Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, 2016

Israel and Azerbaijan: Celebrating 25 Years of Friendship


On April 8, 2017, Azerbaijan and Israel will celebrate 25 years of friendship. As it says in the Talmud, friendship is a “critical element to our lives as Jews and for all mankind.”

On December 25, 1991 Israel became one of the first countries in the world to formally recognize the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and on April 8, 1992, the two nations established formal diplomatic ties, which have only grown closer over the 25 years since. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I have an intimate knowledge of how important and inspiring this friendship is. As a leader of my community, who has traveled across the world to many Jewish communities, I know this anniversary has profound meaning for us all.  

Israel and Azerbaijan are both exceptional countries that share much in common. They are both leaders in finding innovations in technology, energy, emergency management and international security. They are both home to diverse communities, where Christians, Muslims and Jews live as one. Israel stands alone as a progressive democracy in a region deeply embroiled in conflict and strife, and Azerbaijan stands alone in an equally unstable region; the world’s only nation to border both Iran and Russia and the only secular majority-Muslim democracy of its kind in quite a turbulent part of the world.

Israel and Azerbaijan have worked together closely over the years to establish deep and lasting trade, and today, approximately 50 percent of Israelis’ cars drive around each day with Azerbaijani oil in their gas tanks. Azerbaijan enjoys a close cooperation with Israel in the fields of technology and expertise, especially when it comes to defense, national security, medicine, IT and agriculture. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both visited Azerbaijan several times, and on his most recent visit in late 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu said of Azerbaijan that “Here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere.”

The relationship goes beyond trade and mutual goals of safety and fighting extremism.  There is a tremendous understanding of mutual respect between the two nations. To demonstrate how far this goes, I remember when one of Azerbaijan’s lead imams stated that “There is nothing in Islamic law to prevent Jews from ascending the Temple Mount and the ones who claim otherwise are considered heretics in Islam.” I remember only 2 years ago, when the European World Games successfully took place in Baku, and the largest delegation of Israeli athletes in history had flown into Baku to participate in the games, and how the crowds cheered so beautifully as they graced the arena. And last year, Azerbaijan hosted the joint exhibit of Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO, titled “The People, the Book, the Land”, which tells the story of us, the Jewish people, as we trace 3,500 years back to the land of Israel. It is no small statement for a majority-Muslim nation to make. It was the undoubtable act of friendship and respect.

When i was growing up in the Soviet Union, I never imagined that I would one day celebrate the 25th anniversary of Azerbaijan and Israel as diplomatic partners and allies. Such a notion to a Jew of this region was practically unimaginable. But like so many things in this life that are wonderful and inspiring, this friendship was a dream that came true.

As we come next week to Passover, I believe it is important to celebrate this anniversary and recognize that we are partners in peace across every continent. May the friendship shared between the Jewish state and the majority-Muslim ally of the Caucasus stand as a heroic model for the friendship that is possible between nations of any and every faith. My prayers and heart are looking forward to another 25 years of growing and fortunate friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan.


Netanyahu to visit Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit two Muslim countries, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, in a bid “to strengthen diplomatic, security and economic relations.”

Netanyahu left Tuesday morning for the trip to what he called “two large and significant countries in the Islamic world.” It will be the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Kazakhstan, he said, and the second to Azerbaijan. Netanyahu was the first to visit Azerbaijan nearly two decades ago, during his first term as prime minister, when he met with the father of the current leader.

[ROB ESHMAN: The mysteries of Azerbaijan]

“In complete contrast to what is heard from time to time, not only is Israel not suffering from diplomatic isolation, Israel is a country that is coming back,” the prime minister said as he boarded the plane. “These countries want very much to strengthen ties with Israel and, following the strengthening of our relations with the major powers of Asia, with countries in Africa and with countries in Latin America, now come ties with important countries in the Islamic world.”

Netanyahu added: “This is part of a clear policy of going out to the world. Israel’s relations are flourishing in an unprecedented manner.”

Azerbaijan, a secular state with 98 percent of its population Muslim, has a long border with Iran. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with members of the Jewish community there. The Jewish population of Azerbaijan is about 20,000.

Netanyahu also will meet with representatives of the Jewish community in Kazakhstan, his second stop on the trip. Estimates of the number of Jews in the country range as high as 30,000.

Azerbaijan: Israel’s secret Muslim friend

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Azerbaijan went to the polls earlier in the week in an event that was shunned by both the country’s main opposition parties and even by international election monitors. One exception was a group of several Israeli politicians who flew into the oil rich nation to observe the proceedings. Although this is unlikely to improve the poll’s credibility it does demonstrate the intimacy of the relationship between the Jewish state and its closest Muslim ally, experts said.

