Ex-Soviet state is both Shi’a Muslim and friendly to Israel.
This past month, I had the privilege of joining a delegation of Canadian journalists on a trip to Azerbaijan, a 95% Muslim (mostly Shi’a), former Soviet Republic that gained independence in 1991. Like Israel, it is located in a volatile region, sandwiched between Christian Armenia and Russia, and Muslim Turkey and Iran.
By 1901, Azerbaijan was producing half of the world’s oil and thus attracted Jewish migrants from further afield, including Russia and Georgia. Unlike other parts of the Russian Empire, Jews in Azerbaijan were not restricted to usury trades, and at one point comprised 40% of the capital city of Baku’s doctors and 30% of its lawyers. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet Azerbaijan was home to 40,000 Jews. Today its population is approximately 20,000, 70% of whom are Mountain Jews, 20% Ashkenazi and 10% Georgian.
The Jews of Azerbaijan firmly side with their homeland in the ongoing conflict with Armenia, which resulted in two bloody wars over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan recaptured from Armenia in November 2020. “They’re not Armenians. They’re fascists,” proclaimed Arif Shalumov, president of the Jewish Association of Ganja, the country’s second-largest city. He met us at the site of residential buildings that were shelled by Armenia in October 2020, killing 26 civilians.
One of the country’s most respected national heroes is Albert Agarunov, a Jew who died fighting Armenia at the Battle of Shusha in 1992. He is buried in Martyr’s Lane in Baku, alongside other war heroes and innocent civilians, three of whom are Jewish, who were killed by the Soviet army during a national uprising in 1990.
Our delegation included a Jewish woman from Toronto who was back to Azerbaijan for the first time in 25 years. She began crying when we reached the top of the Gidir Plain, the hill where Azerbaijani forces reconquered the city of Shusha on Nov. 6, 2020. She compared the feeling of Azerbaijanis returning to this hill as to what it must have felt like for Israelis returning to the Western Wall after the Six-Day War.
Unlike Jewish institutions in North America and Europe, Jewish schools and synagogues in Azerbaijan have no security presence. We visited three synagogues in Baku, all of which are funded by the government, and I felt very safe walking through the streets of Baku on Friday night wearing a kippah.
The Azerbaijani government funds two Russian language Jewish day schools in Baku, which are tuition-free and teach Hebrew, Jewish studies and Jewish history as part of the national curriculum. The principal of one school told us that 30% of his pupils are dual Israeli citizens, the children of Azerbaijanis who made aliyah to Israel and moved back.
In contrast to many other parts of the former Soviet Union, one leader of the Ashkenazi community recalled, “I did not have to hide my [Jewish] nationality, but was also never asked.”
When I asked him why he did not emigrate like the majority of Jews in the former Soviet Union, he said, “We are comfortable living here as different nationalities. I never needed to leave here to start another life elsewhere.”
Israel and Azerbaijan
Israel and Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations in 1993, and I was surprised to see the Israeli flag flying predominantly outside the embassy, given that it is the nearest Israeli embassy to Tehran. Azerbaijan has the world’s second-largest Shi’a Muslim population, but unlike the largest Shi’a state, Iran, Azerbaijan is very friendly to Israel.
Israeli Ambassador George Deek is an Arab Christian and the youngest serving Israeli ambassador. He described both Israel and Azerbaijan as “beacons of tolerance surrounded by countries that do not permit religious coexistence.”
Azerbaijan supplies Israel with 30-40% of its oil, and the two countries cooperate extensively on security and defense. In fact, Israel was the main supplier of arms to Azerbaijan in its 2020 war with Armenia and is now assisting Azerbaijan to defuse the one million landmines scattered throughout Nagorno-Karabakh.
A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Israeli Embassy found that Israel is the second most favorable country in the eyes of the Azerbaijani public, after Turkey. Despite their extensive cooperation, Azerbaijan did not open an embassy in Israel to prevent inciting its Muslim neighbors and the Non-Aligned Movement. Our meeting with Ambassador Deek turned out to be serendipitous, as minutes after we left his office, Azerbaijan’s Parliament voted to open an embassy in Israel.
Metro Detroit is home to a substantial community of Mountain Jews, who are the descendants of Jews who migrated to the Persian Empire after the Babylonian Exile. Their native language is Juhuri, a Jewish dialect of Persian.
We spent our final day in the country visiting Krasnaya Sloboda, known as Red Village, in the Quba district, close to the Russian border. Red Village is the only mono-ethnic Jewish settlement outside Israel and was established in 1730 when a local ruler established a village under his protection, where Jews fleeing persecution in Dagestan and Persia found sanctuary. By the late-1800s, Red Village was home to 8,000 of the region’s 31,000 Mountain Jews. When Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union, 12 of Red Village’s 13 working synagogues closed and were converted into schools and warehouses, and the town’s name changed from Jewish Village to Red Village.
The descendants of Red Village’s residents have subsequently migrated to Baku and other parts of the world, where they became very successful. In 2010, several Russian oligarchs with roots in Red Village funded the establishment of the Mountain Jews Museum, which highlights their community’s Jewish history, traditions and accomplishments around the world. Although Red Village has only 400 year-round residents, it swells to 3,000 families every year when its diaspora returns to spend the summer in their opulent vacation homes.
I left Azerbaijan impressed by the lack of antisemitism, government support for Jewish institutions and strong relations with Israel, all three of which are incredibly rare in the Muslim world. I look forward to learning more about this unique community living among us in Metro Detroit.
Dan Brotman is executive director of the Windsor Jewish Federation and JCC.