November 17, 2018

Israel and Azerbaijan: Yes, Jews and Muslims can be friends!

Flags of Azerbaijan and Israel

Flags of Azerbaijan and Israel


I have talked a lot and have written many articles about how strong the Azerbaijan-Israel relations are and how these countries are important to each other. Last week marked another important milestone in the development of our bilateral relationship and was special for the Jewish community of the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan. On September 13-17, the Defense Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman visited Azerbaijan, as part of his visit to the region, which also included a trip to neighboring Georgia. Lieberman had visited our country before on several occasions, but only as a Foreign Minister. What makes the recent visit special is that it was his first visit to Azerbaijan in his capacity as Israel’s Defense Minister, and compared to his one-day stay in Georgia, he spent full five days in Azerbaijan, holding many high-level meetings. This alone is a striking example of how Israel attaches a great importance to its relationship with Azerbaijan.

A major highlight of Lieberman’s visit was his meeting with the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, under whose visionary leadership the strategic partnership with Israel has been elevated to the current level. He also met the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, Interior Minister and other high ranking officials, as well as the country’s Jewish community leaders. At all meetings, successful cooperation between the two countries in various fields was commended. Azerbaijan’s unique model of multifaith tolerance, harmony and multiculturalism was also hailed during the meetings.

As the Head of the Community of the Mountain Jews of Baku, I was honored to meet with Mr. Lieberman to discuss the current status of the Jewish community, as well as the fruitful cooperation between our two nations. I was delighted to present Lieberman with Albert Agarunov Award on behalf of our community. Newly established by the Community of the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, this award is presented to Azerbaijani and foreign nationals, who strongly contribute to the strengthening of Azerbaijan’s defense capabilities. It is no coincidence that the award is named after Albert Agarunov. Hailing from “Qırmızı Qəsəbə” (Red Town), which is today one of the largest all-Jewish towns outside of Israel, Albert Agarunov was a Jewish warrior and tank commander. He voluntarily enlisted in the Azerbaijani Army in 1991 and fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, defending the territorial integrity of his homeland – Azerbaijan against invasion and aggression by Armenia. Albert was killed in 1992 on the battlefield near the Azerbaijani town of Shusha by an Armenian sniper. He was posthumously awarded the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan and was buried at the sacred Martyrs’ Lane in Baku. The extraordinary and unique story and devotion of this 23-year old Azerbaijani-Jewish hero to his homeland is not only fondly remembered by the people of Azerbaijan, but also by many Jews worldwide. During his stay in Azerbaijan, the Israeli Defense Minister also paid tribute to Agarunov, by visiting his grave and laying flowers.

Azerbaijan and Israel share a unique, time-tested and special relationship, which is based on mutual trust and understanding at all levels. Over the years, a number of Israeli leaders have visited our country, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1997 and 2016) and President Shimon Peres (2009).

Israel is one of the first countries in the world, which formally recognized and established diplomatic relations with the newly independent Azerbaijan in the beginning of the 1990s, opening an embassy in Baku.

Today Israel and Azerbaijan enjoy an advanced cooperation in the fields of energy, defense, national security, medicine, agriculture, IT, tourism, etc. Many Israeli companies operate in the country. Trade turnover between the two countries is growing each year, and some years ago it even was much bigger than Israel’s trade with France. Israel receives around 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the two countries are working closely to fight international terrorism and extremism and to achieve peace in their respective neighborhoods. This, in fact is very important in terms of regional and international security.

Another crucial aspect of Azerbaijan-Israel relations is the Jewish community of Azerbaijan. For over two thousand years, Azerbaijan has been a safe haven and homeland for Jews, where they have lived and continue to do so in an environment marked by zero anti-Semitism. It is because in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite-Muslim country located between Iran and Russia, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and representatives of other faiths, have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between ethnic and religious communities in the country and ethnic, religious or racial discrimination has never existed in Azerbaijan. Today Jews are represented and take an active part in almost all spheres of life in Azerbaijan, including politics, medicine, education, science and culture. Moreover, seven synagogues, two Jewish elementary schools, three kindergartens and one Yeshiva are operating in Azerbaijan.

This unique bond and partnership between Azerbaijan and Israel and the peoples of the two countries is a clear message for everyone who doesn’t or doesn’t want to believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence, cooperation and mutual respect between Muslims and Jews. As a Jewish community leader, I will continue to contribute to the further development of this friendship between our nations and promote this heroic model of togetherness for the whole world.

Lev Landau: A Jewish Physicist and Nobel-Winning Genius from Azerbaijan

Swedish ambassador in the Soviet Union Rolf Sulman (L) on behalf of The Nobel Committee awards Lev Landau with the Nobel Prize in Physics in Moscow. 1962 car accident prevented him to travel to Stockholm to personally receive his Nobel Prize.

Swedish ambassador in the Soviet Union Rolf Sulman (L) on behalf of The Nobel Committee awards Lev Landau with the Nobel Prize in Physics in Moscow. 1962 car accident prevented him to travel to Stockholm to personally receive his Nobel Prize.


It is always interesting to follow the announcements of the Nobel Prize winners each year. This year the Nobel Prize winners are expected to be announced in October. Widely regarded as the most prestigious award in literature, physics, medicine, economics, chemistry and activism for peace, the Nobel Prize is annually awarded to extraordinary individuals for their outstanding contributions for humanity. I am proud to mention that one of those extraordinary individuals is a prominent Jewish physicist from majority-Muslim Azerbaijan – Lev Davidovich Landau, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1962 “for his pioneering theories for condensed matter, especially liquid helium.”

Landau was born on January 22, 1908, in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, into a Jewish family. His father was a prominent engineer working in the oil industry in Baku and her mother was a physicist and later taught at the Jewish High School as well as Baku State University. Both parents lived in Baku until the beginning of 1930s before moving to then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

He began his schooling in Baku, graduating from the Jewish High School. Recognized very early as a wunderkind in mathematics, he enrolled at the Baku State University (BSU) at the very young age of 14, studying in two programs at the same time: Mathematics and Physics, and Chemistry. He learned fundamentals of physics at the Baku State University, which is the oldest and largest university in Azerbaijan. Established in 1919, BSU is also one of the first secular universities in the Muslim world.

Landau benefitted from the open and embracing long-standing culture of tolerance in Azerbaijan, where a Jewish child can grow to become a well-known scientist, with the rights and freedoms to pursue his passions and goals, just the same as anyone else. We have seen this with many other examples too, including Azerbaijan’s current Supreme Court Justice Tatyana Goldman, Jewish Parliamentarian Yevda Abramov, Jewish doctor and scientist Gavriil Ilizarov and many other leaders and heroes.

In 1924, Landau moved to Leningrad to continue his study in physics at the Leningrad State University and in 1927, at the age of 19 he successfully graduated from that university and began his academic career at the Leningrad-Technical Institute.

In 1929, supported by a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, Landau embarked on an eighteen months-long scientific journey through Europe, conducting research and attending scientific conferences in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The research he conducted at various universities of Europe, especially in Copenhagen and learning from well-known physicists Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr greatly influenced Landau’s views of physics.

After his return to the Soviet Union in 1932, Landau held various teaching positions, including the head of the Theory Department of the Ukrainian Technical Institute in Kharkov and the Head of the Theory Division of the Physical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Landau worked on many branches of theoretical physics, including atomic collisions, astrophysics, low-temperature physics, atomic and nuclear physics, thermodynamics, quantum electrodynamics, kinetic theory of gases, quantum field theory, and plasma physics. He conducted thorough research on the basis of physician Kapista’s general thermodynamical theory of phase transitions of the second order and in 1938, he discovered the superfluidity of liquid helium. Even suffering from Stalin’s “Great Purge” and spending a year in prison in 1938 didn’t stop his enthusiasm for getting more outstanding achievements in physics. Between 1941 and 1947, Landau wrote many papers mainly focusing on the theory of quantum liquids. His comprehensive research on this theory was recognized with the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physics. In his award presentation speech Professor I. Waller, member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, said: “Landau has by his original ideas and masterly investigations exercised far-reaching influence on the evolution of the atomic science of our time.”

In addition to Nobel Prize, Landau received many international honors for his contributions to the development of physics. He was a member of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences (1951), the Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences (1956), the London Physical Society (1959) and the Physical Society of France (1962). In 1960, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Fritz London Prize and the Max Planck Medal. Moreover, he was elected to the USSR Academy of Sciences (1946), received the State Prize three times (1946, 1949, 1953), received the Lenin Prize in 1962 (shared with E.M. Lifshitz for the Course of Theoretical Physics), was granted the title Hero of Socialist Labour (1953) and awarded twice the Order of Lenin.

He died in 1968 – suffering from the implications of a serious car accident six years earlier. Sadly, this accident prevented him to travel to Stockholm in 1962 to personally receive his Nobel Prize.

Lev Landau has always been the source of pride for the people of Azerbaijan and the Jews living in this country, where people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living for many centuries in peace and harmony. In Baku, a memorial plaque has been placed on his birth house. Also, one of the beautiful streets in downtown Baku is named after Landau.

Being one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Landau’s work, dedication to science and outstanding achievements have taught and inspired many scientists not only in Azerbaijan and in the former USSR, but in the entire world. As he mentioned repeatedly: “Everybody has a capacity for a happy life. All these talks about how difficult the times are we live in, that’s just a clever way to justify fear and laziness.”

Celebrating the Jewish New Year in the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel


Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – begins in two days, this Sunday evening. For us, the Jews in Azerbaijan, like for other Jews around the world, this holiday embodies benevolence, honesty, fresh start and unity. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, and to make a fresh start together.

Each year during the holiday we, the Mountain Jews living in Azerbaijan, attend services at our synagogues, sound the shofar and recite special liturgy, take care of those in need, gather around the table, eat honey-dipped Challah and apples, and pray for forgiveness. What is unique about Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays in Azerbaijan is that our fellow Muslims and Christians come together with their Jewish brothers and sisters to share our joy and happiness. In Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between these ethnic and religious communities, and this exemplary harmony continues to this day.

Today in Azerbaijan the Jews have everything they want. We have peace, stability and prosperity. We have our flourishing synagogues, schools, kindergartens, and various cultural facilities. We have the support of the government, which is making tremendous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions. On every Rosh Hashanah, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev sends a congratulatory message addressed to the Jewish community of the country. This year was not an exception.

Here is the text of the congratulatory message by the President of Azerbaijan that I just received:

“Dear Compatriots!

I cordially congratulate you on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and convey to you my heartfelt wishes.

We regard ethno-cultural diversity in the modern Azerbaijani society, where traditional relations of friendship and brotherhood, and tolerance and multicultural values ​​exist among people, as an indispensable achievement of our national statehood. People of different ethnic backgrounds living in our country, including the Jewish community, have always lived in peace in Azerbaijan, preserving their language and culture and traditions without any discrimination.

Today the independent state of Azerbaijan remains committed to its progressive historical traditions. In line with modern democratic principles, ensuring human rights in the country, protection and strengthening of ethnocultural values ​​of ethnic minorities is one of the priorities of our state policy.

The Jewish community, who have been living in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years, have become an integral part and full-fledged members of our society. I want to emphasize with satisfaction that our citizens of Jewish origin are closely involved in the socio-political life of our country, which is currently experiencing a period of great development and progress, and make valuable contributions to the process of democratic state building.

Dear Friends!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrated by you every year is the embodiment of renewal, spiritual purity, kindness and solidarity. Once again, I sincerely congratulate you on this beautiful day, wish happiness and continued prosperity to you and your families.

Happy Holidays!

Ilham Aliyev

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Baku, September 7, 2018.”

Together with our fellow Muslims and Christians, as the Jewish community of Azerbaijan we have to continue our work on a daily basis towards making sure that this togetherness, this solidarity and this harmony keeps blossoming and becoming stronger and stronger every day in the country, and that this unique model inspires many other nations in the region and beyond. That’s my Rosh Hashanah prayer this year!

