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