The Haganah ran the operation, called Michaelberg — derived from the pilots’ names — one more time, bringing back 50 more Iraqis, before the outbreak of the Israeli war for independence in 1948 rendered the flights too risky.
In June 1948, with the war still raging and the situation growing worse for Iraq’s Jews, Mr. Hillel went to Iran, this time disguised as a Frenchman. He had passed through Paris, where he encountered a priest named Alexander Glasberg, who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism. He had saved some 2,000 Jews during World War II by hiding them in monasteries, and was now involved in getting European Jews to Israel.
The two decided that if Jews could make it across the porous border to Iran — and if Mr. Hillel could bribe the Iranian police to look the other way — then Father Glasberg, who was friends with the French interior minister, could arrange visas for them to get to Israel.
The first group took a circuitous, transcontinental route; after crossing the Iraq-Iran border by land, they flew to Paris, then took a train to Marseilles, where they boarded a ship to Israel. Later groups flew directly, thanks to a charter airline backed by the Mossad called Trans-Ocean. Over a few months, about 12,000 Jews made the trip.
But even this wasn’t fast enough for Mr. Hillel, who had since returned to Israel. In 1950 a new government in Iraq passed a law allowing Jews to migrate for one year. Here was his chance to get tens of thousands of Jews out of the country.
Mr. Hillel traveled to Baghdad once more, this time disguised as a Briton named Richard Armstrong, representing an American charter company called Near East Air Transport. The company, owned by a pro-Israel American, was real, though it received much of its funding from the Mossad.
Working with an Iraqi travel agency, he set about bidding for the exclusive right to fly Jews out of Iraq, and soon arranged a meeting with the prime minister, Tawfiq al-Suwaidi, who happened to own a share of the travel agency.