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

If you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation

World's first secular school for Muslim girls was opened in 1901 in Baku, Azerbaijan

World’s first secular school for Muslim girls was opened in 1901 in Baku, Azerbaijan


I just finished reading “Malala’s Magic Pencil”, an autobiographical picture book, written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, together with my daughter, who is going to return to school next month. It is an incredible and fascinating story of a girl who is fighting for education and peace, and delivers a powerful and inspirational message not only for kids, but for everyone.

Today unfortunately in many parts of the world women’s rights are still being suppressed, and millions of women are out of school and cannot get basic education. I feel lucky and proud that my daughter grows up in a majority-Muslim country, where women get free, compulsory and quality education, and play a significant role in the political, economic and social life of the country.

Education of women in Azerbaijan has evolved significantly since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1901, the very first secular school for Muslim girls in the entire Muslim world was opened in Baku at the initiative of the great Azerbaijani philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev. This pioneer project inspired Muslim communities in other parts of the Russian Empire, which Azerbaijan was part of then, to establish similar secular schools.

In 1908 Hamida Javanshir, great-great-grandniece of the Karabakh region’s last ruling Khan (Ibrahim Khalil Khan) and wife of the famous Azerbaijani writer Jalil Mammadguluzade, founded a coeducational school in her home village of Kahrizli, which became the first Azerbaijani school, where boys and girls could study in the same classroom.

By 1915, in Baku alone there were 5 schools for Muslim girls. Also around this time, a women’s newspaper called “İşıq” (Light) was published in Baku to support women’s rights and promote education among women.

Moreover, Azerbaijan was the first majority-Muslim country in the world to grant women equal voting rights – in 1919, an entire year before the United States and decades before many Western European nations. It happened after Azerbaijan gained its freedom from the Russian Empire in 1918, establishing the first ever secular democracy among Muslim nations.

In the later decades of the past century, Azerbaijani women got new opportunities to realize their potential and be successful in various fields. During these decades Azerbaijani women pioneered many “firsts” for women in the Muslim world: First female opera singer Shovkat Mammadova, first ballerina Gamar Almaszade, first female pilot Leyla Mammadbeyova, first professionally educated composer Agabaji Rzayeva, etc.

After restoring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, women’s rights further prospered in Azerbaijan. We have laws in place that assert the protections and respect for women across Azerbaijani society. For example, Article 25 and 34 were added in 1993 to Azerbaijan’s Constitution, ensuring full equality between men and women generally, and equality of men and women within marriage specifically. In 2006, Azerbaijan passed a Gender Equality Law which guarantees that women receive equal pay at work and prohibits discrimination in hiring and promotional practices.

The past 27 years have seen a steady and uphill growth in Azerbaijan, as both the economic, financial and social wellbeing of the country has significantly improved. The country currently boasts a 99 percent literacy level. School enrollment rates for women are at 99.8-100%. Comprising 50.1% of Azerbaijan’s entire population, women constitute about 80% of all employees in education and 65.7% in healthcare. Moreover, 56% of all PhD degree holders, 48.2% of university students, 6 university presidents, 15 college presidents and 1244 school principals in Azerbaijan are women.

The judicial branch of the government has many female judges, comprising around 15 percent of all judges in the country, including Tatiana Goldman, who is Jewish, and Justice at Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court. Goldman is one of the 7 female Supreme Court Justices of Azerbaijan.

The legislative branch is not lagging behind in this regard: there are 20 women in Azerbaijan’s Parliament (out of 125 total), including Bahar Muradova, the Deputy Speaker.

First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, the highest-ranking woman official in the history of Azerbaijan, is a true inspiration for Azerbaijani women. Her activities in promoting gender equality and women’s education in the country and beyond are tremendous. The First Vice President is known for her tireless humanitarian efforts in Azerbaijan and internationally as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and for her advocacy for health, women and children, among so many areas she works on to make the world a better place. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation, led by Mrs. Aliyeva, has built and rebuilt hundreds of new schools in Azerbaijan in a short period of time, even in the most remote villages of the country. The Foundation has also implemented a vast number of international humanitarian projects, including the construction of a new girls’ school in Pakistan for 500 students.

Education of women is a milestone in the development of any society. It is education that can help millions of women around the globe realize their potential and empower them to change the world for the better. A country, a nation cannot progress without women’s education. As Malala Yousafzai mentioned in her famous speech at the UN Youth Assembly, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”.

Also there is an old African proverb that says: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation”.

Azerbaijan’s model of interreligious harmony and multiculturalism showcased in a historic visit to California

Multifaith delegation from Azerbaijan together with Azerbaijan's Consul General Nasimi Aghayev, AJC-San Francisco regional director Matt Kahn and Rev. Will McGarvey at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco

Multifaith delegation from Azerbaijan together with Azerbaijan’s Consul General Nasimi Aghayev, AJC-San Francisco regional director Matt Kahn and Rev. Will McGarvey at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco


I have visited California several times. I always remember my visits with great joy, especially the one in 2015, when we received and celebrated the gift of a beautiful new Sefer Torah from the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles for our Mountain Jewish Synagogue in Baku. In my recent visit to Los Angeles and San Francisco, in May 2018, I was part of a multifaith delegation from Azerbaijan. The delegation was led by Mr. Mubariz Gurbanli, the Chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO) of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and included also the leaders of Muslim, European Jewish, Christian Orthodox, and Albanian-Udi Christian communities of Azerbaijan. Our purpose was to share Azerbaijan’s unique model of multiculturalism and interreligious harmony and tolerance, and talk about the possibility of lasting peace and understanding among religions.

Our visit was organized jointly by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Los Angeles and San Francisco regional offices in strong cooperation with Azerbaijan’s Los Angeles Consul General Nasimi Aghayev. AJC and Azerbaijan have been enjoying a very special relationship since almost two decades. AJC national delegations, led by its CEO David Harris, 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. During this year’s visit Mr. Harris said the following: “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.” As an Azerbaijani Jew, I couldn’t agree more. We are much appreciative of AJC’s friendship, and of the efforts by its California regional offices in organizing this historic visit. I would like to specially thank Roslyn Warren, Saba Soomekh and Siamak Kordestani of AJC-Los Angeles, and Matt Kahn, Serena Eisenberg and Eran Hazary of AJC-San Francisco.

During the visit we were honored to meet the Archbishop of Los Angeles and Vice President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops José H. Gomez, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Sheila Kuehl, Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, Los Angeles leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Dean of the world-famous Simon Wiesenthal Center Rabbi Marvin Hier, Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Norman Yee and California State Senator Jerry Hill. We also visited several synagogues and churches, including Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Presidio Chapel, Grace Cathedral and Sherith Israel Synagogue in San Francisco, as well as the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Moreover, two well-attended public events dedicated to Azerbaijan’s multifaith harmony were held – one at the Sinai Temple of Los Angeles (ably moderated by Rabbi Erez Sherman) and the other at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

At these meetings and events we highlighted the ancient traditions of tolerance and multiculturalism in Azerbaijan. We informed the audiences about how people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and representatives of other faiths, such as Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Hare Krishnas and others, have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country. There has always been a strong relationship between ethnic and religious communities in the country and ethnic, religious or racial discrimination has never existed in Azerbaijan. I often was asked: “What is the essence, the core of Azerbaijan’s model of tolerance and how Azerbaijan has achieved it?” There is only one answer to it: Tolerance and multiculturalism has been the lifestyle of the people of Azerbaijan for many centuries. It has very solid foundations, rich traditions and deep historical and cultural roots.

Today there are 31 non-Muslim religious communities officially registered in Azerbaijan. Moreover, seven synagogues, one museum-synagogue that is under construction, two Jewish elementary schools, three kindergartens, one Yeshiva and fourteen churches are operating in my country. Azerbaijan may be a small country but it has made enormous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions, making the world a better place. I hope many other countries in the wider region will follow Azerbaijan’s suit.

I live in a country where the government of a majority-Muslim nation builds and rebuilds synagogues, renovates churches, and annually allocates financial support to different religious communities. I live in a country where a Muslim philanthropist funds the construction and renovation of churches. This country is the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan, and I am proud to be its citizen.

Thank you, California, for warmly welcoming and embracing us. See you next time!

The Arrest of the Former Armenian President Kocharyan and the Khojaly Genocide

Azerbaijani children who survived the 1992 Khojaly Genocide committed by Armenian troops.

Azerbaijani children who survived the 1992 Khojaly Genocide committed by Armenian troops.


Two weeks ago I was positively surprised to learn about the arrest of Armenia’s former President Robert Kocharyan – one of the main perpetrators of a genocide that turned my life upside down as a young girl 26 years ago.

Kocharyan was taken into custody in Yerevan, and was charged with an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order and causing the death of 10 people in the post-election crackdown in Armenia in March 2008.

I had mixed feelings. I know Kocharyan not only as a former President of Armenia (1998-2008) who killed his own people to guarantee his successor’s (Serj Sargsyan) power, but primarily for his special role in the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories, the expulsion of my compatriots from their native lands and murdering them and committing the Khojaly Genocide – the first genocide in Europe after the end of the Cold War. For me, a criminal always remains a criminal. It once again proves that those who have committed crimes against other people can never bring happiness to their own people.

Was I relieved reading this news? No, I wasn’t. Because Kocharyan wasn’t charged for the war crimes he committed against Azerbaijani civilians in the early 1990s in the Nagorno Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, especially for his involvement in the horrendous Khojaly Genocide. And because all other perpetrators of this terrible crime against humanity, including Serj Sargsyan, are still unpunished and at large.

I feel much pain when remembering the horrors I experienced in the Armenian torture camp in Nagorno-Karabakh as a captive of the Armenian army. But I know I have to be strong. I have to be confident and determined enough to share my story, the true story of what really happened in Khojaly.

I was 20 when my town Khojaly in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region fell under Armenian siege. On February 25/26, 1992, Armenian soldiers invaded our town and murdered unarmed civilians indiscriminately. We ran into the night, through the forest, and into the killing field, as bullets sprayed in all directions. I was captured and sent to an Armenian torture camp, where I endured and witnessed unspeakable violence, cruelty and humiliation. I managed to survive, while 613 unarmed Azerbaijani men, women, children and the elderly from my small town did not.

The Human Rights Watch called the Khojaly crime “the largest massacre in the conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan, placing direct responsibility for the massacre of Azerbaijani civilians with the Armenian forces. The European Court of Human Rights also confirmed the facts about Khojaly in its ruling from 2010, and over 10 countries and 23 U.S. states have officially condemned this genocide. The United Nations Security Council passed four resolutions in 1993 condemning the illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing of the entire Karabakh region of Azerbaijan by Armenia and demanding the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijan’s occupied regions. However with the backing of certain powerful friends, Armenia continues to ignore these legally binding UNSC resolutions, while holding around 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory under illegal military occupation.

Even the former Armenian leadership couldn’t deny the fact that the atrocities committed by Armenian military in Khojaly were carefully planned in advance and brutally executed. In his interview with the British journalist Thomas de Waal in 2000, former Armenian President Serj Sargsyan, who was the commander of the separatist Armenian military forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1990s and President of Armenia in 2008-2018, admitted his involvement in the Khojaly Genocide, blatantly stating the following: “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us; they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that stereotype. And that’s what happened” (Thomas de Waal, “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war”, New York & London: New York University Press, 2003, pp. 169-172)

Kocharyan’s arrest was surprising, but his release from jail this week not quite so, showing vividly that Armenia is still not ready to go after criminals that have enormously damaged Armenia itself and the wider South Caucasus region over the years. Immediately after his release, Kocharyan has announced his decision to return to Armenian politics.

