CNN’s Newsnight on Oct. 20 aired a poignant segment on the rescue of elderly and destitute Iraqi Jews who had been largely forgotten by the outside world until they were visited and helped by Rachel Zelon, a senior official of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Traveling to Iraq, Zelon used hand drawn maps to find the remaining Jews and to offer them resettlement in Israel. As host Aaron Brown noted, Iraq’s Jewish community which 50 years ago had been quite large (he gave the number 500,000, but the actual number was probably closer to 150,000), was now down to about 35 people.
The segment focused on Sasson, a frail 90 year-old, afflicted with cataracts and barely able to cope in his airless room, and Regina, also elderly and suffering from curvature of the spine so severe that she could barely walk. Both eventually accepted Zelon’s offer to move to Israel.
Zelon even made the difficult journey to the southern Iraqi city of Basra to find Salima, who lived there alone, apparently looked after by members of a local church. Basra was once home to a thriving Jewish community – now Salima was one of the few Jews left.
As recounted by Zelon:
We drove to an old section of Basra and pulled up in front of a house. There was this little tiny old lady. And she invited us in. And we sat down on some stones in this courtyard. And she looked at me. And she said, who are you? And I looked at her and said, I’m Jewish. And I’m here to take you home. And she said, I thought everyone had forgotten about me. And I said, no. We just couldn’t get to you. But now I’m here. And she said, my nieces and nephew and sisters and brothers, they all went to Israel and they live there. And I wanted to go. But I didn’t know how to get there. And I said, we’ll take you there.
The segment ended with this moving story, again recounted by Zelon:
A few months after Sasson got to Israel, I happened to be in Israel again. And I went to visit him in the home for the aged that he was living in. He had put on 20 pounds. And his hair was long. It was so wonderful to see him. And we were sitting there. And we were talking at this table in the home. And, all of a sudden, a telephone starts to ring.
And we’re looking around trying to find a telephone. And Sasson reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cell phone and says, hello? And it was just the most wonderful thing. It sort of was like, oh, this really was worthwhile. This — we did good here.
CNN and Newsnight host Aaron Brown are to be commended for their sensitive portrayal of Iraq’s dwindling and destitute Jewish community, and for exposing to a wider audience the impressive rescue efforts of Rachel Zelon and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Just as important, the segment showed the real Israel – willingly opening its doors to elderly, destitute people who literally had nowhere else to go. Even the greatest democracy in the world, the United States, would have been unlikely to accept these impoverished Jews, but Israel, a Jewish and democratic state, did.
The complete transcript of the segment can be acccessed here – scroll about two-thirds of the way down the page.