Location explains Azerbaijan’s standing in the world. Situated on the oil rich Caspian Sea, the state is wooed by Western governments seeking an alternative to Russia as a source of energy imports. Israel is one such customer and in return sells large quantities of sophisticated weaponry to Azerbaijan, partly in exchange for oil.

Much of the oil Israel purchases – about 40% — travels through the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. The BTC runs overland from Baku, the country’s capital on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia, and ends in Turkey. “Historically speaking, Israel put a lot of importance on energy security,” Lindenstrauss said. This caused Israel to pursue a close relationship with the Caucasus state, and led to it recognizing Azerbaijan shortly after it declared independence in 1991.

Equally important to Israel is Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran, a country with no love lost for Baku, despite both countries’ populations being predominantly Shi’ite Muslim. This makes Israel and Azerbaijan natural allies since “both countries see Iran as an existential threat,” Lindenstrauss observed.

There are ample reasons for Azerbaijan to welcome its alliance with the Jewish state: some with a view toward Iran and others due to Armenia, according to Alexander Murinson, an independent researcher with the Begin-Sadat Center and author of Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan became embroiled in an ethnic conflict following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a dispute which continues to dominate their interactions. “Joint containment of Iran, access to high-tech Israeli military, [and the] blocking of the Armenian diaspora in the United States by the Jewish lobby,” are incentives for Azerbaijan to court Israel, Murinson suggested.

The Azerbaijan-Israel association suits both parties well. The selling of sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan is “another attempt at psychological pressure on Iran” by the Jewish state, the author explained. Drone and air defense technologies make up the bulk of such exchanges.

But the cooperation goes further than this. Azerbaijan’s location makes it a natural back door into Iran. There are reports suggesting that all of Israel’s covert espionage activities conducted against Iran were based in Azerbaijan, including the assassinations of the nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, Murinson said.

The Iranian foreign ministry has accused Azerbaijan of collaborating with the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, and of acting as a safe house for its operations. Azerbaijan’s proximity to Iran could also enable it to function as an airfield or refueling stop for Israeli jets conducting raids against targets in Iran.

Turkey adds another piece to this complex arrangement. Previously, a triangle alliance was created between it, Azerbaijan and Israel. But following a long term cooling of relations between Ankara and Israel due in large part to the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, Azerbaijan came under pressure to distance itself from Israel. Nine Turkish activists were killed on the ship when Israeli commandos stormed the ship as it was attempting to circumvent the Israeli blockade and sail to the Gaza Strip.

Although the cultural connection between Azerbaijan and its “big brother” Turkey is extremely close, expediency and regional ambition caused the smaller state to stick to its alliance with Israel, Murinson argued.

In recent years, the under the radar relationship appeared problematic for the United States, too, as Washington was concerned that Israel would use Azerbaijani airfields to strike at Iran, Lindenstrauss said. This would have disrupted attempts to negotiate the nuclear agreement between Iran and Western states that was recently signed, and which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been consistently opposed to.

With an ally able to both provide oil and pressure Iran, Israel doesn’t want to look too closely at the domestic politics of Azirbaijan. This, Lindenstrauss suggested, is a common trend in Israeli foreign affairs where realpolitik is central.

The elections which took place recently, and which comfortably returned incumbent Ilham Heydar Aliyev to power, were boycotted by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Monitors for the poll had not been guaranteed sufficient access to ensure transparency, the OSCE said. Most members of the opposition boycotted the election as well.

“It’s hard to talk about free and fair elections in a country where freedom of expression and assembly are restricted, and journalists who should be reporting on elections, and NGO activists who should be monitoring them are in jail,” Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for Azerbaijan, told The Media Line.

However there are limits to how far and to how visibly the relationship will go. Although an Israeli embassy exists in Baku, Azerbaijan has never deemed to open a diplomatic headquarters in Tel Aviv. The Azerbaijani government always feared that doing so would make fellow Muslim states less likely to support it in its dispute with Christian Armenia, Lindenstrauss explained.

As for the future of the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship, it is likely to continue unless Israel breaks its long kept silence on the Armenian Genocide, Zeev Levin, a historian with the central Asian and Caucasus research unit at the Hebrew University, told The Media Line. Such a change in stance might drive Azerbaijan away from Israel and into the arms of Ankara.

Celebrating the Azerbaijan and Israel connection

Diplomats from the world’s only Jewish state and a predominately Shiite nation met in Westwood Feb. 3  — and got along perfectly.

