Yehuda Assia

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Ofer Aderet reports (3 September 2016):

Yehuda Assia, an Iraqi-born banker who at the Swiss-Israel Trade bank helped raise funds for the Mossad in its early days, has died at 99. Assia forged a career in Asia, the United States, Switzerland and Israel, helping to finance the new country’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.

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Assia was born in 1917 in Baghdad to Hilweh and Yitzhak Assia, an affluent textile merchant. His family’s original name was Achi, a term denoting someone obstinate and rebellious. His paternal grandfather Ezra acquired the moniker when he tried to avoid a tax imposed on affluent Jews, a tax that in turn was a way of avoiding the draft. In his early days, Assia attended the Rachel Shachmon Jewish school in Baghdad, where Iraq’s King Faisal once visited. “In his black beard he impressed us greatly, walking among the classrooms with his large entourage,” Assia wrote. “His visit underlined the recognition Jews received from the royal family in those days.” One teacher at that school was Reuven Shiloah, a representative of pre-state Israel who was there to collect information on Iraq under the cover of a Hebrew teacher. He later became the first director of the Mossad. Shiloah and Assia’s roads would cross again.

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His life in Israel was interrupted in 1950 when the authorities called on him to go on a special mission to Switzerland, where Israel was establishing the Swiss-Israel Trade bank. Assia would set up and manage it. But there was a backstory. The bank was also set up to aid the transfer of funds to finance Mossad operations. Thus was renewed Assia’s contact with Shiloah, his former Hebrew teacher in Baghdad. Assia’s contact with the Mossad was close. At the end of the ‘50s he was urgently summoned to Jerusalem by the minister of trade and industry at the time, Pinchas Sapir.

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His involvement in undercover operations continued as he collected donations for Israel. His most serious job was a request by the Defense Ministry’s director general at the time, Shimon Peres. The task: to raise funds that would help build the nuclear reactor in Dimona. A year later, he was approached by Finance Minister Levi Eshkol, who was looking for investors in a new oil pipeline from Eilat to Ashdod. Assia became the deputy chief executive of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company. The company operated for a decade before it closed upon the signing of a new agreement between Israel and Iran. In 1963 Assia returned to Israel. He continued working in banking and lived in the affluent town of Savyon, spending some of the time in Switzerland with his wife. When she died in 1990 he moved to Israel permanently, living in Tel Aviv.

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