Muslim Azerbaijan’s Jewish Experience

Muslim Azerbaijan’s Jewish Experience

Guivami Rahimli, PhD, Senior Government Affairs Advisor for BP AGT Region, Professor at the faculty of international relations at Baku State University, has written an article headlined “Muslim Azerbaijan’s Jewish Experience”. The article highlights the friendship between Azerbaijani and Jewish peoples and the development of relations between the two countries.

“Antisemitism has been a major part of Jewish history, prompting waves of refugees throughout the Jewish communities, widespread throughout Europe. Thousands of Jews experienced brutal antisemitism in the Middle Ages, escaping massacres and repressions in France, Spain, Portugal, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern and Southeastern Europe to take refuge in the Ottoman Empire.

The great political upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries: the partitions of Poland in the 1790s, brought large numbers of Jews under Russian rule; unification of Germany in 1871 and the dissolution of the multinational Ottoman Empire in 1922, bred a new manifestation of antisemitism, culminating in the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps of WWII.

Back then, there have been a few places in the world where Jews could live without the fear of persecution and Azerbaijan is renowned for being one of the few places in the world where people of different religious backgrounds have peacefully coexisted. Qırmızı Qəsəbə or Red Town in Azerbaijan’s Quba district, defined for its red-tiled roofs, is the world’s one of the two all-Jewish settlement outside Israel. Favorable living conditions created for Jews in Quba caused the relocation of Jews from other parts of Caucasus, even from neighboring countries. The settlement is home for Mountain Jews, the world’s last surviving shtetl, maintaining its own culture and traditions, as well as the unique Juhuri language.

The Six Dome Synagogue in Qırmızı Qəsəbə, a massive wood-paneled building with 30 windows, was built in 1888 with the permission of Huseynali Khan of Quba. It is a symbol of immigrating of the residents from the Gilan Province of Iran to Quba khanate. The synagogue is an ancient architectural monument with a large worship hall, has a section facing the wall of worship, called aron-kadus. Its height is seven meters.

When the first independent Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed on 28 May 1918, Jews actively participated in the political life in the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. During this short-lived (1918-1920), first democratic republic in the East, members of the Azerbaijani parliament were Moisey Gukhman and Konstantin Lisgar, the latter became Minister of Food Provisions, and Dr Yevsei Gindes was Minister of Health in the young government of Azerbaijan.

This tradition also continues in modern-day Azerbaijan, since its renewed independence in 1991, where Jews still are active in the socio-political life of the country.

Jews from Azerbaijan wherever they live in the world, continue supporting their homeland. Without doubt, the Jewish community of Azerbaijan, with the representation in the Azerbaijani Parliament, plays a significant role in maintaining and developing bilateral relations with Israel. Even those that now live in Israel, but originate from Azerbaijan, help to bridge the two countries, and strengthen the bonds.

During Armenian military aggression against Azerbaijan at its state border in Tovuz district in July 2020, the Azerbaijani Jews, owners of Food City, the biggest wholesale market in Moscow, refused to trade with Armenian entrepreneurs and banned entry to trucks carrying goods from Armenia to sell at this market. Moscow’s Food City is owned by God Nisanov and Zarakh Illiev, both Azerbaijani natives from Qırmızı Qəsəbə, belonging to country’s Jewish community.

As a matter of fact, Armenia’s intention was to target the export pipelines crossing close to the border area in Tovuz district, a critical energy infrastructure, vital for Europe’s energy security. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – the military alliance of six former Soviet republics, Armenia wanted to drag this organization into a conflict against Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s self-imposed isolation from all regional cooperation initiatives increased its hostility toward Azerbaijan’s energy projects.

Armenian troops continued provocation in September 2020 and during the military conflict which lasted 44 days, when Azerbaijan won not only on the battlefield, but also at diplomacy, restored its internationally recognized territorial integrity, liberating Karabakh region of the country from 30-year-old occupation. A peace deal has been agreed to establish lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Today, Azerbaijan keeps its door open for Armenia to benefit from all the international projects, it has initiated in the region.

Sangachal terminal near Baku, is Azerbaijan’s the most important strategic oil and gas facility, as well as bp-operated biggest onshore asset worldwide. The BTC oil, SCP and SCPX pipelines as part of the new Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), start from Sangachal terminal, providing incremental non-Russian oil and gas supplies and add to global supply diversity and energy security. The new SGC system which runs for 3500 km and crosses six countries, provides a new source of energy to Europe ensuring greater diversification and increasing security of supply.