I, together with the other victims of this terrible crime, deserve to have the perpetrators brought to justice. They must answer for what they have done. You can’t hide from justice forever, Mr. Kocharyan and Mr. Sargsyan. Just because you committed this crime 26 years ago doesn’t mean you should be exonerated. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity. Criminals should never get a free pass!

The Power of Togetherness in Fighting Anti-Semitism and Building a Better Society

A Muslim woman wears a kippah during the 'Berlin Wears Kippah’ solidarity march (Photo: Malte Lehming)

A Muslim woman wears a kippah during the ‘Berlin Wears Kippah’ solidarity march (Photo: Malte Lehming)


Last week I saw the pictures from Germany, of the “Kippah March”, and my eyes swelled with tears. It is simply not every day that a Jew of my age can look at solidarity against anti-Semitism playing out so warmly, publically, and bravely, as it did in multiple cities throughout Germany. One picture that stood out to me, is of a Muslim woman in a hijab, with a kippah on top, and a warm smile on her face. This photo touched on something very deep in my life. I live in a country where Jews and Muslims have an ideal relationship – based on mutual values, pride, friendship and a sense of sharing something, including a homeland. I know it is a rare thing what we have, but I believe what I saw on the smiling faces of demonstrators in Germany to be made of the same thing. Building peace through embracing our different cultures, and standing together against the forces that wish to destroy that peace. 

This problem of reemerging anti-Semitism is continuously getting worse and showing its face in countries across the world. A recent study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that in the United States alone, there was a 60% increase in incidents of anti-Semitism in 2017, a record-breaking spike from only one year before. There has been a significant rise in anti-Semitism and attacks against Jews in Germany, as we know also in France, and even last week several attacks were committed against Jews in New York City. The statement behind the Kippah demonstrations in Germany was simple: Jews should not be afraid to live wherever they live, and the rest of the community stands together on this. It is a powerful gesture, but it is also simply a gesture, and the German nation will have to work hard to overturn the growing problem, just as nations to the West have their work cut out for them.

I hope what has worked for so long in Azerbaijan can be helpful to the rest of the world, in terms of understanding what it takes to achieve interfaith and multicultural harmony, even in the wake of catastrophe, and even when surrounded by nations with opposite goals. One definite factor that works and can be repeated is commitment. Azerbaijan does not take social harmony for granted. It is ingrained in our national identity – our music, art, educational programs, our laws and our leaders, and it is reinforced at every level of our society. It is why Azerbaijan is a majority-Muslim nation with a Jewish parliamentarian who represents both Muslims and Jews; it is why we have public schools that offer free glatt kosher meals to our students; and beautiful synagogues either built or rebuilt at the instruction of the country’s President Ilham Aliyev. It is neither a surprise that the same President Aliyev was recently re-elected in a landslide victory, nor surprising that every single Jewish citizen voted for him. The values that protect and empower Jews in Azerbaijan are fiercely fought for by President Aliyev on a daily basis.

Those values have protected a 2,000-year old Jewish presence in Azerbaijan, shielded us against invasions, and empowered our community with resources, land, equal rights and inclusion. During the Holocaust, Azerbaijan served as a safe haven for Jewish refugees, and fought tirelessly against the Nazis. Today, we have a strong Jewish community of 30,000, comprised of Mountain (Mizrahi), Ashkenazi and Georgian Jews, living in our capital Baku, the all-Jewish Red Village, and in cities across the country.

I can’t help but think of all this when I look again at the picture from the recent Kippah march in Germany, because these are gifts I do not take for granted. I see the Kippah march as a spark of the same light that has kept us going so long in peace here in Azerbaijan, and I hope to see more of this kind of demonstration across the world. At the end of the day, peace is all about acceptance and solidarity, and so such acts of solidarity, as we see in these Marches, are something to cherish, and to continue doing, because they inspire the values that are critical to the fight against hate and evil.

An Unknown Story of Joint Muslim-Jewish Struggle for Freedom

Quba Genocide Memorial Complex in Azerbaijan honoring the victims of the 1918 March Genocide. The Complex also includes the site of the mass grave of the Genocide victims unearthed there in 2007.

Quba Genocide Memorial Complex in Azerbaijan honoring the victims of the 1918 March Genocide. The Complex also includes the site of the mass grave of the Genocide victims unearthed there in 2007.


I try to walk through Azerbaijan’s capital Baku’s Old City – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – as much as possible. It’s a beautiful place to stroll and view so much of our national history, and to take in the charming Old City ambiance and the fresh air of the nearby Caspian Sea. I’ve walked through it so many times, yet each time I am taken aback by some of the history, especially when I walk past the entrance wall in the Palace of Shirvanshahs. On that ancient entrance wall one cannot help but notice something unsettling… These are pretty old looking bullet holes, and they are a reminder of what we often take for granted today, and a reminder of what happened not so long ago.

These bullet holes are reminiscent of the tragic days of March 1918, when Baku and other cities of Azerbaijan were subjected to unprecedented brutality. These events are known as March Genocide. It is a dark page in our nation’s history, when invading Armenian Dashnaks, supported by Bolsheviks and their fear of our freedom, committed pogroms all across Azerbaijan, targeting thousands of Azerbaijani Muslim civilians, as well as many members of my Mountain Jewish community in Quba.

After the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, losing Baku and its vast oil reserves was out of question for the Bolsheviks. Their leader Vladimir Lenin even once said that the Soviet Russia would not survive without the Baku oil. To fully control Baku and its oil, Bolsheviks, led by Armenian Stepan Shahumyan, and Armenian Dashnaks (members of the radical Armenian nationalist and socialist party ‘Armenian Revolutionary Federation’) created an alliance against Baku’s Azerbaijani Muslim population, who were opposing the Bolshevik-Dashnak subjugation of Azerbaijan.

The atrocities against Azerbaijani residents of Baku culminated, at the end of March 1918, in a real genocide, resulting in the horrific massacre of over 12,000 Azerbaijani Muslims, many of them women and children, within just a few days. One in five Azerbaijanis living then in Baku were murdered by Armenian Dashnaks, with Bolsheviks’ assistance. The unarmed civilian Azerbaijani population of Baku had no chance against the heavily armed 10,000-strong Dashnak-Bolshevik forces. This was an unusually brutal set of events. Armenian nationalists murdered entire families, burned down homes, created mass graves of women and children, with so many mutilated in the most horrific manner possible. Many were unidentifiable because they had been decapitated. A young woman was nailed to a wall, while she was still alive. Elderly couples were thrown into burning buildings to die most painfully. Children were shot in a row, standing with their mothers. A group of civilians were massacred right in front of the Shirvanshahs’ Palace entrance wall, hence the bullet holes I mentioned earlier. Bodies were thrown into wells and into the Caspian Sea. I can’t help but see the parallels between what the Armenian Dashnaks did and what the Nazis would later do.

Later an investigation by the first Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-20) would reveal that many Jews living in Baku did whatever they could to save Azerbaijani Muslims from this slaughter.

This strong Muslim-Jewish solidarity and friendship enraged the invaders. When the anti-Azerbaijani pogroms spread throughout the rest of Azerbaijan resulting in the killing of overall 50,000 Azerbaijanis, my home region of Quba with its large Mountain Jewish population became one of the centers of this genocide. In Quba, Muslim and Jewish Azerbaijanis came together to defend their nation. Approximately 3,000 Jews were murdered by Armenian Dashnaks in Quba. Their crime was simply siding with their Muslim brothers and sisters, and their homeland, Azerbaijan, a country that for centuries had protected Jewish people from harm and hatred. In 2007, a mass grave of bones and skulls was discovered and unearthed in Quba, of thousands of Jews and Muslims who had died together for no greater crime than their peacefulness, loyalty, and love for freedom.

Yes, it mystifies me to walk past this wall in the Old City of Baku, even 100 years after these brutal crimes against humanity took place, perhaps especially because the Armenian massacres and ethnic cleansings of Azerbaijani civilians continues, peaking again in 1992 with the Khojaly Massacre, and a constant threat even now, while Armenia still occupies twenty percent of our sovereign land. But I also realize as I walk through Baku, alongside the diverse and flourishing society that I call home, that no matter what they have done to us, we still have come through in peace, and with the courage and conviction that has protected tolerance and multiculturalism in Azerbaijan for the same 100 years. That history of tolerance goes much further back than 100 years, and I know it will continue into the next 100 years, and the next 100 to follow. We are made of something indestructible; the same strong fabric that our enemies have tried to destroy in the past – and the one that carries us so proudly and boldly into a bright and hopeful future. On this 100th Anniversary of the March Genocide, I pray for our continued peace and tolerance; those lasting qualities of Azerbaijan that have protected us all along.

Azerbaijan’s Unique Appreciation and Celebration of Women’s Empowerment

Statue of a Liberated Woman in Baku, Azerbaijan, depicting a woman who decides to remove her veil.

Statue of a Liberated Woman in Baku, Azerbaijan, depicting a woman who decides to remove her veil.


On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day across the world. Considering the state of the world we live in today, I am especially grateful to be from Azerbaijan, and to raise my daughter in a country that not only celebrates and empowers women, but one that has an impressive history of high standards toward women, where over centuries women have been successful and breaking barriers in academia, art, industry, and government.

Azerbaijan was the very first Muslim country in the world to grant women equal voting rights, in 1919, an entire year before the United States and decades before many Western European nations; just one of countless examples of Azerbaijan’s history and standards toward women. Azerbaijan’s example for the rest of the world, set long ago, has never been more important than today, when women’s rights are on the center stage of global media.

With the global movement of #metoo, more have come to understand the experience of women in the world, and how discriminatory, violatary treatment of women is rampant, and come in many forms – some violent and shocking, others more subtle yet all the same impactful in pushing women back from realizing their worth and their best quality of life. As much as #metoo is about violence against women, it is also about attitudes against women. As a Muslim woman from a majority Muslim country, one that has long upheld women’s rights and ingrained in its national character an attitude of respect and awe for women, I am aware of how lucky I am.

Our country is best known as a beacon of tolerance, an “Oasis of Tolerance”, as Rabbi David Wolpe once wrote, and as a critical diplomatic force, capable of crossing aisles, breaking barriers and stereotypes, and succeeding in all ways despite dealing with a brutal war waged against us by our neighbor for the past 30 years. But some may not know that Azerbaijan has a remarkable history of women, leaders across art and industry, with women today in the highest levels of prestige across every field.

We have laws in place that assert the protections and respect for women across Azerbaijani society. For example, Article 25 and 34 were added in 1993 to Azerbaijan’s Constitution, and they guarantee full equality between men and women generally, and equality of men and women within marriage specifically. In 2006, Azerbaijan passed a Gender Equality Law which guarantees that women receive equal pay at work and prohibits discrimination in hiring and promotional practices.

The first secular school for Muslim girls anywhere in the world was opened in Baku, in 1901, and today, over 50% of PhD holders in Azerbaijan are women. The Judicial branch of government has many female justices, including the Honorable Tatiana Goldman, who is Jewish, and an Azerbaijan Supreme Court Justice. The legislative branch is not lagging behind in this regard: there are 21 women in Azerbaijan’s Parliament (out of 125 total), including Bahar Muradova, the Deputy Speaker. Our commitment to women’s equality has grown quickly: in 1990, women constituted merely 4.3 percent of parliament. Today this number is 17 percent, which is only slightly lower than the U.S. Congress with 19.8 percent. In Azerbaijan, we can boast that the Deputy Mayors of 71 out of 78 Administrative Districts, as well as many state committee chairpersons and deputy ministers are women. Only at Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry, 52 percent of all employees are women, including two ambassadors and an honorary consul (in Switzerland, Bulgaria and Australia).

There are so many examples to choose from, but I think you can see a lot about Azerbaijan by just looking at two of our famous women – current First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, and one of the most groundbreaking early female pilots in the world, Leyla Mammadbeyova, from the 1930s.

