September 20, 2018

Azerbaijan, Israel, Sporting Excellence and Universal Friendship

The first ever European Games were just completed in Azerbaijan and it is such a source of pride for me as a Jew and as an Azerbaijani. For over two weeks in June the world witnessed what a welcoming and tolerant country we are. We opened our arms to the world. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I have been so proud of the Azerbaijani and Israeli teams which received medals in so many events. Also as an Azerbaijani citizen, I feel special pride that such a spectacular event could occur in a secular majority-Muslim country. And what an enormous task this was to hold such a competition with over 6,000 athletes from 50 nations vying in 20 sports categories, and the building of a variety of sporting venues that will be used in the future for other competitions as well as to help Azerbaijani youth to train and develop our athletic programs.

For weeks leading up to the games, Jewish communities in Azerbaijan, from Baku to the Mountains, have been full of excitement for the arrival of the 142 member-Israeli delegation of athletes and coaches, which was the largest delegation Israel has ever sent to an international sporting event. It may seem unusual that the Jewish state would send the largest delegation ever to a Muslim country, but it’s actually very much reflective of true values and special relationship Azerbaijan and Israel share.

At the Opening Ceremony, when the Israeli team ran across the arena in the 68,000 capacity new Olympic Stadium in Baku, with flags of blue and white swishing in the air, the welcome was so powerful and important for the world to see. It was not just Jews in the crowd that made the noise, they were welcomed by everyone.

I was honored to attend that spectacular Ceremony, and to witness the rush and passion of an international cooperation that suprasses any of the struggles and misfortunes of today. In fact, to see the Israeli flag on the famous “Flame Towers” in Baku made me realize that these Games were a powerful symbol of hope and acceptance. Here is the image of this remarkable sight.

The Israeli team had such success at the Games. With medals in Judo, swimming, wrestling and more.. Israeli competitor Sagi Muki received a gold medal in Judo, coming in first in the -73 kg class, as did Israeli Or Sasson with a silver in +100 kg, and Yarden Gerbi took bronze for the Women’s Division, -63 kg.  Among the total of 12 medals for Israel by the end of the games, Ziv Kalontarov came in first for the gold in swimming; Men’s 50m freestyle. When Rhythmic Gymnastics took place early in the Games, silver and bronze medals were received by Israelis, and a silver for Ilana Kratysh in the Women’s 69kg Freestyle Wrestling. In the Jewish communities of Azerbaijan, we celebrated the achievement of 68 medals in total by the end of the games, 12 from the Israeli team, and 56 from our Azerbaijani athletes; together an enormous sweep.

We felt a great honor to host members of the Israeli team in our own Mountainous Jewish synagogue in Baku. With the very energetic team of athletes and coaches, we also welcomed Rafael Harpaz, Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan, as well as Igal Carmi, the head of Israel’s National Olympic Committee. The feeling from having so many happy Jews from Israel and Azerbaijan together in our Synagogue nearly brought me to tears.

For Jews here in Azerbaijan, as we celebrated the European Games, and just as we celebrate Shabbat each week and our Jewish identity every day, this is more than a special event; it is a dream come true. It is quite an experience to know that there is no nation quite like Azerbaijan when it comes to cherishing and protecting Jewish people. I hope more and more of the world will join Azerbaijan in its commitment to a life of multicultural harmony and that these Games will be remembered as a powerful symbol of Azerbaijan’s commitment to universal peace, friendship and tolerance.