A young boy in uniform stands with his arm raised in a mock salute, his gaze steady. The boy’s expression is partially eclipsed as the sunlight hits only one side of his face, but he appears to be staring back out at the photographer.
The black-and-white image is grainy and the buildings in the background are nondescript. Taken in 1947, this photograph shows a young boy named Farouk Sayig, later known as Baruch Meiri, standing near his family home in Baghdad, Iraq.
It’s an eye-catching image of a bygone era; a glimpse into some of the final years of a once-thriving Jewish community that had resided in Iraq for over 2,500 years.
Born in 1940 in Baghdad, Baruch Meiri was the eighth of nine children. Like tens of thousands of other Jews living there, Meiri and his family escaped from Iraq as part of a mass exodus that saw some 130,000 Jews airlifted to Israel via Iran and Cyprus from 1950 to 1952, in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
An Iraqi law mandated that they had to renounce their citizenship and could never return. “I was 10 years old,” Meiri said. “We took a taxi to the airport and I remember that there was a very long line at the entrance. We barely had anything on us – no money or gold – because we didn’t have anything.
“We flew on one of the first flights out from Baghdad to Cyprus,” he continued. “But the plane had a mechanical issue and we stayed in Cyprus for an additional two days before getting to Israel.”
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah came after years of violence and persecution. Nazi propaganda during World War II and rising Iraqi nationalism stoked anti-Semitic sentiment in the country during the 1940s, with the hatred reaching a fever pitch shortly after Meiri was born during the Farhud, a violent event that took place on June 1-2, 1941.
The Farhud was a Nazi-inspired pogrom that broke out in Baghdad over the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Hundreds of Jews were killed or raped and 1,000 injured, though exact casualty figures remain unclear.
“During the pogroms, my parents fled to the house of the neighbors, who were community leaders,” Meiri said, recalling the event and his Muslim neighbors. “My mother managed to save our family.”
Growing up, Meiri’s family was very poor. In order to make some extra pocket money, the young Farouk bought a few cucumbers at the local market and began selling them to other schoolchildren at a profit. In this way, he was able to buy sweets and pastries for himself. “I learned to become self-reliant,” Meiri said. “Don’t let the world tell you that you can’t do something, just do it.”
“This is how I acted when we immigrated to Israel as well and we were in a transit camp, a place that later became Or Yehuda,” a city in central Israel, he added. The newly arrived immigrants to Israel were all given new names when they were sent to live in a transit camp. Farouk Sayig became Baruch Meiri.
Due to the large influx of Jewish immigrants pouring into the nascent state of Israel, which had only been established a few years prior in 1948, conditions at the transit camps were very poor. The camps also referred to as ma’abarot, were meant to be a temporary shelter for lack of better housing options.
They were marred by poor sanitation, overcrowding, and limited supplies of water and electricity. The majority of immigrants inside Meiri’s camp were Iraqis, however freshly arrived Turkish and Libyan Jewish families also lived in the Or Yehuda camps. In the winter of 1951, Israel suffered its harshest winter in a century, making life in the ma’abarot particularly unbearable.
“The tent, which was our house, drifted into the Ayalon River and we were left with nothing,” he recounted. “Big trucks came and took all the children in the camp to Givat Brenner, a kibbutz. Every winter, for three months, we would be sent away from our parents to this kibbutz.”
The Meiri family was upgraded to more permanent lodging a few years later and Baruch’s father, who had been a jeweler back in Iraq, was sent to work as a farmer, an area in which he had no experience.
For his part, at 16 years old Baruch Meiri got his first serious job working as a newspaper delivery boy for Maariv, one of Israel’s most important daily newspapers. He would later rise up in the ranks of the paper and became the manager of Maariv’s Jerusalem branch.
Meiri also won several awards for journalists over his career and penned a number of acclaimed books in Hebrew, including an autobiographical work in which he described life in the ma’abarot.
“It was my dream to become a journalist,” Meiri said. “Iraqi Jews understood that the only way to succeed in Israel was through hard work and studying. There are no shortcuts. They understood that Israel, at the time, was a poor country that had only just been founded.”
“If you see an obstacle, don’t stand next to it and cry, Instead, think of how to overcome it,” he said.
Meiri, now 80, has four daughters and 13 grandchildren and has shown no signs of slowing down. Over the past decade, he has transformed himself into an Israeli swimming champion for his age category. In fact, he has already won 40 medals.
The Iraqi Jewish community is one of the oldest and most significant Jewish diasporas. Following Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, only 10,000 Jews remained in Iraq and most of them left after Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979. Today, only three Jews still live in Iraq, according to Orly Baher Levy, chief curator of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda.
In the early 20th century, the Jewish community in Iraq lived relatively well, with many Jews holding important positions in Iraqi society and in the halls of power. It was not until the 1930s that Jews living there began to suffer from more serious persecution.
“Up until then they had been an integral part of Iraqi society; they were Jews, but they were first of all Iraqi,” Baher Levy explained to The Media Line. “And then bit by bit they started to feel like outsiders. The local populace suddenly saw them as Jews (and not Iraqis), and became jealous of them.”
The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center first opened to the public in 1988. It is the largest museum of its kind dedicated to documenting, preserving, and researching the cultural heritage of Babylonian Jewry.
In addition to exhibitions and lectures, the museum houses a large collection of Iraqi Jewish artifacts, including Judaica, manuscripts, books, and photographs.
On Tuesday, the museum will hold an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Jewish exodus from Iraq to Israel via Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Leading Iraqi-Israeli speakers and artists will take part in the celebrations, including Baruch Meiri. The festivities also will include traditional Babylonian Jewish music, art, and food.
Mordechai Ben Porat, 98, one of the original organizers of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah and who also spearheaded the founding of the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, is slated to attend the museum celebrations.
One of the goals is to keep Iraqi Jewish traditions and history alive for the next generation. “With that Aliyah, we can say that the Babylonian exile ended,” Lily Shor, director of external relations and events at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum, said.
“All the Jews around the world were once in the tribe of Judah, and they were taken to Babylon” after the destruction of the First Temple, Shor said. “During the immigration wave of the 1950s, some 110,000 Jews came to Israel and only 9,000 remained in Iraq. This means that the exile effectively ended.”
The article was written by Maya Margit and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.