One of my favorite things to hear people say about First Vice President Aliyeva, is that she is known as “Kind Lady”, or Mehriban Khanim, as we say in Azerbaijan. The First Vice President is known for her generosity, her tireless humanitarian efforts in Azerbaijan and beyond as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and her advocacy for health, women and children, among so many areas she works on to improve the world.

On the other hand, Leyla Mammadbeyova, who was called the “Mistress of the Skies”, was known for her daring, her strength, and her remarkable achievements as a pilot and mother to 6 children.

These diverse qualities of feminine heroism; kind and noble, daring and bold; all represent the history of positive attitudes toward women that hold strong in Azerbaijan. In the capital city of Baku, we have a famous statue, called the Statue of a Liberated Woman, and it depicts a beautiful woman, standing tall on a pedestal, casting her veil off her shoulders. I think this statue represents our attitude toward women in Azerbaijan; a celebration of our many strengths.

Hussein Javid, considered the “Shakespeare of Azerbaijan”, once said that “A country without woman is destroyed and remains helpless but in the hand of woman this world will only have bliss. She will exalt humanity.” My favorite part is the end, when Hussein Javid wrote, “She will exalt humanity.” I think of the First Vice President, and our famous pilot, both exalting humanity, literally raising it up, one with policy and charity, the other with wings – both with the courage to break barriers for women across continents. Happy International Women’s Day!



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.

Surviving Khojaly: Painful to Remember, Impossible to Forget

Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh in the early 1990s. Photo courtesy of Ilgar Jafarov


Over the years, I’ve had repeated surgeries on my spine, which was badly damaged by torture. I’ve also traveled around the world to share my story, so that more of the world might understand what happened at that frosty night of February 25 of 1992 in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly, and so it is never forgotten. I even traveled to Los Angeles a few years ago, to meet with leaders and members of the Jewish community, to connect and to share testimony of what happened to me and to my country. Although I would give anything to forget the horrors I experienced in the torture camp as a 20 year old captive of the Armenian army. However I know it’s better this way – better for me to heal and better for the world to know.

Why is knowing about such tragedies as the Khojaly Massacre so important? Well, look at the world today. Look at what is happening to Muslims in Myanmar. Look at what is happening to children in Syria. This world too easily forgets the insanity of cruelty and inhumanity that still plagues it to this day. If survivors do not speak out and share their stories, forgetting will be even more of a problem, and remembering will be harder to do.

I think of the Holocaust, and how the many survivors are passing on, aging out of a world that still badly needs their presence, and their stories, to keep us remembering. So many were victimized by the incomparable cruelty of man. So many lives were ripped from the world. So many children were never born to mothers that never had the chance to even conceive them – instead they perished in the gas chambers, by the bullets, the torture, the starvation, and in the ovens.

No matter the pain I feel to remember, I know I cannot forget what happened, and I must do all I can to make sure others remember too.

We must remember the eve of February 25, and the morning of February 26, 1992, when Armenian invaders shot indiscriminately at men, women, children, the elderly, brutally killing 613 of them – all as we attempted to flee from our homes, under siege, into the forest, toward safety. We must remember the bodies of toddlers strewn across the valley, and the many families that will never recover from a loss such as that. When Armenian soldiers decided to invade my homeland of Azerbaijan, in their attempt to take land and lives, they held back no cruelty. They unleashed the maximum hate. They wanted us to remember.

And at the same time, they wanted the world to forget. They tore down our homes, our monuments, our history. They built Armenian buildings as if they had always been there; as if we had never existed. Not only in Khojaly, but across the entire Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, where I, and so many, had long called home. Where I, and so many, can still no longer return, not to reclaim, not to visit the burial sites of the dead – not for the sake of our lives. To this day, they guard our land with their bullets and their terror. Despite international condemnation, from the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights, members of the United States Congress, Governors, and too many faith leaders to count, they continue their unlawful occupation.

And for their lies and trickery, I will never stop sharing my story. For the life of my daughter and all daughters and sons that deserve a safe, honest world to grow up in, I will keep sharing. For the love of my homeland, and for the memories of so many not lucky enough to survive, I will keep sharing. I will keep sharing as long as I am in this world; here, nearly 3 decades since I survived capture and torture. I will continue telling the world about Khojaly until justice has been served.

The Khojaly Massacre: Reflections by an Azerbaijani Jew

Survivor of the Khojaly Massacre mourning the death of her family members

February 25/26 is a difficult time for us in Azerbaijan, and for all Azerbaijanis around the world. It is a day when we remember the Khojaly Massacre, one of the most brutal incidents of inhumane warfare to take place in modern times. It is a day when we commemorate what happened in 1992, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, in the town of Khojaly. In the early 1990s, supported by powerful allies, Armenia managed to invade approximately 20% of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. United Nations Security Council condemned this illegal military occupation that was accompanied by total ethnic cleansing of the occupied lands of their indigenous Azerbaijani population (over 800,000 of them). Sadly, to this day, the occupation continues, and the international community does nothing to make Armenia comply with international law.

But what happened that night of February 25/26, 1992 in Khojaly was much more than an act of occupation. What happened in Khojaly was a brutal massacre. Hundreds of totally innocent, unarmed Azerbaijanis were gunned down while fleeing the Armenian army. They were gunned down like animals in a field: men, women, and children.

As an Azerbaijani Jew, I feel especially sensitive about such an incident of inhumanity in modern time, in my modern country, decades after the Holocaust, with so many years of “Never Again” already behind us. It is hard to believe human beings were still capable of such atrocities, but as we know, even today, violence and cruelty ensues, in many countries around the world. We have such a responsibility to make good on that promise, and yet the world continues to challenge our commitment. A few years ago, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin addressed this very issue at the United Nations General Assembly, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He challenged the gathering of world leaders, asking: ““[I]s our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly? Of Afghans by the Taliban? Is it effective enough today in Syria? Or in the face of the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria? Are we shedding too many tears and taking too little action?” He understood what the Khojaly Massacre is – something that should never have happened. Something that goes against the grain of morality, of what is right in the world, of the most basic tenets of humanity.

It’s not surprising to me that the President of Israel could shed some light on Khojaly, and on Azerbaijan in general. Azerbaijan and Israel share particularly strong and lasting ties. Azerbaijan and Jews do as well. I speak from my own experience as leader of the 2,000-year old Mountainous Jewish community in Azerbaijan, but also base this sentiment on history. Azerbaijan has a bold and lasting history of protecting, honoring, and celebrating Jewish life and Judaism. During the Holocaust, Azerbaijan was a renowned safe haven for Jews, accepting as many as could make it to our land, and fighting the Nazis until their defeat, on the Russian front. For centuries before the Holocaust, during many incidents of European and regional anti-Semitism, Azerbaijan served as a safe haven for Jews then too.

In 1992, during the invasion and occupation of Azerbaijan, many Azerbaijani Jews volunteered and fought against the Armenian insurgents. One that stands out in particular is Albert Agarunov, a renowned hero in our nation, and someone who is becoming more well known across the world because of his unusual and remarkable story, and his great heroism. A Mountainous Jew, Albert was a marvelous sharpshooter, and was successful at defeating and evading the Armenian militants for much of the war. He was so skilled as a sharp-shooter, the Armenians placed the highest bounty on his head of any Azerbaijani. Sadly, Albert was killed by an Armenian bullet as he had left the safety of his tank, exposed to the insurgents so he could navigate the tank around the bodies of murdered fellow Azerbaijanis. His last act was an act of respect and kindness, and he is revered and titled as a National Hero in Azerbaijan, buried at our famous Martyrs Lane in the capital city of Baku, remembered adoringly by all Azerbaijani people.

Yes, this time of year is a difficult time, as an Azerbaijani and as a Jew, remembering this great tragedy. Thankfully, we have survivors who share their experience and supportive services to continue their healing process. Thankfully, we are a nation that can carry on as a land of peace and tolerance despite the intolerance and cruelty others have caused us to endure. Thankfully, we have the support of great nations, such as the State of Israel, the United States and many others, to continue pushing Armenia to take responsibility and to leave the occupied Karabakh region; our land they so brutally took and still refuse to leave. I hope it will not be long from now that we have more to be thankful for, and that the story of Khojaly and the entire region will have a new chapter; one without occupiers, one that has the thousands of residents returning home, even after so many years.

Remembering the Holocaust: Reflections on Azerbaijan

Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in 2013. Photo courtesy of Washington Post


Just this past Saturday, January 27, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a day when much of the world officially remembered the great catastrophe that was the Holocaust. It was a day for commemorating the history of that frightful time, for renewing promises to “Never Again”, and a time for sharing insight on what human beings are unfortunately capable of, and also of heroes and survivors that had everything at risk.

In the days following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I greatly appreciate the many and varied articles, graphics, videos and stories; uniquely and in some cases very specifically shining some light on all there is to remember. The most horrific tragedy to ever fall upon humanity, the Holocaust and World War II are both profound universes of stories, of individuals and of nations. These terrible catastrophes involved so many people, and by virtue of the role each played, and the concessions they were or were not willing to make in the face of fascism and cruelty, the Holocaust revealed the base instincts of over 80 countries of the world.

I was very young when it all happened, and as a Jew, or really any other person for that matter, I was blessed to come from Azerbaijan: a place that protects Jewish life; a country that could not be taken by Nazis that desperately sought its capture; a Muslim nation that has long ago built and safeguarded communities for Jews to live in freedom and peace, and that fought the Nazis and served as a supportive harbor for any Jew that managed to escape and flee to our lands, a nation that today holds a week long Holocaust memorial.

All of this makes me think of Azerbaijan’s history and specific stories I’ve learned throughout my life of the individuals amidst millions upon millions of individuals impacted by the war. From Azerbaijan, one out of six people were the victims of the Nazis, including the approximately 400,000 Azerbaijanis who were killed fighting against them in the battlefronts. Hitler desperately wanted to invade Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku and get hold of our natural resources. As a nation gifted with an abundance of oil and gas and as a haven of tolerance and especially, in this time, as a haven for Jews, it is critical to the outcome of WWII that Hitler never made it to Baku, after the Nazis, enroute, were devastated at Stalingrad.

One of the more specific stories about the Holocaust that has stuck out to me recently is connected to a young man I’ve gotten to know; Anar Usubov is an Azerbaijani living in Northern California. He is also a childhood survivor of the Khojaly Massacre, Armenia’s brutal attack on Azerbaijan in 1992, which stole the lives of innocent men, women and children, among them over 25 members of Anar’s family. Anar is very lucky to have survived it and has been quoted as saying he is grateful his own grandfather didn’t live long enough to see what happened to him. That’s because Anar’s grandfather was a survivor and also a hero of the Holocaust.

The Usubov family is Azerbaijani Muslim, and their religious identity played a special role in the heroic story of Shahhuseyn, Anar’s grandfather, and a man who saved many Jews from the grips of death. In one of the worst places in the world, Auschwitz, Shahhuseyn was imprisoned as a captured Soviet soldier, as Azerbaijanis served in the Soviet army to fight the Nazis. On the day of arrival and during the terrifying process of selection, Shahhuseyn realized the Nazis were separating the Jews from the Muslims by asking them to recite a verse from the Koran. In the midst of a long and crowded line, Shahhuseyn hastily taught as many Jews as possible a verse from the Koran, until he was identified for doing it and nearly beaten to death. Many Jews in the receiving line on that day at Auschwitz kept their lives, thanks to the courage of this one man.

Shahhuseyn’s story is something Azerbaijan is proud of and also very fitting for the history of a nation that has protected Jewish life for thousands of years, and a place that has given many lives to the fight for freedom, in foreign lands and at home, against invading nations and brutality. A place that throughout recorded history has been a land of rare and uncompromising tolerance. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I am proud of what my nation did during those years, and as we remember the Holocaust, it is comforting to remember the other side – the people and places that did all they could to fight against such atrocity, and to protect sacred innocent life, of all people the same.