The consuls general from Israel and Azerbaijan met in a well-attended public forum at Sinai Temple to discuss economic, political and cultural ties between the two countries, and to witness the gifting of a Sefer Torah from the temple’s Men’s Club to leaders from the community of Mountain Jews who have long lived in the majority Shiite Azerbaijan. 

The unusual event, which speakers frequently referred to as “historic,” emphasized cultural and historical bonds tying together Israel and Azerbaijan, a secular, former Soviet Republic nestled in the Southern Caucasus. An estimated 15,000-20,000 Jews live in the country, according to the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry. 

“This relationship has a very strong human foundation, and that’s our wonderful Jewish community,” Azerbaijan Consul General Nasimi Aghayev said at the event. “When we established, or rather restored, our independence in 1991, Israel was a natural ally for Azerbaijan, because there was already a strong foundation in our society. That’s why Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence, and one of the first countries to open an embassy in [the capital city of] Baku.” 

The two countries do billions of dollars in annual bilateral trade, according to Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel. Azerbaijan’s overall economy is dependent on energy exports; according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 90 percent of Azerbaijan’s total exports are oil and natural gas. So Azerbaijan sends oil to Israel, and Israel sends defense materials to Azerbaijan. 

But the relationship extends beyond oil and arms. Israel is Azerbaijan’s fourth largest trading partner, dealing in telecommunications, cybersecurity, education and agriculture, according to The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. 

“This is a model for how Jews and Muslims can get along in the Middle East,” Siegel said.

Asked by the panel’s moderator, Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple, how Azeris have created a culture of interfaith tolerance — between Jews, Muslims and other religions — both within and outside of their borders, Aghayev said, “For centuries it has been the case that these ethnicities, these religions, have coexisted together. And this was due to the fact that Azerbaijan was a crossroads of different cultures and civilizations.

“But, of course, you can’t forget the role of the government,” Aghayev continued. “Government can foster tolerance, or government can steer away and do stuff that is not so positive. In our case, since the very beginning, the government of Azerbaijan has strengthened this tolerance, strengthened this interfaith harmony.”

Three members of the Mountainous Jewish community traveled to Los Angeles to accept the Sefer Torah – Milikh Yevdayev, chairman of the Mountainous Jewish Community; Edva Abramov, a member of the Azerbaijani Parliament; and Rabbi Avraam Yakubov of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue in Baku. With the assistance of translators, all three participated in a group interview with the Journal prior to the ceremony, as did Gunduz Ismayilov, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Religious Institutions. 

Aghayev stressed that the Azeri government is devoted to democratic and secular values, and that it views defending all religious groups and supporting interfaith dialogue as one of its duties. 

Yevdayev seconded Aghayev’s sentiment: “We celebrate each other’s holidays. We share in each other’s joys and also pains,” he said. 

“Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,500 years, Christians since the first century, and Muslims since the seventh century,” Ismayilov said. 

In recent years, the Azeri government has provided financial resources to many of the country’s religious groups, including the Mountain Jews. In 2012, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s government gave money to build the Mountain Jews a new synagogue in Baku, where the Sefer Torah given by Sinai Temple’s Men’s Club will reside.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple led the effort to raise the funds to acquire the Torah, which was written in Israel by Rabbi Avishai Smila over the past year, and completed by members of the Men’s Club in Los Angeles prior to the ceremony. 

It all began a year ago with a conversation between Wolpe and Yevdayev, who was making his first trip to the U.S. When asked what the community in Azerbaijan needed, the latter’s answer was simple: a Torah. So Wolpe approached the Men’s Club and the rest is history.

“The Torah, according to our sages, is the ketubah — it is the marriage contract between God and Israel — and Sinai was the chuppah, it was a marriage canopy. So when you give a Torah to another community, it is also like giving a ketubah, like giving a marriage contract, and it binds the two communities together,” Wolpe said as he presented the new Torah to Yakubov.

Members of the visiting delegation also emphasized the forging of a new bond between Jewish communities in Israel, Azerbaijan and the United States. “Sons of Israel live in different parts of the world, but despite this fact Jerusalem and the sacred Torah unite us all,” Abramov said while addressing the event’s attendees. 

Moreover, the governmental bond between these three governments extends beyond trade and mutual support of religious tolerance. Azerbaijan sent soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq as a part of various U.S.-led coalitions, and there has been speculation in American and Israeli press as to whether Aliyev’s government has secretly assisted Israel in combatting Iranian nuclear capability. 

