November 18, 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.”

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”.

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.

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!



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.

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.

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.