Words of Hope in Honor of Azerbaijan’s ‘Black January’ tragedy

A memorial along the streets of Baku, in memory of the victims of Black January. Photo courtesy of Vestnik Kavkasa.


At this time last year, I wrote a piece as a dedication to a young Jewish woman named Vera, who was murdered by Soviet troops during the 1990’s ‘Black January’ Massacre, which took place in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. It was 28 years ago on January 20 that a bullet, shot by invading Soviet forces, took 16 year-old Vera’s life from the world forever. Hundreds of innocent people were murdered that day and thousands were injured by the over 26,000 Soviet troops that marched on Baku, to prevent our nation from obtaining freedom, a freedom that was stolen from us for 70 years of Soviet control over our previously independent nation. Vera and I were about the same age at the time, and today, my daughter is of similar age. As a mother, I cannot imagine the suffering of Vera’s family, still mourning the loss of such an innocent, young girl.

This year, on the 28th anniversary of the Black January Massacre, I dedicate this piece and my heart to the countless people around the world that are currently enduring the pain and loss of invasion and brutality.

On January 20, 1990, the streets of Baku, a city adorned with natural and architectural beauty and a bustling society, were covered in the blood of slain Azerbaijani civilians. The victims and the survivors were unsuspecting of what would happen to them that day, and so many lives were taken as people went out into the streets of Baku, to live their normal lives; going to work, taking their children to school or taking a walk in one of the beautiful city parks. The Soviet leaders in Moscow had made a great effort to suppress any news of their preparation and plans to deliver brutal force upon the people. On the eve of the massacre, they went so far as to blow out the television and radio systems, to assure that Baku would remain unaware of what was coming. Their intention was to take as many lives as possible; men, women and children.

Around the world today, there are many that suffer under similar tyranny, such as the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq, and the many victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Those victims are enduring the unimaginable, as so many did during the Black January Massacre in Baku. Places that should be safe, and innocent people that should be protected, have lost their safety and their protection. The perpetrators of these atrocities want the same thing as the Soviets wanted in 1990. They want to wipe out freedom and to punish people for wanting it, so that in the aftermath of their cruelty they can impose their nefarious rule.

On the days following the massacre in Baku, against the restrictions of a curfew, thousands of Azerbaijani civilians marched across the city to bury and memorialize the victims and to proclaim their love and unwavering fight for freedom; to be a free society, as Azerbaijan remains today. In the wake of current tragedies, my hope is that the people of Iraq, Nigeria, Myanmar, Syria and all places where cruel and murderous forces attack the innocent, will soon have the security and the strength to march on their streets, to bury and memorialize the victims, and to celebrate an end of tyranny. Black January is a tragic stain on the history of my nation, yet it was also the end of Soviet control. From such darkness reemerged a free and independent nation of Azerbaijan that today is known as the epicentre of multiculturalism, with a booming economy, and vibrant citizenry, representing many cultures and religions, all able to pursue any interest or dream imaginable. Black January serves as an example and a hope to the victims of tragedy and brutality today, that even in the face of the worst possible cruelty, they may soon know such a future of peace and freedom .

On this 28th anniversary of the Black January Massacre, I will light candles in memory of the many Azerbaijani people that lost their lives on that day. I will also light a candle in recognition of those that are facing such evil of today and pray that they survive and transcend, and that the forces that fight against their freedom will be extinguished.

CNN should not endorse occupation and crimes against humanity

CNN celebrity host Anthony Bourdain in Azerbaijan's occupied Karabakh region

I like CNN. Especially its coverage of international affairs has been providing audiences around the globe with much needed information in order to clearly understand what is going on in our globe today.

Last week however I was appalled and deeply disappointed to see Anthony Bourdain, one of my favorite celebrity chefs, drink vodka and eat pilaf in Shusha, the ancient capital of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. So you may ask what is wrong for a celebrity chef to drink, eat and get familiarized with foreign cuisines? After all it is his profession. The problem is that the region of Karabakh Mr. Bourdain has illegally visited is currently occupied by Armenia and has been made totally Azerbaijani-free since over 25 years. The very city of Shusha he visited had 100% Azerbaijani population before its invasion in 1992. All of those Azerbaijanis were either killed or expelled when the Armenian army invaded the city. Such a high profile visit to an occupied and ethnically cleansed region gives an incredible PR opportunity to those who committed these crimes to whitewash them. I think any self-respecting reporter and TV station should be mindful of such grave implications.

As a survivor of the Khojaly massacre that was committed against Azerbaijani civilians by Armenia in 1992 in the town of Khojaly, not far from Shusha that Mr Bourdain visited, and as someone who underwent terrible tortures in the Armenian captivity as a 20 year old girl, I was asked by other women survivors of Khojaly to bring their open letter to the attention of CNN and Mr Bourdain personally. I hope this letter will lead CNN and its celebrity chef to be henceforth more attentive to the plight of over 1 million Azerbaijani refugees – victims of illegal occupation and pure ethnic cleansing. Here is the letter:

“Dear Mr. Bourdain,

We are writing to you as mothers, sisters and daughters, who survived one of the most horrific war crimes of the 20th century, the destruction of the town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan.

War crimes, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate violence against civilians have been an integral part of the ongoing aggression of Armenia against the Republic of Azerbaijan.

During the active phase of the war in 1991-94, the attack on the town of Khojaly was especially brutal and tragic. Before the conflict, we, survivors of this massacre, and other 7,000 people lived peacefully in Khojaly in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. From October 1991, the town was entirely surrounded by the armed forces of Armenia. In the early hours of February 26, 1992, following massive artillery bombardment of Khojaly, the assault was launched from various directions. As a result, the Armenian armed forces, with the help of the motorized infantry regiment No. 366 of the former Soviet Army still stationed in the area, seized Khojaly. Invaders destroyed Khojaly with special brutality and completely exterminated its civilian population. Atrocities by Armenian troops included scalping, beheading, bayoneting of pregnant women and mutilation of bodies. Even children were not spared. As a result, 613 civilians were killed, including 106 women, 63 children and 70 elderly. Another 1,000 people were wounded and 1,275 taken hostage. To this day, 150 people from Khojaly remain missing. The intentional slaughter of the civilians in Khojaly town was directed at their mass extermination based on racial discrimination.

In a cynical admission of culpability, Armenia’s then-Defense Minister and current President, Serzh Sargsyan, was quoted by the British journalist Thomas de Waal, as saying, “[b]efore Khojali, the Azerbaijanis thought that … the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype]” (Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York and London, New York University Press, 2003), p. 172)).

Indeed, Khojaly was chosen as a stage for further occupation and ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani territories. As a result of war unleashed by Armenia against Azerbaijan, some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory is currently occupied. In violation of international humanitarian law, Armenia carried out ethnic cleansing policy against almost one million Azerbaijani civilians in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and in Armenia itself. It left Azerbaijan with one of the largest internally displaced population per capita in the world.    

Mr. Bourdain,

We do respect your professionalism and your programs about international cuisine. In the times of peace, such culinary exchanges bring peoples together. But in the context of ongoing war and brutality, such a cultural program sends an unintended message of endorsing the ethnic cleansing and annexation by force to victims of war crimes, like ourselves, who have lost their loved ones and native homes. Please also understand that we are even deprived from the opportunity to visit graveyards of our parents and loved ones left in the occupied territories. For over 25 years, we live with the hope of returning to our native lands, rebuilding our homes and making traditional Azerbaijani shila pilaf for our children, like the dish you have been served in destroyed and depopulated Azerbaijani town of Shusha.

Admittedly, your visit to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan on a military helicopter and preparations to make culinary show right next to Khojaly, where crime against humanity committed, have seriously disappointed us and added insult to our injuries. We would like to believe that you have been misled about the realities on the ground and your visit to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan was not intentional. After all, it is hard to imagine you enjoying German food at the site of a Nazi concentration camp or enjoying a lunch with Bosnian Serb militants while they were in control of the mass murder site in Srebrenica.

Armenia’s illegal, violent and protracted occupation of Azerbaijani land, including our native Khojaly, harmed Armenia’s own people, its economy and its future. This is because our Armenian neighbors, with whom we lived in peace for centuries and hope to build a peaceful region together, need to understand that one cannot build happiness on the tragedy of others.

Endorsing and thus prolonging the occupation and this war, helps nobody other than those who profit from this tragedy. Instead, we need to help the two nations find ways to come to peace and promote the international peace-making efforts.

We urge to take into account sensitive nature of the situation and the suffering so many of us have lived through. We also appeal to you to reconsider your decision to include the segment from the occupied and ethnically cleansed territories of Azerbaijan in your show.

We are looking forward to your understanding and cooperation.

Sincerely Yours,

Women Survivors of Khojaly,

Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan”

A Jewish Medical Hero from Azerbaijan: The Life of Dr. Gavriil Ilizarov

Gavriil Illizarov, an Azerbaijani-Jew, and his World Changing Invention

From my own experience and from the life stories of so many others, I know that a Jew, a Christian or Muslim growing up in Azerbaijan all have an equal chance at making a successful life and making significant contributions to our world. One such success story that has always stayed with me is that of Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov. The story of a great innovator, scientist and thinker that did not have the internet, or many research associates; rather he had a desire to explore saving lives and in the most difficult of circumstances – war.  

Ilizarov was born in 1921 into a poor Jewish peasant family from Azerbaijan, who had moved to Poland. His father, Abram Ilizarov, was a Mountain Jew from Qusar, Azerbaijan, while the mother, Golda Ilizarova, was of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. When he was little, his family moved back to Azerbaijan, where he grew up in the town of Qusar, near Qırmızı Qəsəbə – a Jewish town. Ilizarov graduated from Buynaksk Medical Rabfac (an educational establishment set up to prepare workers and peasants for higher education) in Dagestan 1939 and was admitted into the Crimea Medical School in Ukraine. At the height of World War II his medical school was relocated to Kazakhstan, where Ilizarov completed his training, and encountered the worst cases of bone and limb damage imaginable among Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazi army on the Eastern front.

From these experiences, Dr. Ilizarov embarked on groundbreaking discoveries that would change the future for people with severely damaged limbs. Dr. Ilizarov discovered that by severing bones in half, and affixing them slightly apart, so to leave a small amount of space, that the bones would regrow to fill in that space. This meant that even totally shattered bones could be repaired, and even lengthened. Dr. Ilizarov took his groundbreaking discovery one step further and developed an apparatus, based on the mechanics of a bicycle, to set severed bones in place and, at the same time, continuously spacing the bones apart so to facilitate regrowth.

For years, many doctors and scholars scoffed the idea; it was before considered unthinkable to repair a bone through the process of regrowth. But Dr. Ilizarov had seen the results first hand from his many years in Siberia, and he persisted in advancing and perfecting his surgical technique and his apparatus. In 1968, his reputation changed dramatically, after his success in treating the famous Russian Olympic champion, Valeriy Brumel. Brumel had injured his leg in a motorcycle accident and underwent dozens of unsuccessful surgeries before connecting with Dr. Ilizarov. Only then and with the help of what became known as the Ilizarov Apparatus, was Brumel able to recover, where before meeting Dr. Ilizarov he had faced the prospect of amputation. After this, Dr. Ilizarov became famous for his invention and more generally, for his magic touch with healing bones. In 1987, Ilizarov’s orthopedic techniques were brought to America, and he had officially achieved international recognition and fame. That same year, American manufacturers began distributing his apparatus; what they called the Ilizarov External Fixator.

Unlike the experience of Jews living in other nations within the region or regions nearby, Ilizarov  benefitted from the open and embracing culture of tolerance that exists in Azerbaijan, where a Jewish child can grow to become a doctor and scientist, with the rights and freedom to pursue passions and goals; just the same as anyone else. We have seen this with many examples, including our current Supreme Court Judge Tatyana Goldman, our Jewish Parliamentarian Yevda Abramov, and many leaders and heroes across the spectrum of industry and action, today and throughout our past.