Despite this collective public support of each other’s efforts, there are some signs in the United States of a growing unease with Azeri politics. Most significantly, Aliyev has faced criticism in the American press for using his authority for repressive, autocratic ends. A Human Rights Report from the State Department stated that in 2013, “the president dominated the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government,” and the government “failed to take steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses.” 

A recent New York Times editorial chastised the Azeri government for “continuing a crackdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations,” including arresting and jailing numerous journalists and activists. The editorial quoted a cable published from the American ambassador to Azerbaijan, published by Wikileaks, which stated that Aliyev’s actions force American policymakers to make “a choice between U.S. interests and U.S. values.”

Aghayev and Abramov both told the Journal that the Azeri government has not participated in human-rights abuses or unjustified prosecution of members of the press. 

“Nobody is being persecuted for journalistic activity, but if someone commits a crime there should be justice according to the law,” Abramov, who belongs to Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, said during the group interview. 

Accusations of misuse of power have been overblown in the Western press, Aghayev asserted. 

More important, insisted Abramov, are Azerbaijan’s supportive relationships with Israel and the United States — bonds that undoubtedly reached new depths at Sinai Temple. 

“Today, a dream is coming true,” Yevdayev said at the event. 

Israel’s most valuable Muslim ally

Jews worldwide will soon mark the onset of a Jewish New Year with the specter of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East. Amid the preponderance of daily bad news, it is uplifting to celebrate narratives of tolerance and respect. Earlier this month, I was one of 12 rabbis meeting with two distinguished Los Angeles-based diplomats, Consul General of Israel David Siegel and Consul General of Azerbaijan Nasimi Aghayev. We broke bread together and discussed our shared goal of shining a positive light on the unique story of Azerbaijan, a Muslim nation that enjoys positive relations with the United States, Israel and its own Jewish community.


Letters to the editor: Jordan Belfort, Azerbaijan and defending Israel

Treating the Moral, Ethical Sickness Spread by MoneyÏ

As a state and federal criminal prosecutor, I can tell you that for every Bernard Madoff or Jordan Belfort, there are dozens of Jewish white-collar criminals you will never read about (“ ‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish Problem,” Jan. 3). Rob Eshman is right on the money when he declares that our rabbis and leaders are not doing enough to address this issue. I leave the criminal courthouse on Friday afternoon, but often I do not — I cannot — leave the hustling, the quest for material glory and the egos that landed the defendants in jail in the first place. No, those conversations about business and material desires continue in the synagogues. Non-Jews do not point to Jews as the models of business ethics. Until that happens, our leaders should spare no effort tackling this cancer.  

David Peyman via e-mail

I always read your columns with great interest, but the “Wolf” one really got me thinking. You are so right!

Strangely enough, it is interesting that doctors love lecturing about diseases that almost never occur (so they can be the world’s authority on something obscure) but avoid talking about common problems (where they have to know their facts cold). Moreover, just like your examples about the American Studies Association and Swarthmore College’s Hillel, the earlier conversation is easy to have because it involves no conflict or change in practice patterns. The latter, if it actually suggests changes to care, is an exceedingly difficult topic and will inevitably antagonize many.

Distinguishing greed from ambition and security is very subjective. But one thing that is clear is that I see a bright line of moral behavior that I could never cross. It is not Belfort’s, Boesky’s or Madoff’s desire for wealth that disgusts me; it is that they either were too damaged to see the line or willingly crossed it. Can seeing that line be taught? 

There is an entire field of literature devoted to “the genetics of morality.” It is plausible that those who acted immorally were more likely to be beaten by their co-humans and didn’t live to reproduce. 

Steven Teitelbaum, Santa Monica

The question of what motivates people is a thorny and at times comedic one. We are balls of contradiction, tightly wound. There is nothing for the Jordan Belforts of the world to measure up against: “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope/with what I most enjoy contented least.” I’ve been there! And it’s not a pretty place to be.  

I would only add that the costs of this institutionalized greed are more than the nest eggs, to which you alluded, that will be lost. The cost must also somehow tally the pain of not measuring up, of not knowing ourselves, of chasing a buck at any cost — what David Foster Wallace put as life “under the ceaseless neon bottle.” In other words, the cost is our humanity at large.   

Crawford Coates via e-mail

Azerbaijanis Set Valuable Example for Mideast

I would like to express my gratitude to Rob Eshman for his article “The Mysteries of Azerbaijan” (Dec. 20, 2013), about the Jewish community in Azerbaijan. Amid the violent ethnic conflicts that have been rattling the Caucasus over the past two decades, the co-existence of Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis in peace, harmony and mutual respect may serve as an exemplary model for the Middle East. 

