 70 and no Jewish wedding having taken place in the city since 1978, the survival of this once proud community seems at best uncertain.

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