BAGHDAD — The vice president of the European Jewish Congress, Edwin Shuker, posted a video on his Facebook page Oct. 2 in which he addressed the Iraqi people on the occasion of the Jewish New Year.
In the video, Shuker said, “I find myself today with millions of Iraqis in London where I have lived for over 45 years. Although we were forced to leave Iraq, our homeland has not left our hearts for one second.”
He was forced to leave Iraq in the 1970s and he did not want the video to seem like an individual message. He said, “Although I am speaking for myself today, I am sure that my words express the feelings of my diaspora and how much the [Iraqi Jews] long for their homeland and its people. I am saying what tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews scattered in countries around the world are thinking.”
Shuker is considered one of the most prominent activists fighting to preserve Iraqi Jewish heritage and the connection Iraqi Jews have with their homeland, Iraq. He specifically took advantage of how the Islamic new Hijri year 1438 coincided with the Jewish New Year 5777, as a symbolic indicator of how Jews and Muslims could at some point meet after decades of hatred.
He told Al-Monitor, “I received hundreds of messages after I posted the video, displaying the friendship between [Jews] and Muslims who used their names explicitly, and there were very touching comments as well showing that something has indeed improved.”
In the video, Shuker also tried to illustrate what Iraq is currently going through, saying, “This diaspora [Iraqi Jews] has fallen victim to a separatist sectarian policy, and they were the only component missing from the diverse Iraqi society. It is painful to see such a colorful community threatened to lose the remainder of its colors today. But on the other hand, this urges us to work hand in hand to defend this rich Mesopotamian diversity.”
The video was shared on social networks by many users both inside and outside of Iraq, and it sparked mixed comments among Iraqis. For instance, Ali Wajih, a blogger who shared the video, told Al-Monitor, “Most comments were positive and indicated a change in people's awareness about the issue of Iraq's Jews, who have been the victim of a historical misunderstanding and confusion between the Jews of Iraq — who are an authentic Iraqi component — and the modern State of Israel in the region and its conflict with the Palestinians.”
Activist Niran Bassoon, the daughter of famous Iraqi Jewish journalist Selim Bassoon, left Iraq in 1973 when she was only 15 years old, and she now lives in London. She told Al-Monitor what Shuker’s message meant to the Iraqi Jewish diaspora. “This video is a positive step to fight the doubt and abandonment that pushed Iraqi Jews into a secluded place," she said. “Some Iraqi Jews like Edwin and I are still clinging to the hope of returning to our homeland. Although other Iraqi Jews might not oppose this endeavor, they may find it a waste of time, if there is no response on the official level.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Linda Menuhin recalled her escape from Iraq in 1970, wearing a black abaya in order to get passed the checkpoints on the road to Iraqi Kurdistan, along with thousands of Jews, when the Baath regime started executing Jewish citizens in Liberation Square in Baghdad in 1969 after accusing them of spying for Israel.
Menuhin tried to explain the full picture saying, “Of course the new generation is curious about the land of their forefathers and our generation is nostalgic about the beautiful memories we have in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. Perhaps if the situation were stable, many of us would have gone back and visited our holy sites. But this requires trust, which takes a long time to build, and our generation may not be able to do that.”
Menuhin starred in the documentary “Shadow in Baghdad” by Israeli director Duki Dror. The documentary tells the story of how she was trying to learn about her father’s fate, all the while staying hopeful that Muslims, Jews and other minorities in Iraq will be able to coexist in the future.
“My father was kidnapped in 1972 in Baghdad after we lost contact with him following our escape from Iraq, due to the threats against Jews since 1969,” Menuhin said. “Regardless of this painful past, I made peace with myself and tried to forget about it.”
The story of Menuhin and other Jews who were forced to leave Iraq was brought back into the limelight by Shuker’s video, through which he conveyed the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews abroad who wish to return to their homeland. Consequently, the reactions Shuker’s message received over social networks are proof of the freedom to discuss the issue of Iraq's Jews, without resorting to the traditional hateful discourse.
However, the return of Iraq’s Jews remains a distant dream in light of the current conditions prevailing in the country, but having an official representative of the Jews in the federal parliament is possible if the representatives of the Jewish minority are willing to go into such an adventure.
In this context, the first official response to Shuker’s video came from Joseph Sliwa, the head of the Warka Democratic List in the federal parliament, who explained to Al-Monitor the importance of Shuker’s message to the Iraqi people since “it reveals at least one representative of the Jewish minority to the public.” He said, “I have previously supported the idea of a Jewish member of parliament, but this idea will only be interpreted in reality when representatives of the Jewish minority start participating in the political process on the official level.”
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