I also especially thank Mr. Eshman for his courage in highlighting the common grief over the 1918 massacre of Muslims and Jews carried out by the Bolshevik and the Armenian Dashnak forces under Gen. Hamazasp Srvandztyan. Without delving into the unfortunate debate surrounding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, the acknowledgment of this horrific 1918 atrocity constitutes a proper recognition of its victims and survivors. And regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, such recognition is an important step toward peace and reconciliation.

Javid Huseynov, General Director of the Azerbaijani-American Council

Time to Put Differences Aside

Kudos to David Suissa, who once again hit the nail on the head (“Why Won’t Liberals Defend Israel?” Dec. 20, 2013).

Unfortunately, Israel is surrounded by anti-Semites who do a good job of pummeling us at every opportunity. If only we could scale back our own divisiveness to support and defend each other (even when we disagree, as all families do), how much stronger we would be as a nation.

Miriam Fisher, Los Angeles


The correct contact information for Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Jan. 10 Shabbat Shira,  the Shabbat of Song event (Calendar, Jan. 3),  is (310) 409-4634, 

The mysteries of Azerbaijan: A Shiite nation embraces its Jews

Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon.

To get there, you fly 13 hours from Los Angeles to Istanbul, then catch a three-hour flight to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country of some 9 million people on the Caspian Sea. From Baku, you take a bus past churning oil derricks and miles of empty desert, up into the Caucasus, through tiny villages surrounded by apple orchards. After two hours, you arrive in Quba, the capital of Azerbaijan’s northeast region. About a mile past an attractive central mosque, a simple steel bridge spans a wide, mostly dry riverbed and leads directly into Red Village. 

One of the first things you see is a large brick building atop which sits — improbably, impossibly — a Jewish star.

About 4,000 people live in Red Village, every one of them Jewish. That makes Red Village the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel.

[Related: The food of Azerbaijan]

This entirely Jewish town exists in an almost entirely Muslim country — ancient, placid, prosperous. It is also completely unknown to the majority of the world’s Jews. I had to see Red Village to believe it. I had to figure out: What’s the deal with Azerbaijan?

Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev convened 750 journalists, scholars, activists and scientists from around the world to participate in the annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum. 

The invitation offered a chance to see for myself a country that, from what I’d heard over the years, has never quite fit the standard American perception of Muslim = Fanatic and Shiite = Really Fanatic.

After all, Iran, also a Shiite nation, lies just across Azerbaijan’s southern border. But while Iran is the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil  and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. The Shiites of Iran would treat me, an American Jew with a passport full of Israeli stamps, as an enemy. In Azerbaijan, I was an honored guest.   

My visit was personally arranged through Azerbaijan’s Western Region Consul General, Nasimi Aghayev. I’m not the first journalist lured to explore Azerbaijan’s incongruities, but I do seem to be the first in my crowd. Few people I talked to about my travel plans beforehand had heard of Azerbaijan, and even fewer of its Jewish connection.  

You could fault Azeris for not getting the word out, but in the 22 years since it gained its independence, Azerbaijan has had to focus on rebuilding, not rebranding.  

What struck me first when I arrived in Baku is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a fast transition. Now that its tremendous oil and gas wealth isn’t being siphoned off to feed the Soviet empire, the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) has soared. 

This group of kippot-wearing Azeri boys greeted an American visitor with laughter and shouts of “hello” and “Shabbat shalom!” Photo by Rob Eshman

For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Azerbaijan was under the rule of the Russian empire, which exploited its resources. When the tsar fell in 1918, Azerbaijan quickly formed a secular republic, the first Muslim majority country in the world to do so. Its parliament immediately granted women the right to vote — a year before the United States did. But the flowering of democracy, commerce and art was brief. The Bolsheviks arrived just 22 months after Azerbaijan declared independence, attacked what they called liberal and decadent Baku Muslims, crushing a rebellion and absorbing Azerbaijan into the USSR. 

When Hitler invaded Russia, his brass ring was Baku’s oil, which provided more than 80 percent of the fuel for the Soviet war effort. In 1942, Hitler’s general staff gave him a cake in the shape of the Caucasus. Hitler ate the slice with “Baku” written on it. “Unless we get Baku oil,” Hitler said, “the war is lost.” 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baku finally won its independence in 1991. Its first president, Heydar Aliyev, who died in 2003, and his son and successor, Ilham Aliyev, have managed to negotiate lucrative long-term oil and gas contracts that, for the first time, keep Azerbaijan’s money at home and have tilted the former Soviet satellite westward.