Dr. Ilizarov was one of the Soviet Union’s most decorated civilians, and received the Order of Lenin three times, the Order of Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest civilian honors in Italy, Jordan and Yugoslavia. His discovery had finally changed the way in which doctors approach shattered or deformed bones, then and today.

I consider Dr. Ilizarov’s true bravery, this genius to pursue unique ideas; all in the face of overwhelming and tumultuous circumstances. I also consider the fact that he was given the freedom and resources to pursue his career in the first place, a fact that people from my generation and many parts of the world do not take for granted. What if his parents had not moved from Poland back to Azerbaijan, so that he could grow up in safety as a Jew and with support for his studies, rather than endure what so many Jews in Poland endured? How many people would have suffered with otherwise untreatable injuries or deformities if this one man did not have the opportunity to study and relentlessly pursue his passion?

I see there is a very strong connection between the homeland of Dr. Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov and the accomplishments of his life. Like so many of his Jewish brothers and sisters from Azerbaijan, he nurtured and shared his gifts in order to make the world a better place.

A Special Father’s Day “Staycation” in Baku

The many enchanting places to visit in our hometown of Baku

My friends in Los Angeles and throughout the United States will celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday. Father’s day is a special day and it has been especially on my mind since I lost my husband this year, and the father to my beloved daughter. We miss him very much, every day, and it seems that as each day and week passes, we only miss him more and more.

I wanted to make this weekend special for my daughter, a young, beautiful and kind girl who has the whole world ahead of her, but no longer has her father in her life or by her side, to guide and support her through the tricky teenage years she faces now and the days soon ahead when she will be an adult, out in the world on her own.

We decided to plan what in America is called a “staycation”, in our hometown of Baku. That is a vacation where we may not travel far from home but we get to have a lot of fun with what is available nearby. I know that in Los Angeles, this is a common way to spend the summer months, with so many attractions, like the beach or the many attractions of Hollywood.

I have planned the special vacation day for Sunday, because it is a significant day around the world, and I want to bring my daughter extra cheer. Even though we will not leave town, there is much to do in Baku.

Our day will begin with a walk through the beautiful city center park, where we hope to catch a glimpse of the stunning brides as they are photographed before their wedding days. This is a common tradition in Azerbaijan and particularly in Baku, where we have gorgeous city parks that are especially enchanting in the summer months. Bridal parties and their families come together to take pre-wedding photos, and it’s something I know my daughter will enjoy. Perhaps we will stop in a cafe before and have a warm tea to enjoy on our stroll.

As we work up our appetites on the walk, we’ll leave the park and stroll over the Old City of Baku, a truly enchanting place to visit. I know my daughter will be thrilled as we walk through the Old City entrance, onto the cobblestone streets, past the merchants selling their classic Azerbaijani goods, such as silk scarves, dolls, keychains and much more, to the visiting tourists. I plan to surprise her by allowing her to choose a special gift just for herself. We may not be tourists, but we can enjoy the Old City just as if we were.

We will walk through Old City until we find a good place to lunch, perhaps one of the stone buildings leading up to the famous Maiden’s Tower, the highlight of the Old City. There we will enjoy traditional Azerbaijani delights, such as Plov and Lamb Sadj, two of our favorite dishes. Perhaps we will have some classic Azerbaijani tea with pastries Shekerbura and Pakhlava to finish our meal, and relax and digest before we continue on our special day.

I plan to add in an extra surprise, to take my daughter by the university, called ADA University, so she can take in the buildings and the students and the majesty of learning, since I know she loves to dream of the days soon to come, of attending college herself, and studying full-time. We will sit on a bench or by the tables in the student quad, and talk about what will come next in life.

I hope this day will bring my daughter some much needed cheer and some excitement, about her summer and about her future. I hope she will remember this special Sunday and that we will have many more Sundays like this to share in the future.

And I hope that this Sunday, Father’s Day in America, is a joy and delight for all my friends in Los Angeles and across the United States. Perhaps my friends in Los Angeles will visit the Griffith Park Observatory or sunbathe at Will Rogers Beach in Santa Monica, two attractions I enjoyed very much during my last visit. Or have a festive, delicious meal at one of Los Angeles’ famous delis.

Wherever you go, make sure to do something fun, and remember that you don’t have to travel far to create a memorable experience, and that memorable experiences mean so much.


Yom HaShoah: A Day of Remembrance and Reflection

The Eternal Flame memorial in Baku, Azerbaijan

We recently took in the news of chemical weapons used to murder children in Syria, an act few considered possible since a time 70 years ago, when over 1 million children were murdered by the Nazis. Our shock and outrage as a global community never fades, and our understanding of history seems to grow with the decades between then and now. But the sheer brutality with which these attacks have occurred reminds us of the true nature of evil and contempt for human life, as well as the capacity of intolerance to rearrange the human condition and spirit. The attack in Syria weighs on our minds, and is an important reason why we must never let the memory of a great tragedy as the Holocaust slip into the annuls of history past.

Yom Hashoah begins on the evening of April 23, 2017, a day to remember the 6 million Jews, the 5 million others, and the heroes that risked everything to save lives from the perpetrators and accessories to the Holocaust.

In my homeland of Azerbaijan, the remembrance of the Holocaust has always felt personal and close to home. Azerbaijan has always stood against hatred and fascism, and this was the case during the time of Nazism, as it is true today. History remembers Hitler’s vain attempt at capturing Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, which was key to his eventual defeat, when en route, his army endured Stalingrad. Azerbaijan was then, as it is today, a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and neighboring regions.

In 2016, the Baku International Center for Multiculturalism and Baku Slavic University organized a roundtable of high level scholars to discuss the implications of the Holocaust today, and to do so through the lens of our own national tragedy, the Khojaly Massacre. This massacre was committed against innocent Azerbaijani civilians, including hundreds of children, women and elderly in February 1992 by invading Armenian troops. The Human Rights Watch called it the “largest massacre” in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and condemned the “unconscionable acts of violence against civilians” by the Armenian forces.

The said 2016 memorial in Baku for the 6 million Jews was mostly attended by Muslim students of the Baku Slavic University. And it is no coincidence. Holocaust studies are a part of the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan’s educational system, and with our strong Jewish population, deep ties to the State of Israel for 25 years, and our own experience during World War II, the Holocaust has, in many ways, left a permanent impression on Azerbaijan.

The Holocaust is one of many connections that tie Azerbaijan to the Jewish people. Jewish communities have also shown immense support to Azerbaijan for the endurance of our own tragedy. For the past several years, the Khojaly Massacre has been memorialized in Los Angeles, with Rabbis and synagogues leading the way in this compassionate, cross-cultural effort. Survivors that have participated in these remarkable memorials have noted the impact of feeling cared for by another, and how especially meaningful the memorialization of their tragedy was under the leadership of Jewish communities, to whom such tragedy is unfortunately very familiar. But it is precisely in that space of familiarity that remembering atrocities such as the Holocaust yields hope for a future free from the evils of hatred that made the Holocaust, and many other tragedies, possible.

Remembering the Holocaust is a truly universal undertaking. And yet, it should be looked at in context for a new generation of young people that have no connection to the experience of the past.  With so few survivors left to tell their stories, with few children of the children of survivors feeling the direct connection to a page in history in a world driven by 15 minutes of fame relegates this important time to ancient history.

No matter where you come from, no matter your religion or culture, every human life is precious and deserving of freedom and dignity. If we can cross the barriers of difference to memorialize such a tragedy, we can surely cross it for many other reasons and on many more days.

Israel and Azerbaijan: Celebrating 25 Years of Friendship

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


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.


Bruised but Unbroken: Remembering Khojaly

(The featured image is from my interview in the new documentary Running From the Darkness)

I can still feel their hands as they grab my arm and separate me from my brother. My body remembers the way the baton bludgeoned my skin, over and over. I still shiver thinking about the cold, how the wind and snow worked hand in hand with my captors to further torment me. It has been 25 years since I was subjected to these horrors during the Khojaly Massacre, and it is an event I can never forget.

On the night of February 25th, 1992 my hometown Khojaly, located in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, was invaded by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. That night, our village was bombed and many buildings were destroyed by shelling and fire. When I tried to flee into the forest to escape the siege, I was captured and tortured by the Armenian soldiers. My only crime was that I was an Azerbaijani living in a land that Armenia wanted to claim at all expense. The treatment I was subjected to during those days in captivity was one I do not wish on anyone. I was fortunate enough to have survived; however, hundreds of others from Khojaly, including over 300 women, children, and the elderly were not so lucky. 613 innocent civilians lost their lives that night, in what Human Rights Watch would label as the “largest massacre to date in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

For many years I tried to remove these events from my memory; I thought sharing my story would only reopen the emotional wounds that remained when the bruises of my torture faded. However, two years ago as I was perusing Facebook, I found an article about an Armenian who was receiving an award. When I realized I recognized him, it was as if I was back in that barn in 1992. The man receiving that award was the very same soldier who had ordered the countless beatings when I was their prisoner. After seeing this post, I decided it was time to speak out and tell my story. We often hear the phrase “never again” when discussing massacres such as Khojaly, and I believe that ideal can only be accomplished if survivors like me tell their stories.

While I have made a point in the past few years to tell my story, my voice is only one of many that needs to be heard to truly understand what occurred in my town. This is why I am excited and honored to be a part of a new documentary that was created by film-makers in Los Angeles to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in Khojaly. Having debuted on February 21st at the world-famous Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to a great acclaim, Running From the Darkness features survivors from the massacre providing a space for first-hand accounts of what happened that night. Additionally, experts who have written books on Nagorno-Karabakh offer insights on the conflict and why we need to hold the perpetrators responsible. While the documentary’s primary purpose is to shed a light on the horrible events of February 25th, 1992, it also portrays the strengths of modern-day Azerbaijan. My homeland, known as “the Land of Fire”, has emerged from the ashes of catastrophe as a nation that celebrates multiculturalism and promotes religious tolerance.

This documentary not only commemorates tragedy, it also serves as a reminder that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is far from over. The international community has taken note of the quagmire; organizations such as the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and NATO have all condemned the continued Armenian occupation of Karabakh. The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comprised of the United States, Russia, and France, has been tasked with negotiating a peaceful settlement to this conflict. With the mounting pressure from these organizations, I am hopeful that a resolution will emerge in the very near future so that I, and other survivors, can finally go home.


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.

Violence against Azerbaijan: The deep implications for our community

“For if they fall, one will lift up his friend, but woe to the one who falls and has no second one to lift him up.”
Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4, Verse 10

Today, we approach the week before Passover and reflect on the costs and worth of our own struggle to live in freedom and in peace. This Passover comes amidst troubled times, with rising anti-Semitism, high tides of extremism and sectarian violence, and horrific acts of terrorism are occurring in more places, with increasing frequency. As we once sought for far-fetched resources to carry us through the desert and into our own homeland, today we stand as more educated, resourceful, and have at our fingertips more information than ever before. Today, we can do plenty to support the security and sanctity of peaceful nations. For the Jewish people and all people across the globe, this is perhaps our greatest responsibility, and our greatest chance for survival.

The international community has repeatedly stated that the ongoing Armenian occupation of over 20% of the sovereign Republic of Azerbaijan, is completely illegal, designating the massacres committed against Azerbaijani people in the early 1990’s, at the start of the same occupation, as crimes against humanity. Since then, a powerfully funded effort to assure the general public remain in the dark has been highly successful, supporting a continued occupation, violence and human displacement, committed against an entire region, within a nation known as one of the United States’ and the State of Israel’s greatest allies and a model for multifaith harmony and peace. The atrocities of the 1990’s have resulted in over 750,000 Azerbaijani natives of Karabakh living as refugees ever since, unable to return home.

