November 20, 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.

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!

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.

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.