Oil money has enabled a modern, busy city with cutting-edge architecture and luxury stores to grow up around the well-preserved walls and narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City. Baku is a cleaner Tel Aviv surrounding a smaller-walled Jerusalem. 

What’s even more surprising about Baku is its people. The majority are traditional but secular. Few women wear headscarves — the look is skirts and heels, more Westwood Boulevard than Riyadh.  

But Azerbaijan’s tolerance is not a Western import. It’s homegrown, even ancient.

“The multinational, multiconfessional society is one of our assets,” President Aliyev said in the conference’s keynote address. “All nationalities see their religion respected. … This contributes to the building of a civil society.”

For the Jews, that is remarkably true. 

“There has never been anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan,” Arye Gut, the Azeri-born founder of the international association Israel-Azerbaijan (AZIZ), told me. Like many Azeris who have immigrated to Israel, he maintains strong personal and business ties to his home country. 

In a meeting at his office, Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee for Work With Religious Organizations, pointed out with some understatement that Azerbaijan has resisted the increasing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.    

Iskandarov, an urbane graduate of Columbia University, theorized that Azerbaijan’s location on the Silk Road international trade route long ago encouraged its people to accept all kinds of cultures.  

Or, as a Cambridge-educated Azeri told me later in my week there, “Our philosophy is, ‘Why fight when you can trade?’ ”

A masterpiece of architecture by the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid recently opened as the Heydar Aliyev Center, a cultural and conference center in Baku. Photo by Rob Eshman

Like many Azeri officials I met, Iskandarov could rattle off the names of famous Azerbaijani Jews — who are pretty much the most famous Azerbaijanis, period — among them pianist Bella Davidovich, Nobel Prize physicist Lev Landau, Israeli singers Sarit Hadad and Yaffa Yarkoni, pioneering physician Gavril Ilizarov and chess master Garry Kasparov, who is half Armenian.

There is also writer Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey and Kurban Said, author of the most famous Azeri novel, “Ali and Nino.”

“The magic of this town lies in the mystical bond between its races and its people,” the book’s narrator said. “The race of a peaceful Caucasus is forged on the anvil of Baku.”

Iskandarov wondered aloud whether the nation didn’t share a lineage with the eighth-century Khazars who converted en masse to Judaism. Perhaps, the ambassador posited, Azerbaijani Shiites have Jewish blood.

“When we are talking about Jews,” he said, “this is tolerance of our own past.”

I asked how the government keeps extremist Islamic ideologies from taking root in Azerbaijan. Iskandarov pointed to his bookshelf, where there were thick tomes of sermons prepared by government-appointed imams and distributed to mosques — local imams were encouraged not to veer from these more liberal teachings. There is freedom of religion — but not too much.

Many countries, including Iran, say they love the Jews — it’s just Israel they can’t stand. Azerbaijan is different. It has strategic defense partnerships with Israel, and the two countries conduct $5.5 billion in trade annually. 

Last year, Iran protested and even threatened “consequences” after the Azerbaijan foreign minister announced an official visit to Israel. President Aliyev refused to back down. 

“I know who my friends are,” Aliyev said, “and who my enemies are.”

During the tsarist regime, Jews were not permitted to buy land in Baku. But a local Muslim stepped up and bought the property for what became one of the city’s two synagogues. On Friday night, as Sabbath services concluded, I went there to meet Milikh Yevdayev, chairman of the Religious Community of Mountain Jews. 

About 10,000 of Azerbaijan’s 15,000 Jews live in Baku. The synagogues serve different groups — one is Ashkenazi style, staffed by a Chabad rabbi, and the other, the one I visited, is well-appointed and known as the New Synagogue, for the Mountain Jews.  

The Mountain Jews trace their lineage to ancient Persia. They speak Juhuri, a blend of Farsi and Hebrew; if you close your eyes, you’re back again on Westwood Boulevard. Historians believe the Mountain Jews first settled in the Caucasus in the fifth century. It is their descendants who settled Red Village. 

“We live like brothers,” Yevdayev assured me. 

On the wall of the synagogue are photos of the stout, middle-aged Yevdayev and other synagogue leaders alongside President Aliyev, as well as the country’s leading imam and the head of the Armenian church.

The $2 million it took to build the synagogue last year came directly from President Aliyev. Some 60 people attend Shabbat services weekly, and 300 on the holidays. Two schools, entirely paid for by the government, serve 300 students. The sanctuary has some local touches — a central pulpit, Oriental carpets, stacks of the local Jewish newspaper, which is printed in Russian. 

Yevdayev is originally from Red Village. His daughter now lives in Brooklyn. I ask him if Jews are leaving Red Village and Baku for Israel and elsewhere.