It nearly broke my heart to read the news last week, of the Armenian attacks, of the spraying of bullets against unarmed Azerbaijani civilians in the same place where invaders committed massacres so recently, and without substantial recourse to date.

Azerbaijan’s longstanding and unabashed support for the State of Israel is a worthy enough reason to raise our community alarms for their current crisis. Jewish people across the world, and especially in Israel, face a familiar uncertainty from forces of hatred that have proven powerful enough to be rightfully feared. Many here are troubled by what they perceive as an unprecedented shakiness for the future of security in the Jewish homeland, and question the state of American support, long considered unwavering. Time will tell the future story of  American loyalty to Israel, yet we know with certainty that Azerbaijan and Israel share over 20 years of deep, strategic alliance, and we know with certainty that Israel needs her allies intact.

Even if we put loyalty to Israel and the United States aside, we have a moral imperative to stand in solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan. Only 25 years ago, in the same region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani people were subjected to what Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin likened to genocide, at the hands of the same invaders, in the name of the same occupation that is still continuing. Knowing the history, and the vulnerability of history in the hands of revisionists and how that has perpetuated this conflict, I can’t help but see the effectiveness of the Armenian propaganda and lobbying effort, rumored to cost over $10 million a year to produce, in the U.S. alone. The media, U.S. Congress and various state legislatures are clogged by Armenian special interests, and in the process, a precious and incomparable ally faces an ongoing campaign of brutality, while the world essentially sits and does nothing, if not making it worse.

As propagandists the world over have long known, advantageous hate-mongering works to an unfortunately great extent, and the invaders of Karabakh have also invaded the nexus of our global dialogue. Their weapons are denial and revision; messages designed to confuse, mislead, and elude responsibility and justice, and for their victims, the chance to return home and to heal. The effectiveness of the denial and revisionist campaign brings to mind the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945,  on the future of Holocaust denial: “Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the track of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.”

Jewish communities have a responsibility to educate and advocate for the protection and preservation of our rare and brave ally. A majority-Muslim nation and the peaceful home to 30,000 Jews and half a million Christians, Azerbaijan is the only truly secular democracy in the entire Muslim world, and has an iconic history, upholding multi-faith harmony for centuries. Azerbaijan proves to the world that Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in absolute and lasting peace. I am challenged to think of anything more promising and hopeful than that.

While we pray and hope for safety here in the U.S. and for Israel, and for the free world to remain free and to become a safe and peaceful home for people of every faith and every culture, our unified voices and outcry must include those that have done the same for us, and suffered in similar ways to us, for far too long. As Azerbaijan faces another siege of violence today, let us stand beside our great friend, and support their hope and fight for freedom and peace. That dream is indistinguishable from our own.

Remembering the innocent victims of a war crime in Khojaly

There is nothing more calamitous than the trauma of war. The scars left behind from wars are definite, and the consequences profound. For all the talk of war in global terms, the most fundamental essence of it is extremely personal.

The prospect of tragedy, of senseless loss of human life, touches every part of the world today. Across the globe, in places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine or the Caucasus, wars and conflicts continue to cause more and more suffering to affected populations. There are few things more global than war, but there is nothing more personal, or more individualized than the loss of one's own life, or the mourning of slaughtered kin.

War becomes something else, and takes on even greater consequences, when the basic lines of human decency are overpassed, and the world once again must document human brutality, massacres, and ethnic cleansing; all in violation of many international laws on wartime engagement. 

The town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan's Karabakh region might sound unfamiliar to some. But Khojaly was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern European history – a tragedy that lives in the hearts of many today as though it had just occurred.

Twenty-­four years ago, I watched in horror as TV screens in Azerbaijan showed the immediate aftermath of a brutal event: dead children, women and elderly, mutilated bodies, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including some 300 children, women and elderly, had just been ruthlessly murdered in a massacre, which the international human ­rights group Human Rights Watch would later call the “largest massacre in the conflict”​ between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On February 26, 1992, Azerbaijani civilians were attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly in the freezing cold while coming under attack, and many were gunned down by the invading Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines. This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle, it was part of Armenia's deliberate policy of terror to intimidate Azerbaijani citizens into fleeing towns and villages of the region, allowing Armenia's army to occupy Nagorno­-Karabakh and other areas of Azerbaijan. The Khojaly massacre was an unabashed campaign of ethnic cleansing, in no uncertain terms. 

This policy of ethnic cleansing and terror was even braggingly acknowledged by the very men in charge of it. Serzh Sargsyan, then one of the most senior Armenian military commanders and now the country's president, told the British journalist Tom de Waal in 2000 that “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that's what happened.”​ One also needs to mention that Seyran Ohanian, one of the commanders of Armenian troops invading Khojaly, is currently the defense minister of Armenia and is hailed as a national hero in the country.

Since 1992, Azerbaijan has worked hard to recover from the atrocities of that brutal invasion, and to make sure the perpetrators of these crimes, the mass murder of innocent people, were condemned.

And the world has responded: countries from Mexico to Slovenia and from Bosnia ­Herzegovina to Peru, as well as nineteen U.S. states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and others ­have all condemned the Khojaly massacre.

The Khojaly massacre has also not gone unnoticed by Israel. President of Israel Reuven Rivlin speaking to the United Nations General Assembly last year, noted:  “Is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojaly?”

More than two decades after Khojaly, Armenia's illegal occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory still continues despite international condemnation, and nearly one million Azerbaijani refugees remain uprooted.

This unprovoked and senseless  land grab has not brought any benefits to Armenia – on the contrary, it has only weakened the country and significantly reduced its sovereignty and independence making it over-reliant on external help. The country has lost almost half of its population since 1991 to economic emigration.

In a powerful contrast, Azerbaijan has become the region’s largest economy, pursuing and succeeding with a truly independent foreign policy and promoting interfaith tolerance and harmony in a difficult neighborhood. The country is also a vital strategic partner for the U.S., especially in the areas of global energy security and the fight against terrorism.

Yet to the people of Azerbaijan, the tragedy of Khojaly can never be forgotten, or lessened by the blessings of recovery.  Despite global condemnation, Armenia denies these crimes, as if genocide denial were an acceptable, everyday sort of national policy.

Azerbaijan will continue its fight for justice for the Khojaly victims. And we would like to see the U.S. Congress join this struggle. A Congressional condemnation of the Khojaly massacre would be the first step in the right direction. For our future generations, let us make sure that such callous human cruelty cannot occur freely in this world, because we wish our children to live in a world that will no longer tolerate the madness of genocide and ethnic cleansing. For the crimes of Khojaly, like the crimes in any other part of this world, there is no ambiguity of blame. Justice must be a swift measure, and there is nothing so unjust in the world as the murder of innocents.

Based in Los Angeles, Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States

Sinai Temple mission to Azerbaijan

A delegation of 45 Sinai Temple members returned this week from a 4-day mission to Azerbaijan where they dedicated a Torah scroll which they had previously presented to the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue. The mission, which was led by Rabbi David Wolpe and Cary Lerman, President of the Sinai Temple Men’s Club, also visited and prayed in synagogues in the capital, Baku, as well as in Quba, and met with Azeri governmental and community leaders.

Situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and bordered by Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Russia, this country of some 9 million mostly Muslim inhabitants is noteworthy for its long tradition of acceptance of its minorities which include some 12,000 Jews as well as Christians and adherents of other religions. 

One of three Synagogues in Quba. Photo courtesy of Sinai Temple

According to Lerman, the Azeris treated the delegates like high ranking officials, complete with police escorts, non-stop media coverage, sumptuous banquets and briefings by senior officials including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Special Assistant to the President for Multiculturalism as well as the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Region. Additionally, the Ambassadors of Israel and the United States  briefed the delegates on relations between their countries and Azerbaijan.

Cary Lerman said that “for most of the participants the highlight of their visit was the joyous dedication of the Torah at the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue in downtown Baku. The synagogue was overflowing with people, music and high spirits. We danced, sang and basked in the sheer joy of the moment. And we experienced what we had been told: Azerbaijan is a country without antisemitism where Jews are a vital part of the national fabric.”

The Sinai Temple mission to Azerbaijan was arranged with the assistance of the Hon. Nasimi Aghayev, Consul-General of the Republic of Azerbaijan at Los Angeles, the Baku International Multicultural Center and The Knowledge Foundation under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

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.

High Holidays Reflections from Azerbaijan: A Year Filled with Shared Joy and Friendship

For Jews in Azerbaijan like for others around the globe, the approaching Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays are a time for contemplation. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, to make a fresh start together. From far flung parts of the world like never before we need a fresh start, a new perspective – finding places of peace and renewal.

Our Rabbi of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue of Baku has taught us of the elements of teshuva, or repentance, the main ingredient by which we make ourselves right to the Heavens and our community. When we think of the need for healing, we must think of what we did in order to find ways to improve ourselves and the world around us. The most important place for growth comes from a reflection on what was good and inspiring, because to know what we could do better, we must certainly have some knowledge of what we did right.

Rabbi Akiva famously taught that the greatest lesson of Torah is that we must “love your neighbor as yourself.” For this particular requirement, I feel we have many great examples to share and much to hope for in the coming year. Perhaps there is no better example to share than how President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan each year sends our Azerbaijani-Jewish community a letter just before Rosh Hashana, to celebrate and honor our holiday, wishing Jews in Azerbaijan and around the world a Shana Tova. In his 2009 letter, described beautifully in the Jewish Journal, as well as in all letters ever since, President Aliyev has expounded on the great appreciation the Republic of Azerbaijan has for Jewish people, a very rare statement for a leader of a Majority-Muslim country to publicize to the world.

I also look back at the connection to the Jewish community of Los Angeles this year. I vividly remember the visit to Sinai Temple for the Torah Dedication ceremony, after the selfless members of this great congregation reached out over 7,000 miles commissioning and overseeing the completion of a new Sefer Torah as a gift to our Mountainous Jewish synagogue in Baku, Azerbaijan. The spirit and generous heart of this beautiful congregation led by Rabbi David Wolpe is surely a record of goodness that took place in this year, of reaching across the borders of life to create a new place of family and harmony.

Moreover, we should look to the important support we received from Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of the Pico Shul in Los Angeles, who opened his compassionate heart and synagogue in February, to honor, with his congregation as well as Azerbaijanis of California, the innocent victims of the brutal Khojaly Massacre that was committed in 1992 against Azerbaijani civilians in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. In this powerful memorial, Jews from Los Angeles showed that by uniting both Jews and Muslims in a collective experience of tolerance and shared sacrifice, we can overcome a future laced with tragedy. This kind of care and bravery is surely something to remember for what we can do better in the next year.

And I remember, with much joy and pride, receiving the scores of Azerbaijani Mountainous Jews currently residing in New York, who visited Azerbaijan, their eternal homeland of peace and happiness. For Jews from America to peacefully travel to their Muslim-majority homeland is very different from what most Jews of eastern nations can experience. These pilgrimages have happened frequently for many years now, not only out of New York or Israel, but also from many other countries where Azerbaijani Jews live.

I was able to carry this message as well through my travels around the world. In addition to the Los Angeles visit, I also traveled this year to Italy, Germany, and France, to share the message of interfaith peace that has been such a success here in my country for thousands of years, but more important than the historical, it is working now. There are so many troubled places around the world today, and it is my dream to share this example of what is REALLY WORKING, with other nations and people everywhere, to help create better world for the generations to come.

We must also share in the joy of what we did successfully and what was inspired by a place of elevation. What we can do now is take from these learnings and see what more can be done and use these avenues that are presented to us, and make something together that is bigger and better than ourselves.

From our community in Azerbaijan to all Jews across the world: Shana Tova U’metuka. May you have a good new year, and may it be filled with sweetness. May we all learn to spread that sweetness further in the world than ever before.

