February 26, 2020

American Jewish Committee Delegation in Azerbaijan: Traveling to the Land of Tolerance

AJC delegation with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. 2015

AJC delegation with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, 2015


Last week was a special week for the Jewish communities of Azerbaijan. A delegation of 7 leaders representing the American Jewish Committee came from the United States to visit Azerbaijan, to meet with important leaders, and to experience Azerbaijan first hand. A major highlight of their trip was an extended meeting with the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, which lasted 75 minutes. Considering President Aliyev’s busy schedule, I believe this speaks to how important the relationship between Azerbaijan and the American Jewish Committee is to our nation.

Additional meetings were held with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan Dan Stav, Vice President of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), Elshad Nasirov, and the  U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta. And of course, the delegation met with dozens of Jewish community members at one of beautiful synagogues. As the leader of the Mountain Jewish Community of Azerbaijan, I had the esteemed pleasure of meeting with this important delegation and discussing Azerbaijan’s over 2000 years of history as the safe home for Jewish people.

AJC CEO Davis Harris captured the meaning of the trip quite well, and said that “Azerbaijan continues to be a very significant partner for both the U.S. and Israel. Baku’s contributions in many spheres are increasingly vital in today’s turbulent world, although, frankly speaking, not as well-known and recognized as they should be. In a key region of the world, where the United States has few reliable friends, Azerbaijan, a secular, Shiite-majority country, stands out. And for Israel, believe me, the bilateral relationship is no less important. Moreover, it is inspiring to see the record of respect for the Jewish community – and the striking absence of anti-Semitism – in a land Jews have called home for over 2,000 years.”

AJC national delegations have been visiting  Azerbaijan annually for the past eleven years, and actually Azerbaijan is one of the few countries on AJC’s annual visit calendar. This year the delegation, led by AJC President John Shapiro and CEO David Harris, included Gail Binderman, a member of AJC’s Board of Governors; Nancy Petschek-Kohn of Westchester County, New York: Shonni Silverberg of New York; Yakov Abramov, a former Azerbaijan resident living in New York; Sam Kliger, AJC’s Director of Russian Affairs; and Charlotte Bilski, Deputy Chief of Staff to the AJC CEO.

This AJC visit reminded me of a similar visit not long ago, when Sinai Temple of Los Angeles, led by Rabbi David Wolpe, came as a delegation to visit Azerbaijan, and brought with them a new Sefer Torah; a gift to our Mountain Jewish Synagogue of Baku. That trip included great festivities around the gifting of the Torah, including dancing in the street, and was an unforgettable experience for the Sinai Temple delegation and for the many Jews of Azerbaijan that participated. Rabbi Wolpe captured the experience beautifully in his piece in TIme Magazine, and referred to Azerbaijan as an “Oasis of Tolerance.

These visits are so important, and they really capture what is so special and crucial about the relationship shared by Azerbaijan and Jewish communities across the world. Azerbaijan is a rare nation, a majority-Muslim country bordering Iran, and a place that is not only considered a safe haven for Jews, as it has been for many centuries, but a place where Jews live and practice with the respect, support and protection of the government and the broader community of Azerbaijani people. Tolerance is our key national trademark, and the flourishing 30,000 strong Jewish community of Azerbaijan is an example of how that trademark plays out today, as it has for much of time.

Other Jewish leaders from Los Angeles have also visited Azerbaijan, including many visits by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul, and Rabbi Israel Barouk, the author of several books capturing, among others, the history of Jews in Azerbaijan.

In general, over the last few years, in large part thanks to efforts by Azerbaijan’s Los Angeles Consulate General, more and more influential representatives of the Los Angeles Jewish community as well as other communities, including Christian and Muslim communities, have come to get to know Azerbaijan and appreciate its exemplary model of multiculturalism, multi-faith tolerance, harmony and peace.

The connection between American Jewish communities and Azerbaijan is strong and only growing stronger with each passing year, as more visitors come to Azerbaijan to experience our multicultural nation. And even without the pleasure of visiting Azerbaijan, Jewish-Americans are becoming more and more aware of the great friendship shared between Jews all over the world and the Republic of Azerbaijan, a rare ally and protector of Jewish people in a world so overwhelmed with danger and anti-Semitism. For us in Azerbaijan this is nothing new – it is a lasting, national quality, and yet it’s important to note how much our way of life stands out. The visit by the AJC delegation was a remarkable reminder of the important relationship my nation shares with American Jews and Jews around the world. It was also a reminder of how we must continue to build on this precious relationship, to meet new community members from across the United States and to continue our dialogue and shared vision of peace, for Jews and for everyone else in the world that strives for peace and tolerance. I look forward to the next AJC visit, and encourage many additional Jewish organizations and synagogues to arrange such a visit for themselves. It’s one thing to read about our oasis of tolerance, but it’s quite another to experience it.