“They go; they come back, they go — it’s not a trend,” he said. “You’ll see.”

The main synagogue in Azerbaijan’s Jewish community, known as Red Village, bears Persian rugs on its floors and decoratively carved wood throughout. It is one of three active synagogues in the town of 4,000 people. Photo by Rob Eshman

The next day, I saw. Our bus of some 30 conference participants followed a new highway north from Baku into the foothills of the Caucasus.  

Quba is a medium-sized city, surrounded by pear and apple orchards. In 1730, the Khan Huseyn Ali decreed that Jews could own property in his district. Their settlement, Red Village, resembles a more prosperous version of the many small towns we had passed en route.

“There are many Jewish billionaires,” our tour guide informed us on the way up.

He wasn’t kidding. Since independence, Azeri Jews have flourished in business, especially in Russia, and they have spent millions restoring the old village, even buying up properties there as a link to their past. The soccer field and park look new, the stone, brick and wood homes refurbished. It was quiet — we arrived on Shabbat, when the cafes, restaurants and small businesses were closed. Azerbaijan’s Jews are as traditional, and as secular, as its Muslims.

Inside Red Village’s main synagogue, services were just letting out. There was a cacophony of kids and young men. The only sign that we were in the exotic East: Visitors are asked to remove their shoes, as in a mosque. The floor of the shul’s rich wooden interior is covered in Persian carpets. 

Boris Simanduyen, chairman of the community, told us that until the Bolshevik Revolution, the town had 13 synagogues. Back then, the village was called Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Settlement) in Russian and had 18,000 residents. Now, Red Village has a Hebrew school with 60 students and three synagogues. President Aliyev’s administration pays for the heating oil for them all.  

Simanduyen is a serious elderly man who speaks not a word of English or Hebrew.  Through an interpreter he told me the town receives many visiting Jewish groups, people like me who can’t quite believe such a place exists. As if to offer more evidence, he called over a teenage boy who opened a prayer book and recited a Hebrew prayer at a breakneck pace.  

Outside the synagogue, we ran into a group of high-spirited boys, most wearing kippot. They posed for pictures, and shouted back “hello,” and “Shabbat shalom!” to our own greetings.  

“Our neighbors say, ‘Why do you send oil to Israel,’ ” our guide, a Shiite, said, summarizing the Azeri attitude toward the Jewish minority. “We say, ‘The Jews are our brothers. They make a big contribution to the economy and culture of Azerbaijan.’ ”

That contribution is beginning to extend beyond the historic. A subtext of every speech we heard and visit we made was that Azerbaijan is seeking international support for its ongoing conflict with Armenia, which, in 1992, fought a brutal war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and has occupied that region since, in contravention of United Nations resolutions. 

The continued occupation by force of some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory consumes Azeri political discourse.  

Near Quba, we pulled into a brand-new memorial complex of angular concrete and polished granite. Just beside it lay mounds of human skulls, recently excavated at the site of a massacre in 1918 of Muslim and Jewish residents by Bolshevik, Armenian and Christian forces. About 600 people were slaughtered by what our guide referred to as “Armenian gangsters.” The exhibit looked as if it had been airlifted directly from Yad Vashem. 

In a meeting with Yevda Abramov, Azerbaijan’s sole Jewish parliamentarian, a big, deep-voiced Mountain Jew, we asked what message he wanted us to convey to American Jews. 

“Please present the Armenian holocaust against us,” he said, then launched into a tirade on the “double standard” in how the world only cares about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and ignores Armenia’s occupation of Azeri land.  

Abramov raised his considerable voice. “The Armenian lobby prevents a just solution!” he said. 

Of course, as in any tribal-religious-political conflict, the Armenians level their own accusations of land grabs and massacres.  Azerbaijan, a country suffering from occupation, has allied itself with Israel, a country trying to extricate itself from being an occupier. The situation is not as ironic as it seems when you look at a map. Squeezed between Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist Russia to the north and Iran’s mullahs to the south, Azerbaijan sees in Israel a natural ally also ringed by enmity.  

Israeli military technology and know-how is helping the once-poor Azerbaijan develop an army that can credibly threaten to take Nagorno-Karabakh back by force. In exchange, one expert told me, Israel gets to park drones and perhaps even launch operations right at the edge of the Iranian border. 

“The Almighty presented us with oil, but not with neighbors,” Abramov said with a sigh.

And, just like Israel, Azerbaijan’s historic feud with its neighbor constantly threatens to keep dragging it into the bloody past, even as it carves out a uniquely promising future.

