I had never asked my dad about fleeing Iraq. Talking to an ex-diplomat's granddaughter made me look at my own heritage

Sandy Rashty hears her father's escape, via Tehran, for the first time


I have never properly asked my dad about his memories from Iraq. It’s a strange thing to have avoided, given I'm a journalist, but getting the answers would make what he went through too real.

And yet I was forced to confront the issue after Efrat Sopher, the granddaughter of Israel’s former ambassador to Iran, recalled her ancestor Meir Ezri’s role in helping Iraqi Jews flee persecution in the country.

I asked my father what he remembered of leaving the family home in Baghdad with his siblings and my widowed grandmother Julie Rashty, a journey that took them through the mountains of Kurdistan to Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Now living in London, he recalled it clearly: “We left on the day of my birthday, the day I turned 15 on July 23, 1971. Mama Julie spoke to me the night before we left and said: ‘Tomorrow, we are escaping, but you must not tell anyone’.

"No one trusted anyone at the time. I didn’t know if I would ever see my friends or the rest of my family ever again. I took only what I was wearing: my shirt and trousers. There was one piece of hand luggage between us all.

“The morning we left, we took the train from Baghdad to Erbil in the north. I don’t remember seeing anyone on the train that we knew — but I also don’t remember seeing any police or soldiers.

“When we arrived we met a Kurdish man. He put all of us in a small hotel in one room. The next night, he drove us further north to Sulaymaniyah and we stayed in an open-air cave. I remember Mama Julie buying us a watermelon to eat from one of the stalls, but it was so hot she told me to hold it under a spring of water coming from the mountains to cool it down. It exploded all over me.

“I don’t remember sleeping that night. As the sun came up, we started to see other Iraqi Jews, all different ages — men, women and children. I remember there were exactly 27 of us that got into an army Jeep to drive to the top of the mountain. It was freezing cold and we waited until it got dark before driving across the border.

“The driver drove us in the dark on the winding mountain road without any lights on. There was an old woman sitting on the floor underneath me and I was too tall to stand up, so I remember squatting down on my knees for the whole journey. I remember looking out and seeing that we were right on the edge of the mountain. That journey took exactly 25 minutes, but it felt like 25 hours.

“Once we crossed the border, the driver got out of the car. He put on his lights and said: ‘You are safe now. You are in Iran’. It felt good.”

Along with the other escapees, my family were taken by coach to Tehran, where they stayed in the Sinai hotel.

There, he remembers meeting Israeli officials who were encouraging the community to move to the Jewish homeland. “They would tell us, ‘Israel is paradise, go to Israel’.”

Every night, my father waited for his best friend Hayou to arrive. “Eventually I got fed up. One night, there was a knock on the door and it was Hayou. Mama Julie said she remembered us jumping up and down on the bed. The first thing he did when he got to the hotel was look for me.” My father stayed in Tehran for 21 days.

While Hayou went to Israel, my father’s family sought refuge in the Netherlands for a few years before later moving to London.

“It felt like a dangerous journey at the time,” my dad says, “but looking back, we can see that things were planned in advance.”

That is where the work of the late Meir Ezri was pivotal.

A Zionist, he was appointed as the Israeli ambassador to Iran by Ben Gurion. He held the position from 1958 to 1973 and was widely credited for building strong ties with administration of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Meir’s granddaughter, who now lives in London, is a World Jewish Congress diplomat and academic who specialises in Israeli foreign policy towards Iran from 1948-1979.

Having represented the WJC at the UN Human Rights Council, where she called on the body to do more to combat terror, she has come to the view that understanding and relationships are key to combatting threats.

“What is being said is important to Israel’s security, even when you are not talking about security matters. Understanding relationships is vital,” she says.

Dr Sopher recalls her grandfather’s stories of life under the Shah, and the relationship between Iran and Israel. Many were shared over Shabbat meals with his friends, who she later learnt were Mossad agents, lawyers and diplomats who were key to the smuggling of Jews from Iraq into Iran.

“They had incredible stories that you could not make up,” she says.

“There was no rulebook because Israel was such a young country and they were in situations that had not arisen before.” She says they did everything from forging documents to paying officials and hiding Iraqi Jews in disused cemeteries.

“By the 1970s, it was more of an open-secret [that] Jews who had fled Iraq were openly living in Tehran.

“It was like an affair. Iran still had to be mindful of their relations with Arab countries and so weren’t always comfortable having official public relations with Israel.”

Still, Ambassador Ezri had a positive relationship with officials under the Shah: “There were the most exquisite parties; the Purim parties were epic. When my grandfather left his post, he gave the Shah a portrait of himself with the Empress that was painted by an Israeli artist. The Jewish community also gave the Shah a carpet embroidered with an image of the Shah and Empress.”

Dr Sopher says that her grandfather also procured a carpet that once hung in Adolf Hitler’s office. “He made a point to put it in the Israeli Embassy as a daily reminder that Hitler would never win again.”

It is not known what happened to the carpet after the Islamic revolution, when the embassy was handed over to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Meir Ezri had already returned to Israel by then.

“The relationship between Israel and Iran changed literally overnight,” Dr Sopher says. “He saw how the Iranian people he loved so much were being treated under the new regime … he was sad that relations with Israel stopped.”

Last year, Dr Sopher held an event in London with late Shah’s wife, Farah Pahlavi, where they talked about the impact of women in power, contemporary art and fashion.

“She did remember my grandfather, she recounted how warm the relations were, which was surreal.

“Ben Gurion could not have sent anyone better. He was amazing at reading people and he gained their trust, which was vital to getting things done.”

He went onto set up the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Haifa University, which publishes papers internationally that are used by Knesset members in a bid to promote understanding of the region today.

Meir has passed on, but Dr Sopher now sits as the chair of its board of advisors: “I saw it as my legacy to continue his work.”

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