by Simon Round
If the story of the Jews in the past 150 years has majored heavily on displacement, turmoil, and trauma, few in the UK Jewish community have a better understanding of this than Board of Deputies Vice President Edwin Shuker.
His life experience began with persecution, made him a refugee in his teens and persuaded him that passionate advocacy for his people and his adopted community were non-negotiable.
Edwin was born in Iraq into one of the most ancient of all Jewish communities. However, that community had all but disappeared by the time he and his family were forced to flee. He recalls the first eight years of his life as paradise but already events had been set in motion which would turn that paradise into a hell.
He recalls: “I was born in 1955 and the first eight years of my life were wonderful. In 1958 following a military coup, the royal family were murdered and five years later our lives dramatically changed for the worse. Our ID cards were swapped for a yellow one exclusively for Jews and we became second-class citizens. From then on, the government was able to legislate against Jews because we were easily identifiable. In 1968 the Ba’ath Party came to power and the first victims of their brutality were the Jews: Our movement was restricted, our phones were taken away, we were kicked out of social clubs and sensitive jobs and on the 27 January 1969 ten innocent Jews were hanged and their bodies were publicly displayed in the main squares of Baghdad and Basrah.
“We finally managed to get out of that hell by escaping to the north with forged papers, where the Kurdish tribes were having a confrontation with the Iraqi government. We were smuggled out through the mountains in the North into the sovereignty of Iran. We made our way over to the UK where we applied for and were granted asylum in 1971.”
The overwhelming feeling for Edwin, his parents and his two younger sisters was relief that they were finally free from repression. However, life was far from easy. From being a lawyer in Iraq Edwin’s father found a job “selling schmatters”. His recollection is that between September, when he arrived, and the following March, it rained more or less every day. “I did not see the sun for six months” he laughs. He also recalls that ethnic minorities “were not very welcome at the time”.
On the plus side, he knew enough basic English to manage and improve rapidly and he was soon enrolled in Hendon College of Technology where he passed his A levels and later graduated in Mathematics from the University of Leeds.
After university, Edwin worked as a contractor on mainframe IBM computers before travelling to Israel to study at Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayem, a period he describes “as a life changing experience, which set the foundation for the rest of my life”.
Later he directed the Sephardic educational Centre in the Old city of Jerusalem which targeted Sephardic communities around the world in places like the Americas, Europe, and smaller communities such as Singapore, India and even China. He says he “developed an understanding and love for Judaism and its wider biblical and historical roots.”
He was back in the UK by 1987. He married that year and began a successful business career. In the early 1990s it was decided that the small but successful Iraqi Jewish community in Britain should have a voice on the Board of Deputies. There were to be five Deputies and Edwin came second in the poll. “It was one of the most thrilling days of my life walking into that big hall representing my Iraqi community at the prestigious Board of Deputies – The Jewish Parliament. I could not have been prouder.”
While his business career developed, in 1995 he took time out to work with the American Jewish community based in New York City which exposed him to a “different perspective”, particularly the way the Jewish community behave with self-assurance and pride. He decided that he would like to bring this feeling home with him.
He also made the decision to stand for election as an Honorary Officer and in 2018 was elected Vice President.
Edwin feels his major achievement as Vice President is one which drew heavily on his experience of being an outsider in the UK Jewish community. “The most important thing I have been involved with has been the Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community”. This project examined the experience of Black Jews, Jews of colour and Mizrachi Jews within the UK Jewish community.
“Stephen Bush [the Commission Chair] delivered an outstanding report and our job this triennial is to implement its recommendations in a holistic way.”
Given his personal experience, it is not surprising that Edwin is passionate about the subject of refugees and asylum seekers.
In recent years he has travelled to Iraq regularly and frequently at great personal risk in order to reconcile and reconnect between Jews and Arabs. The recent law criminalising those with a relationship to Israel, came as a hammer blow to his efforts in changing attitudes and mindsets. However, he is encouraged and empowered by the progress made in the region by the Abraham Accords
“I really hope this will open the door to a genuine and long term relationship between the sons of Abraham.”