A story of survival and the healing power of familiarity

This time of year, we remember the Holocaust; the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda  and sadly, many other places. We remember the faces of the victims and the stories so  horrible that hearing them can make one feel sick. And with all this to remember, there are still  tragedies that are lesser known, crimes against humanity so horrific that many would argue it  is impossible that they occurred in such recent history. Yet I am a survivor of such a tragedy ­the Khojaly Massacre of 1992, and one of the female survivors and witnesses of the Khojaly  torture camp.    

As a woman and a Muslim, it is extremely painful to reconcile the horrible trauma of Khojaly  with my faith and traditional culture, and my shame from suffering violations of the most  fundamental components of my identity. As a survivor of torture, I spent years in isolation at  home, watching films about the Holocaust; the only lens that captures anything relative to  what I experienced. I spent sleepless nights soothing myself out of panic with Schindler's List  and The Pianist. Living in that solitary world with films and nightmares was almost as tragic as  the reasons for which I lived there. My life hung somewhere in the balance of total isolation  mixed with the severity of ongoing and extensive surgeries to recover my body from the  brutality of torture and the impact of exposure during my captivity, procedures such as  receiving titanium spinal implants, with every second of this process and pain a reminder of its cause.     

I come from the town of Khojaly in Nagorno ­Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan once flourishing  and promising for my young generation at the time. In the early 1990’s, all of that suddenly  changed. Most of the world doesn’t even know the name of Khojaly, or that Armenia  perpetrated there one of the most brutal massacres in recent history against a terrified, fleeing  Azerbaijani populace. The night (Feb. 25­26, 1992)  the Massacre began, I ran for my life with  my brother, into the freezing woods, and got captured and taken to the torture camp. I was  only 20 years old…    

With dark irony, I understand why Armenia still denies that Khojaly happened. I understand  this because I will never shake the images of a 2 year old Azerbaijani child, shot while fleeing  with his parents, his blood spattered body suspended in my memory as if in the air for that  moment of gruesome impact. How could anyone face the taking of hundreds of innocent lives,  the bayoneting of pregnant women and elderly, the showering of fatal bullets onto fleeing  children, and mothers holding their lifeless infants. As a victim, facing my past has nearly  broken me, so I imagine that as perpetrators, denial must be of tangible comfort.     

As a Muslim woman, there is a certain and unspeakable pain I feel in explaining to the public  that I was subjected to brutal torture and humiliation, including rape, for many days in the Armenian captivity. Sharing this has been a tragedy for my soul, separate from the cruelties  my body suffered. But I realize that by sharing it, I can live beyond the shadows of shame and  step into the light of my own healing.     

The last few years, my life has dramatically changed. With immense support from my family  and community, I have begun the process of sharing. The hidden parts of my past have  become public and documented. I have begun to make a record of the nightmare I survived.     

Until February of 2015, I had never visited any country in the West. On my first day in  California, I met a Jewish community leader involved in global peace efforts, and we  conducted a radio interview, with an Iranian­Jewish psychologist and talk show host; a  specialist in the survivors of intense trauma and the Holocaust. Through connecting my story  with a caring psychologist, and my new friend, herself the 3rd generation of Holocaust survivors, I realized a powerful sense of understanding I had yet to experience before that  day.     

This feeling expanded when I learned of the Khojaly memorial held at a Los Angeles  synagogue, a week following my visit. The Jewish community’s response to learning of  Khojaly as a parallel to the Holocaust has been monumental for my ability to share and heal.  The genocide in Khojaly stands out as an example of the lowest displays of human depravity.  But now, through the welcoming arms of the Jewish community of Los Angeles, the  connection has been made and the silence broken. For me, this changes everything.     

Through the power of my own healing, I am deeply motivated to help other women face their  own stories of survival, and by doing so, eradicate the shame and loneliness that follows the  fact of torture and trauma. I once thought I could never share what happened, and now I know  that by sharing it, I am part of a larger movement to heal, and not only myself, but the entire  world.  It is my sincerest hope to inspire other survivors, those across the world who have had  the paradigms of their innocence blown away by the tragic cannon of hatred and oppression,  and join together in a unified bond, strengthening each other and the world. Not only the  survivors of torture and genocide, but also women from nations that have never experienced  modern war, for so many women live with the trauma of violence, some even in their own  homes. I strongly believe that through a growing commitment to the familiarity of all who  suffer, this world will become a different kind of place, one that would never allow the pain and  great sorrow of genocide or any kind of violence to happen ever again, to anyone, anywhere.     

Durdane Agayeva lives in Baku with her husband and daughter, and can be reached by email at ​ ​Durdane truly believes in the power of unified voices, and  hopes to hear from you, your story of survival and your commitment to human rights for all  people.

Jews of Azerbaijan and United States: In celebration of our transcendent connection

California and Azerbaijan Jews share a special bond, and our special friendship is becoming better known this year, as a number of important events have taken place that commemorate our connection. The last flight I took across the 7,000 miles between us was to return to Los Angeles in February with a delegation of fellow leaders of the Mountainous Jewish community of Azerbaijan. Our purpose in visiting was to receive and celebrate the gift of a new Sefer Torah from the Jewish community of Los Angeles. A new Torah takes about a year to write, each letter composed in painstaking scrutiny; a single imperfection rendering the entire document invalid. The creation, and even the transport of a new Torah is a challenging and expensive process, and the Torah itself, perhaps the most meaningful bond between Jews across the world and cultures.

But how did this come to be, and why would a synagogue in Los Angeles sponsor a Torah for a Jewish community so far away? Many Jews in Los Angeles have never before heard of Azerbaijan, nor of Azerbaijan’s over 30,000 Jewish residents. Even lesser known, is that Azerbaijan is home to the Mountainous Jewish community, who have lived in Azerbaijan in peace and prosperity for over 2,000 years. The Azerbaijani people and government have been huge supporters of our Mountainous Jewish community, and as well as the other Jewish communities, including several in Baku, which houses three synagogues and a large Jewish day school.

What is particularly unusual about Jewish life in Azerbaijan, which is a close friend and partner of Israel, is that we live and freely practice our faith in peace and prosperity, protected and respected, in a secular Muslim country. We share cities and towns, and live and work with our Azerbaijani Muslim brothers and sisters. By its example of tolerance and inclusion, Azerbaijan destroys all the stereotypes that exist out there in the world as far as the co­existence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is concerned. Azerbaijani example proves that it is still possible for all these major religions to enjoy peaceful and harmonious co­existence in mutual respect. As Jews, our reality in Azerbaijan is somewhat like a dream. Imagine a Muslim government that spends millions of dollars on building a beautiful synagogue for Jewish residents, or a Muslim country that celebrates a Jew as one of its greatest war heroes. This is our reality in Azerbaijan.

So how does this all connect to a new Torah at Sinai Temple? Last year when I traveled to Los Angeles for the first time, I was often asked by my fellow Jews what the Jewish community in Azerbaijan needed. I had just one answer: A Sefer Torah for our Synagogue! I am glad that the Los Angeles Consulate General of Azerbaijan, who has strong relationships and a widening network of Jewish friends in California, conveyed this request to Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple, who later told this broader story of our history in Azerbaijan to his congregants. Sinai Temple immediately recognized how big of a deal it is that Jews live in such a peaceful and hopeful way in a Muslim country. The energy and hard work leading up to the Torah Dedication, was so magnificently holy and inspired, it could only happen at a place called Sinai. The Rabbi spoke of our story on Shabbat, and like a flash, we were brought to Los Angeles to receive the Torah. This magnificent gift and gesture was inspired and realized by the Sinai Temple Men’s Club, a group of visionary congregants led by Cary Lerman; the type of people that are here to change the world. As true leaders, they shined a light on something that represents hope, and from there, took direct action and brought to life something beautiful and lasting. That hope is built on our story, that Jews actually can live with respect, and even love, in a Muslim country. Just the fact that Azerbaijani Muslims wholeheartedly facilitated this Torah donation from one Jewish community to the other speaks volumes about what Azerbaijan stands for. This inspiration could change the world.

Yes, it was an experience of true grace, that in such dark times for Jewish people across the world something as elevated and positive could occur, bringing Jewish communities together across thousands of miles to celebrate friendship and the most lasting connection between all Jews, our Torah.

The Torah anchors all Jewish people across geography and culture, and the gift we have brought back to Azerbaijan is nothing short of priceless. The Los Angeles Sinai Temple’s most meaningful act of friendship embodies the epitome of hope and the shared Jewish­Azerbaijani dream of tolerance and peace. As I watched the world become smaller and smaller from thousands of feet above land, returning to my Jewish home in Azerbaijan, I felt a sense of possibility and inspiration as occasion for this trip. The values and momentum of this celebration are part of something much larger than one night or even one Torah; a movement to bring together all Jews and Muslims, across all global communities, so that we may one day truly exist as one world family, no matter the language or distance or differences between us.

Mr Milikh Yevdayev is the Leader of Azerbaijan’s ancient Mountainous Jewish community

Khojaly: Fighting for justice for innocent victims of a massacre

On January 28, addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel said: “On this day we must ask ourselves honestly, is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojaly?​… Are we shedding too many tears, and taking too little action?”

A similar question could be posed to the leaders of the U.S Congress. Will this Congress get more actively engaged in supporting the growing number of civilian populations that are being impacted by painful conflicts in various corners of the world like Iraq, Nigeria and Syria among others? Will they non­selectively condemn these and similar atrocities and do more to stop them? Congressional leaders have a unique position to engage the world's attention in so many ways. But treating equally all atrocities, past and present, no matter where they take place and who the culprits are, is an important prerequisite for preventing the future tragedies.

The town of Khojaly that President Rivlin referred to might sound unfamiliar to some. But Khojaly was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern European history.

Twenty-­three years ago, I watched in horror as TV screens in Azerbaijan showed the aftermath of a brutal event: dead women, children and elderly, mutilated bodies, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. This shocking footage was taken at the site of the Khojaly massacre. 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including up to 300 children, women and elderly, were ruthlessly murdered.

The massacre took place on Feb. 26, 1992 when Azerbaijani civilians, attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly in freezing cold after coming under attack, were gunned down by Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines. This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle, it was part of Armenia's deliberate policy of terror to intimidate others into fleeing the region, allowing Armenia's army to occupy Nagorno­Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan. This was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.

This policy of terror was acknowledged by the very men in charge of it. Serj Sargsyan, then one of the most senior Armenian military commanders and now the country's president, told the British journalist Tom de Waal in 2000 that “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against thecivilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that's what happened.”​The international human­rights group Human Rights Watch called Khojaly the “largest massacre in the conflict”​.

Ever since, Azerbaijan has worked for the Khojaly massacre to be recognized by the international community. And the world has responded: countries from Mexico to Peru and from Bosnia­Herzegovina to Colombia, as well as over a fifteen U.S. states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and others ­ have all passed relevant resolutions condemning the Khojaly massacre and its brutality.

More than two decades after Khojaly, Armenia's illegal occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory still continues, and nearly a million Azerbaijani refugees remain uprooted.

This illegal occupation has not brought any benefits to Armenia – on the contrary, it has only weakened the country. Its economy is quickly plummeting, and its population is dwindling.

By contrast, Azerbaijan has become the world’s fastest growing economy of the last decade. The country is also a vital strategic partner for the U.S., especially in the areas of the fight against terrorism and global energy security.

Azerbaijan is looking towards the future. But it can never forget the Khojaly tragedy. The perpetrators of this terrible act, not only remain at large: many of them hold office and are feted as 'war heroes' in Armenia, while justice for the victims of the massacre remains uncertain at best.

Azerbaijan will continue its struggle to remember the victims of Khojaly. And we would like to see the U.S. Congress join this struggle for justice for those who died in Khojaly. A Congressional recognition of the Khojaly massacre would be the first step in the right direction. It is important, for the sake of the future generations, to make sure that such examples of callous human cruelty do not occur again.

Based in Los Angeles, Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States

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.