Political strife has challenged Azerbaijan’s journey to full-fledged democracy. Earlier this year, the government announced the results of its presidential election before it was held, making the country a punch line on “The Daily Show.” But in their 21 years at the helm, the Aliyevs have transformed a communist police state into a catpitalist, struggling semi-democracy — all the while negotiating a treacherous neighborhood.  

 “Don’t write off Azerbaijan just yet,” Matthew Bryza, former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan, told CNN last month.

Indeed, the country’s long history of tolerance may yet ensure its success.

In Baku, I told Ambassador Iskandarov how much I’d enjoyed the local food, a blend of Persian and Turkish cuisines. He told me I should really visit the best Azerbaijani restaurant in the United States — Baku Palace, in Brooklyn. Its owner, he said, is a Jew.

Iranian denies plan to attack Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan

An Iranian man arrested on suspicion of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan denies the allegation, an Iranian diplomat said on Thursday.

Hassan Faraji, 31, is the latest in a number of Iranians to be accused of criminal plots in recent years in Azerbaijan, which has tense ties with its larger southern neighbor.

Faraji was detained near the Israeli embassy in the capital Baku on October 31 but his arrest was made public on Wednesday, when state TV showed footage of police raiding an apartment.

“Faraji had a detailed plan of an attack on personnel of the Israeli embassy…He put up a resistance to the police during a detention,” police said in a statement.

A court in Azerbaijan sentenced him to one month pre-trial detention, while Azeri and Israeli media reported that he had connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an allegation an Iranian official denied.

“This information does not correspond to the reality,” the Iranian embassy spokesman, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.

Iranian embassy officials met Faraji in custody.

“He denies all charges and believes that his innocence will be proved during an investigation,” he said.

The case is a part of wider diplomatic tensions between the neighbors, which share a religion but have sharply different political systems.

Some 15 percent of Iranians are ethnic Azeris and there are strong linguistic and family ties straddling the border, adding another strain to ties.

Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan, for its part, has arrested dozens of people last year on suspicion of connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and of plotting attacks, including on the Israeli ambassador to Baku.

Iranian citizen Phaiz Bakhram Hassan was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison for an attempt to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku. He was arrested last year.

Iran closed two check-points on the border with Azerbaijan this month in response to the closure of another border check-point by the Azeri side after a gunman opened fire from the Iranian side of the border on a tractor, officials said.

Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Azerbaijan denies report it gave Israel access to airfields

Azerbaijan officials denied a claim in an American magazine that Israel was granted access to airbases in Azerbaijan.

Foreign Policy Magazine reported Wednesday that Israel was granted access to the airbases in the Caucasus nation, raising the fears of U.S. officials that it is readying an attack on Iran. Azerbaijan is located on Iran’s northern border.

“This information is absurd and groundless,” Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry spokesman Teymur Abdullayev told the French news agency AFP.

An Azerbaijan presidential official told AFP that the article was “aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.”

Writing in Foreign Policy’s new issue, Mark Perry reported that the unnamed senior U.S. diplomats and military intelligence officers with whom he spoke believe that the heightened security cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan heightens the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran. It also will make it more difficult for the United States to reduce Israel-Iran tensions, the officials said.

“The Israelis have bought an airfield,” the article quotes a senior U.S. administration official as saying, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington, the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency declined to comment for the extensive article.

The unnamed officials believe that Israel has gained permission to use four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields and airbases through a “series of quiet political and military understandings.”

Azerbaijan makes arrests in planned attack on U.S., Israeli embassies

Twenty-two people were arrested in Azerbaijan on suspicion of planning to attack the American and Israeli embassies.

The arrests Wednesday were announced by the national security ministry, which said the attacks were to be undertaken on behalf of Iran, the French news agency AFP reported.

Last month, suspected terrorists with links to Iran and Hezbollah were arrested in Azerbaijan and accused of planning terrorist attacks against foreigners in Baku, the capital. In January, at least two men were arrested after planning an attack on two Israeli teachers—Chabad emissaries at the Or Avner school in Baku.

Israel Aerospace Industries, a state-run company, signed a $1.6 billion deal in February to sell sophisticated military technology to Azerbaijan.

Israel, Azerbaijan ink $1.6 billion military deal

A state-run Israeli company will has inked a $1.6 billion deal to sell sophisticated military technology to Azerbaijan.

Under the deal, Israel Aerospace Industries will sell drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor to the north.

Israeli defense officials told international news services that the deal has been in process for a long time and is not a response to recent allegedly Iranian attempts to kill Israeli diplomats or any potential Israeli plans to strike Iranian nuclear sites.