November 13, 2018

A Jewish Parliamentarian in a Muslim Land

I recently read an article published by the Huffington Post, discussing the current state of anti-Semitism in the United States. The article shed light on what has become a growing problem. One particular example stood out: it discussed recent anti-Semitic attacks on California Congressional candidate Erin Schrode. These shocking viral attacks taking place in 2016, even more so in California, a place known to stand for progressive values and supporting a large and strong Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League recently reported that in 2015 attacks against Jews in the U.S., online and in person, increased by over 3% compared to 2014. Whether it is the new political climate or the sign of a cultural shift, it is quite disturbing. It makes me very sad to read these reports and learn about Ms. Schrode’s experience, and I cannot help but reflect on how unlikely this would be in my country, the majority-Muslim Republic of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has had Jewish elected officials throughout its independence, including during the very first and short-lived independence of 1918-1920, when Azerbaijan became the first-ever secular democracy among Muslim countries. Many local Jews were members of Azerbaijan’s first Parliament. Also an Azerbaijani Jewish leader, Yevsey Gindes, served as a Cabinet Minister for Health until the Soviet takeover in 1920. It may seem hard to believe that a Jew could be elected in such a time and part of the world, but Gindes’s role in helping to guide the first Muslim democracy in the entire world was emblematic of Azerbaijan’s longstanding policy and national personality; of recognizing and celebrating religious and ethnic diversity.

Even under the totalitarian Soviet Union, Jews of Azerbaijan were much more free than in many other Soviet republics. That’s the reason why so many Jews were moving to Azerbaijan from other parts of the USSR.

The first Republic’s tradition of tolerance and inclusion continued under the second Republic of Azerbaijan, which was established in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the election of President Heydar Aliyev in 1993, the religious and ethnic tolerance and inclusion became a strong and effective government policy, which has been solidified further under President Ilham Aliyev.

Today the Parliament of Azerbaijan (Milli Majlis) has members of various ethnic minorities living in Azerbaijan. One of them is Yevda Abramov, a proud member of our own Mountainous Jewish community. Since 2005, Yevda Abramov has served as MP, representing the 53rd Quba-Qusar election district of Azerbaijan. Mr. Abramov was born in 1948, to a Mountainous Jewish peasant family in the Red Town of the Quba region. Considered to be one of the world’s largest all-Jewish towns outside of Israel, Red Town was established in 1742 by the Azerbaijani Muslim ruler of the Quba region, Huseyngulu Khan. This ruler and his son Fatali Khan gave full protection to Jews. That same town is the birthplace and hometown of our current Jewish Parliamentarian.

Abramov attended a Red Town school before embarking on a long road of higher education, to study history and international relations, and eventually became one of the most recognized educators in Azerbaijan.

2005 was not Abramov’s first step in politics. His leadership began long ago, when his career in education grew into policy and advocacy work in Quba. After completing mandatory Soviet military service in the early 1970’s, Abramov returned to Quba to begin working on educational issues, and expanded to improving the governance and infrastructure of his beloved hometown. In 1999, he created the Red Town branch of the New Azerbaijan Party and led this branch until he was elected to Parliament in 2005.

If one steps back to consider a Jewish lawmaker in a Muslim nation, it’s quite remarkable. Mr. Abramov, thrice elected to Parliament, is deeply engaged in the growth and independence of Azerbaijan, and serves as deputy chairman of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, and is head of the Azerbaijan-Israel Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group.

Mr. Abramov has been a strong advocate for positive relationships between Azerbaijan and our allies, and has traveled extensively to reinforce this message, visiting Israel at least 8 times, and also France and Italy and other countries of Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. With the same message, he has visited the U.S. on 3 different occasions.

It was only a year and a half ago now that Abramov and I last visited Los Angeles. We came as part of a delegation of Mountainous Jewish leaders from Azerbaijan, to share in the joy and excitement of a very special celebration. Rabbi David Wolpe and the Sinai Temple Men’s Club had done something very special. Their generous community raised funds to commission the creation of a new Sefer Torah, and gifted it to the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue of Baku, Azerbaijan. The power and significance of such a special gift requires little explaining. Yevda Abramov and I joined our Synagogue’s Rabbi and others to receive this Torah and celebrate with our brothers and sisters of Sinai Temple. Months later, a delegation of 45 members of Sinai Temple visited Azerbaijan, and we danced on the streets of Baku with the Torah they had given us.

It seems from the news I read about anti-Semitism in the West, and considering the history and modern reality of positive diversity in Azerbaijan, that the example of Yevda Abramov should be widely shared, as it can serve as a working model of pluralism and respect; two qualities that are sadly missing from much of political discourse around the world. Perhaps we need more delegations from nations around the world, as well as Californians, to visit Azerbaijan, and return home to spread the message of hope and peace. It is with the backdrop of this profound sense of inclusion and political will, that I send my thoughts and my hopes that our entire world should learn to be tolerant of others; that we should live in a world that regards each and every human being as equals; worthy of respect and capable of great leadership.