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Elderly Iraqi Jews among first of tiny community to be flown into Israel

YEHUD, Israel—Ezra Levy, 82, who until last week was a lifelong resident of Baghdad, didn't hesitate a second on Sunday when he was asked what he liked best about his new life in Israel.

"All the beautiful women I've seen," he replied with a partially toothless grin. "The beautiful women of Israel are different than those of Baghdad."

A first impression from one of Israel's newest immigrants, it was also an astute and pragmatic observation. Levy arrived Friday with five other elderly Jews aboard a secret airlift from Iraq, a country where Jewish women are scarce these days.

He expects his son, Imad, 37, to follow soon from his service as the bachelor rabbi of Baghdad, tending to an aged community without the benefit of a wife.

"I was very glad to come to Israel. I decided to leave everything behind, not to look back, and look forward," Levy said in a burst of Arabic, then offered this in a more hesitant Hebrew, the language of his new country: "I haven't spoken Hebrew since 1930. But I'm beginning to understand."

Word of the evacuation leaked to the Israeli press, and then around the world over the weekend, with photos gracing Israeli newspapers Sunday. Officials had not planned to publicize it but acknowledged that it was sponsored by the Jewish Agency, which hopes to arrange future flights for the last several dozen elderly remnants of Iraq's once flourishing Jewish community.

Jewish Agency envoy Shlomo Grafi, who traveled to Iraq on an American passport, acknowledged that U.S. troops cooperated with the effort, and dispatched American armor to escort a minibus around Baghdad to collect those who chose to come. Friday's flight brought the first six, including a 99-year-old woman who was so feeble, Grafi said, that he had to carry her aboard a special Jordanian charter plane for the less than three-hour flight.

Not only was it the first direct Baghdad-Tel Aviv air link since 1951, it was also the first flight of the six Jews' lives, departing the former Saddam Hussein International Airport and arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, just ahead of the Jewish Sabbath.

Iraq broke ties with Israel in the early 1950s, but not before tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews teemed into the new Jewish state from the land where their ancestors had settled in 6th century B.C. exile under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. Almost all the rest fled in the 1960s and 70s. When Saddam Hussein rose to power, the last several hundred got special protection from the secular Baath Party regime.

By the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq this year, the Jewish community numbered about 35, and were mostly homebound, afraid to even go to synagogue because of chaos and lawlessness in the Iraqi capital. Last week, amid reports that U.S. troops had killed Saddam's sons Udai and Qusai, Iraqis "were shooting all over the place," presumably in celebration, Levy said. Still, "it was worrying."

Levy said it was a tough decision to leave his homeland. But he said he did it to see his baby sister, Dalia, 60, who left at age 8 and has raised a full-blown family. He has other relatives in Israel, too, including a nephew, Eli Levy, a Miami psychologist.

Grafi said some of the Jews took some convincing to leave, and for all it was an emotional choice. Levy agreed to go only after he went to a Baghdad cemetery, lay down on his wife's grave, and wept in a final farewell. She died in 1991.

Levy is by far the fittest and most telegenic of the bunch. His half-toothy grin graced the front pages of Israeli newspapers Sunday. One elderly woman went straight to the hospital, after Grafi found her emaciated and in a near coma at her Baghdad home, without water or electricity.

Israeli officials said they will provide them with geriatric housing and other accommodations.

But Levy is already adjusting to his new life. Saturday brought visits from cousins, nieces and nephews, native Israelis born after his brothers and sisters fled Baghdad in 1951. Sunday brought a battery of medical checks, including X-rays to inspect a pin that Iraqi surgeons put in a broken hip a few years ago; a new immigrant's card; and 1,700 shekels in cash, or about $425, his first installment in a government pension.

Monday, unless he is too tired, he will travel to Jerusalem, and visit Israel's parliament as the most articulate and healthy of the six new immigrants.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.