Fleeing anti-Semitism in Iraq, only to encounter it in the UK

  • EdwinShuker
My family and I managed to escape from Iraq and the hell of Saddam Hussein 48 years ago to the day on 15 August 1971.
by EDWIN SHUKER | Aug 15, 2019

We were part of the remnants of a glorious Jewish community that arrived in what was then Mesopotamia as captives to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE, and we maintained a continuous presence there for more than 2 600 years.

We left our home in Baghdad with just the basic necessities to avoid suspicion, with forged identity cards to avoid severe restrictions on movement, and fervent prayers.

After an arduous and perilous journey, and with the assistance of brave Kurdish rebels, we were eventually able to cross the border into Iran and freedom.

This story is not unique, but shared with hundreds of thousands of Jews indigenous to the region who were displaced after the establishment of the state of Israel, with less than 4 000 remaining.

We managed to get to the United Kingdom, where we were granted asylum and began the process of rebuilding our lives. Little did I imagine that in my lifetime, I would again be facing the malaise of anti-Semitism, this time in the UK.

In 2003, weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I felt the urge to reconnect to my birthplace. I wanted to see the shrines of the prophets, the cemetery where my grandfather lies, and the Tigris and Euphrates from which I and a hundred generations of Babylonian Jews drank. I now visit Iraq regularly, keeping alive a tentative link that might or might not last beyond this generation.

In May 2018, I was elected vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and currently chair the communities, education, and interfaith division. I took this on because I wanted to pay back to the Jewish community and Britain for their kindness in embracing our family and providing us with opportunities and blessings.

Ironically, what is currently occupying the board and the Jews of Britain and Europe is a sudden and unexpected rise of anti-Semitism, both in its original anti-Jewish racism and masquerading as anti-Zionism/anti-Israel.

It’s fair to say that in 2015, the UK Jewish community felt reasonably safe, secure, and happy – a longstanding, well-respected minority living within a vibrant mix of cultures in the country.

However, anxiety levels increased hugely that year with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. As a back-bencher in parliament, Corbyn had held cordial meetings with anti-Semitic figures such as Raed Salah – a cleric notorious for promoting the blood libel.

Corbyn also associated with Holocaust denier Paul Eisen, and referred to Hamas and Hezbollah representatives as “friends”.

At the time, British Jews were alarmed that this was a leader who would tolerate anti-Semitism in his party. Unfortunately, these fears have since turned out to be – if anything – understated.

A large number of British people have historically identified with the Labour Party, and its proud record of fighting racism. Certainly, the anti-Semitism crisis which has developed over the past four years would have been unthinkable under any previous Labour Party leader.

A significant amount of the fault lies with Corbyn, who attacked British Jews whose views on Israel he disagreed with by saying they “do not understand English irony”. He then attempted to dilute the internationally-accepted definition of anti-Semitism.

His attitudes have unsurprisingly created a permissive culture around anti-Semitism. Equally, his equivocation on the severity of the situation and of individual cases; his public embrace of suspended members; and his dismissive response to legitimate questions from journalists, have fuelled the culture of disbelief and denial that has consistently deepened the crisis.

The issue of anti-Semitism has dominated our day-to-day work in recent years and, thanks to our advocacy, has changed from a fringe issue to being at the front and centre of British politics. However, there is more to the board than anti-Semitism.

We work hard to protect the religious freedom that our community needs to pursue a Jewish way of life. We strive to ensure that the community has the right to educate its children in Jewish schools.

We also work to educate the wider community about Judaism, and to ensure that we have good relations with all the other minority communities which make up the patchwork quilt of our multi-cultural society.

In spite of it all, the British Jewish community continues to lead a most vibrant life with outstanding schools, kosher facilities, eclectic restaurants, strong youth movements, and much optimism for the future.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has always had special relationship with its sister organisation, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, based on shared values and challenges.

  • Edwin Shuker is vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He will be speaking at Limmud Johannesburg this weekend (16-18 August); Limmud Durban, (21 August); and Limmud Cape Town (23-25 August).


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.





Yad Aharon GENERIC2020


Follow us on