“The multi-ethnic composition of the population of Azerbaijan is our wealth, advantage. We appreciate it…and will try to maintain this wealth forever.”
–Heydar Aliyev, National Leader of the Azerbaijani People
A democratic republic bordering Iran, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey that boasts a secular Muslim population, has zero reported incidents of anti-Semitism on record in its history, and unabashedly supports Israel. Is such a place real? Our delegation to Azerbaijan - comprised of American military personnel, businesspeople, academics, and clergy - was determined to find out. Meeting with our counterparts, we quickly learned how and why the strategic alliance between the United States, Israel and Azerbaijan is so important.
Our Israeli colleagues were, understandably, unable to join us on this joint mission as it was originally conceived by JINSA – The Jewish Institute for the National Security of America. JINSA is a think tank that is dedicated to advancing U.S. national security interests in the Middle East. It was especially powerful to visit a Muslim country at this time, as the Israeli flag flew outside its embassy with no demonstrations, and I felt comfortable wearing my kippah everywhere we went.
Our trip began in Baku, a modern metropolis situated on the Caspian Sea not far from the Caucus Mountains. The first day was spent traveling to Guba to visit the “Red Village” and learn about the Mountain Jews. DNA tests confirmed that a lost tribe of Jews reached Persia from Israel as early as the Eigth century BCE. Migrating east, they settled in mountainous areas where they survived numerous historical changes by living in extremely remote areas. Known as accomplished warriors and horseback riders, they spoke an ancient Iranian language called Judeo-Tat, which integrates many elements of Hebrew. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union many Mountain Jews permanently left their hometowns in the Caucasus and relocated to Moscow, Israel and/or the United States. The “Red Village” had several synagogues, a Jewish Museum, cemetery, mikveh (ritual bath), and functioning Hevra Kadisha (burial society).
Upon returning to Baku, our delegation began its meetings with officials in the foreign affairs, energy, and religious tolerance offices. We quickly learned that Israel obtains 40% of its petrol from Azerbaijan and in return, provides weapons. Israeli Ambassador George Deek – the first Israeli Arab Christian to hold ambassadorial rank - spoke articulately about how Israel does its best to ensure that its weapons are used in an ethical fashion. It was comforting to be in an Israeli Embassy with other Zionists during the war in Gaza. “You of all people know,” he said, “Judaism is all about life and Hamas is all about death.”
The Azerbaijani delegation freely discussed their recent war with Armenians who occupy territory in the Karabakh region and how they continue to make gestures of peace. “They are free to stay here and become citizens or to emigrate to Armenia. What we cannot have them do is terrorize us!” said Nusrat Suleymanov, the Deputy Head of Foreign Public Affairs. Discussions continued regarding how our two countries might best combat terrorism, promote energy security, and expand trade. We also learned from the two American generals on our delegation that Azerbaijan allowed the United States to use its bases as a staging ground for its operations in Afghanistan.
I was especially engaged by out visit to the Religious Affairs Office where they took great pains to show me the Jewish stars located throughout the building. They also shared a variety of ways in which they have created such a tolerant society. For instance, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran are all taught in secular school settings. It is illegal as a student to wear a hijab, though not after graduation. All mosques are located off the main streets. They even provided me with some of their supplementary textbooks: Religious Diversity in Azerbaijan, Historical and Religious Monuments in the Territories of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani Multiculturalism: In the Eyes of the World.
One of the most recognized architectural landmarks worldwide, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, was a short walk from our hotel. Amongst many rugs, musical instruments, and displays on history was a small section dedicated to world religions. There was a copy of a book of Talmud, and quotes that read: “High humanism peculiar to our people, a national and religious tolerance, environment dominating in our society, mutual respect and trust between ethnic minorities have made Azerbaijan known in the world as an example of tolerance.” For centuries now, world religions have played a role in embedding within Azerbaijani culture universal values such as humanism and tolerance.
When I was in high school (back before the common era) I was taught that if America was not an actual melting pot, it is at the very least a tossed salad. Azerbaijan has done a better job at creating a multicultural society based on tolerance and respect than we have here in the United States. It is a place where different religions and ethnic groups have lived in peace and mutual understanding for centuries. What might we do to create a more tolerant society here?
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