Cooperation in the energy sphere is a priority of Azerbaijani-Israeli economic relations, the latter being one of the main importers of Azeri Light brand. Strategic partnership between the two countries continue to grow in technology, agriculture, and military-technical spheres. Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel is also viewed as a political bridge to the Middle East, benefitting and making it win-win for all the parties.

During the visits of high-level foreign delegations to Baku, Azerbaijani officials organise familiarization trips to Sangachal terminal. I have been privileged to accompany Israeli delegations, exhibiting terminal facilities.

The first high-level trip to Sangachal terminal was the visit of Minister of national infrastructure of Israel Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The Minister highlighted Azerbaijan’s importance in providing energy security for Europe and stressed that the BTC transportation system from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean port Ceyhan would make it possible to deliver oil to Israel to meet the country’s needs for fuel.

I also recall distinctly the visit of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel Avigdor Lieberman in February 2010. Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu Party, now Minister of Finance of Israel has contributed greatly to bilateral developments. His visit was a tremendous success and drew a clear picture how we run such complex facility and pipeline operations, which also plays an important role in supplying demands of crude oil in Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman, who highly appreciates bilateral relations and visited Azerbaijan five times, during his visit to Baku in 2012, said: “Azerbaijan is more important for Israel than France.”

One of the more recent trips to Sangachal happened in July 2022. It was the visit of Ambassador of Israel George Deek, widely covered by the media. Ambassador was very much impressed what he has seen at the terminal, highlighting his feedback:

“Today I visited bp’s Sangachal Terminal, where the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) both begin. From there, Azerbaijan contributes greatly to energy stability in the world! Truly grateful for the warm invitation and welcome.”

Along with this feedback, Ambassador George Deek also tweeted his photo with a note: “I’m learning so much about Azerbaijani history and culture in Tabriz in this great book I was recently presented.”

“Mysterious Tales of Tabriz” book, one of the bp funded cultural projects which has left a footprint in the new history of Azerbaijan, was presented to Ambassador as token for visiting Sangachal terminal.

The book’s name has shortly climbed to Twitter trends on a #MysteriuosTalesofTabriz hashtag and social media users thanked Ambassador Deek for “inspiring the world to read about history of Tabriz.”

But this tweet about the history of miniature art prompted a quick and anger-packed reply from Iran’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Sayed Abbas Mousavi, who accused his Israeli counterpart, once friendly nations (1953-1979), of “crossing the red line”.

In fact, “Mysterious Tales of Tabriz,” traces the basic stages of the evolution of Medieval Azerbaijani miniature painting, is a great example in communicating this cultural legacy to the world. The art of miniatures is one of the brightest phenomena in the world of figurative art and the author of the book, Professor Jamila Hasanzade, has compiled a plethora of well-researched facts and opinions of leading Western and Oriental scholars, to promote the ancient miniature painting through unique illustrations accompanied by relevant information mostly related to Tabriz and its miniature art masters.

This book has been presented to Holy Father Pope Francis, President of Italy Sergio Mattarella, President of Greece Karolos Papulyas and other world famous dignitaries, the stories of which can serve as a model for building functional and inclusive societies.

In spite this scandal around the “Mysterious Tales of Tabriz” book, Azerbaijan shows balanced approach to both sides – Iran, as a centuries-old neighbour and partner in such areas as economy, energy and culture, and Israel – a time-tested friend and partner that proved its worth on issues critical to Azerbaijan in international arena.

But recent history shows that Iran doesn’t keep this balance and uses every chance to influence Azerbaijan’s independent course after its liberation the Karabakh region from 30-year-long Armenian occupation in 2020. Iran is cementing its traditionally cordial relations with Armenia to influence geopolitical changes in the region.

During Foreign Minister Amir-Abdullahian’s visit to Armenia in October 2022, he inaugurated Iranian consulate in Kafan and on January 18, 2023, the mayors of Tehran and Yerevan signed an agreement, declaring their capitals sister cities, deepening the two countries common geopolitical interests.

Today, Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel are built upon centuries old of shared Jewish-Azerbaijani kinship. This multi-ethnic state with various and unique ethnic groups within its boundaries, ranks at the top of the world’s most tolerant societies: Azerbaijan successfully promotes multicultural values, and its rich cultural heritage is viewed as a model for ethnic and religious tolerance. A good number of the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan, as well as the historic city of Sheki on ancient Silk Road was included to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. And this process continues and for sure, in future Azerbaijan’s all-Jewish town Qırmızı Qəsəbə with its unique architectural style, history and culture will become another important UNESCO site.”

This article originally appeared in Azertac on January 24, 2023.