Operation Babylon: The Story of the Rescue of the Jews of Iraq by Shlomo Hillel (Doubleday: $19.95, 301 pages)
Two weeks ago, in these pages, I confessed my distress and disappointment over "Through Different Eyes," a book that starts out as a debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict and ends up as a sterile exercise in polemical excess. As soon as I finished writing the review, I picked up "Operation Babylon," an intimate memoir about the clandestine rescue of the beleaguered Jews of Iraq during the struggle for Jewish statehood--and I found myself hoping that every American reader with an interest in the history and destiny of the Middle East would read it. If we are to understand the moral argument in favor of Israel, the practical necessity of a Jewish homeland, and--above all--the resourcefulness and the resolve of the Israelis, we need only meet the determined men and women whose story is told in "Operation Babylon."
"Operation Babylon" is the autobiographical work of Shlomo Hillel, a sort of Jewish James Bond whose mission was the salvation of the Jewish community of Iraq during the pioneering years of the state of Israel. Today the Iraqi-born Hillel serves as speaker of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, but his youth was devoted to the forging of a Zionist underground in Iraq, the smuggling of desperate Jews from Iraq into Palestine under the watchful eyes of the British and their Arab charges, and ultimately the massive airlift of more than 100,000 men, women and children--95% of the Jewish population of Iraq--to the newly created Jewish state.
As a tale of adventure and intrigue, Hillel's book is irresistible. He portrays himself as a restless, sometimes arrogant, and always audacious 24-year-old kibbutznik who is plucked from field and workshop and dispatched on secret missions to the most exotic and treacherous destinations--Paris, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran. Suddenly, we are plunged into a world of smugglers and soldiers of fortune, opportunistic Bedouin sheiks and corrupt Iraqi ministers. We meet the venerable elders of a Jewish community that dates back to the Babylonian exile of biblical times--and their courageous children, who are determined to replicate the return to Jerusalem, and who are willing to risk martyrdom to do so.
So "Operation Babylon" is a kind of elegant thriller, rich with the color and lore of the Middle East, and crackling with danger and death. The operator of Hillel's secret transmitter in Baghdad works with a revolver at his side: "Avraham has decided that if anything goes wrong, he won't be taken alive." When one member of the Zionist underground is tortured by the Iraqi secret police into revealing the location of an arms cache--a cache that he believes to have been emptied--the strands of conspiracy lead directly to the gallows in a public square of Baghdad. But "Operation Babylon" is a thriller with the resonance of the Psalms:
"When the voice of Ben-Gurion could be heard proclaiming the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the State of Israel," Hillel writes, "by the rivers of Babylon, many of the House of Jacob sat down and wept again--for joy and out of fear, feeling privileged and feeling trapped."
But "Operation Babylon" is also a commentary on the tumultuous politics of the contemporary Middle East--and, in many ways, a more convincing one than "Through Different Eyes." Hillel's account specifically repudiates many of the arguments of James Abourezk, the advocate for the Arab cause in "Through Different Eyes." For instance, Abourezk claims that the bombings of Jewish sites in Baghdad during the final days of the evacuation of the Iraqi Jews were carried out by Jewish militants who "sought to frighten Iraqi Jews into emigrating to Israel."
Hillel, by contrast, painstakingly demonstrates the monstrous falsity of the accusation and reveals the urgency of rescuing the more than 500,000 oppressed and terrorized Jews who lived in various Arab countries, where they had long endured the Islamic equivalent of the ghetto, the pogrom and the blood libel. What's more, Hillel contrasts Israel's welcome of Jewish refugees from around the world with the callous and cynical refusal of Arab governments to absorb the Arabs who left Palestine after Jewish statehood. What might have been an exchange of refugee populations, Arab and Jewish, turned into an open sore of history.
"I couldn't help thinking what a pity it was that the annals of the Jewish community in Iraq were coming to a close after 2 1/2 millenia in an atmosphere of abuse and searing insult," Hillel muses on the eve of the final airlift that brought the Jews of the ancient Babylonian exile to the Promised Land at last, "that a history longer and richer than the chronicles of many other peoples was ending . . . with the actors on both its sides alienated, antagonized, hardened."
"Operation Babylon" accomplishes what the Jewish advocate in "Through Different Eyes" sadly failed to do--Hillel allows us to understand the sense of history, the goals of rescue and refuge, that shape the national consciousness and the moral purpose of Israel. "Forty left safely tonight," reported the coded radio transmission from Baghdad that heralded what was to become the largest secret airlift of refugees in history. "Wish them well."
After sharing Hillel's story, after witnessing his struggle, his grief and triumph, those words are enough to bring tears to the eyes and a chill to the spine.