No country in Eurasia has closer or warmer ties with Israel than Azerbaijan. The relationship between the two countries is particularly surprising because Azerbaijan is a majority-Muslim country. But the reasons for this close relationship lie in the longstanding friendship between Azerbaijanis and Jews living in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country, is also home to several other ethnic and religious groups, including ancient Zoroastrian, Christian, and Jewish communities. Respect and tolerance for national minorities has played a vital role in the development of the country from antiquity to the days of the Silk Road to modernity. Minorities, as well as women, have been ubiquitous in Azerbaijani government since its independence from the Soviet Union. Unlike many cultures, Azerbaijanis have never viewed Jews as foreign or alien. Israelis with roots in Azerbaijan are doing a great deal to foster the emerging economic and even geopolitical cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.
Relatively few people outside the Azerbaijani or Jewish communities know about the remarkable role that the Jewish community has played in Azerbaijan. The first health minister of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-20 was Jewish, and there were representatives of Jewish groups in parliament. In addition, during the existence of the Republic from 1918-20, Jewish communities published a Caucasian Jewish bulletin, the “Palestine” newspaper, and a biweekly magazine, “Youth of Zion.” Moreover, throughout the Soviet period, Jews played a major role in the intellectual, economic, and political life of Azerbaijan.
The real test for Azerbaijan’s tradition of religious and national tolerance was during the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this deeply troubled time, ethnic Armenians invaded some 20 percent of Azerbaijani lands, including Nagorno Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, creating nearly 1 million Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and ethnically cleansing the remainder. The bloody act of genocide, which was committed with incredible brutality and barbarism in Khojaly, is one of the most horrible tragedies of the late 20th century. Cruel and merciless scenes of that massacre will always remain a never-healing scar in the hearts of Azerbaijanis. Armenian armed forces and units of mercenaries did not spare life of any Khojaly resident who failed to leave the town and its suburbs. As a result, 613 people were killed and 487 were wounded. In addition, 1,275 civilians (including elders, children, and women) were taken hostage and subjected to unprecedented tortures, insults, and humiliation. This tragedy is an act of evil against humanity.
Despite such large-scale murder and displacement, the core principle of peaceful coexistence continued to define Azerbaijani society. Even as violence has flared over the past more than 20 years of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijani society has maintained harmony amongst its religions and ethnicities. Today, Azerbaijan is a strong independent state, leader of the South Caucasus geopolitical and geoeconomic processes. Azerbaijan is conducting its own multi-vector foreign policy, independent from Turkey or from Tehran’s foreign policy. Thus, Israel and its people have great respect for Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev. They appreciate the efforts of the grand development of the economy in Azerbaijan, which is becoming an important, strong, and independent actor on the international scene.
Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are a positive, strategic partnership. Azerbaijani-Israeli trade cooperation flourishes and amounts to nearly $4 billion. Although previously focused on the oil and gas industry, it is now extending to other sectors of the economy. It is necessary to point out that Israel is one of the main buyers of Azerbaijani oil to world markets, but Israel has several more reasons to seek stronger relations with Baku. First, Israel wants to show the international community their full loyalty to the Muslim countries, secular and otherwise, that remain friendly to Israel. Azerbaijan plays an important role as a reliable supplier of energy, including about 40 percent of oil supplies to Israel. In exchange, Azerbaijan needs modern Israeli high technology, agriculture know-how and technology, communications and computer technology, and modern weaponry. The list goes on and on.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I am the grandson of Boris Stoyanovsky, an officer in the Soviet Army whose family was murdered by the Nazis in Ukraine, and as such participated in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day conference in Baku. What made this a unique endeavor is that I traveled to a Muslim-majority nation, the Republic of Azerbaijan, for the conference, co-organized by the Baku International Multiculturalism Center and Baku Slavic University. During the conference, my Azerbaijani friends expressed their condemnation of the cruel actions and genocide perpetrated by the Nazi fascist regime against my Jewish ancestors. During the conference’s discourse, I viscerally felt that Azerbaijanis perceived the pain and suffering of the Jewish people as their own. As a citizen of the State of Israel, it is clear to me (and the long anti-Semitic free history of Jews in Azerbaijan), that the leadership of Azerbaijan has not only incorporated attitudes toward Jews that transcends mere tolerance into its policies, but also into the fabric of its society. Furthermore, it is evident and clear that Jews and Muslims in Azerbaijan have peacefully coexisted as brothers — and have become forever linked through common history and destiny.
The history has never forgotten the cruelty of a 20,000-strong Armenian legion as part of the Wehrmacht in the WW II. The aim of the Armenian legion led by nationalist commander Dro who personally participated in the annihilation of thousands of Jews) was to persecute and annihilate Jews and others disliked by the German army. At the same time, the Armenian legion organized death marches at concentration camps.” In his “Death Tango” book, the late historian Rovshan Mustafayev provides extensive evidence of the Armenian units’ involvement in genocide of Jews, particularly a report of sonderkommando “Dromedar” about the operation in western Crimea; as a result of this operation, 17,645 Jews were executed. In honor of such Armenian fascists like general Dro and Nzhde, they mint coins and glorify them in both feature and documentary films. A square in the Armenian capital has been named after Garegin Nzhdeh. A cult cannot be created by some marginal political groups—it is the government that stands behind these acts. The successors of Dro and Nzhdeh are incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan and Minister Seyran Ohanyan, both of whom committed a bloody massacre in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in late 20th century.
The ancient town of Krasnaya Sloboda (Quba) in northern Azerbaijan, said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, is the pride of Azerbaijan. The State of Israel, too, appreciates the role of the government of Azerbaijan vis a vis the Jewish community. Without this tradition of respect and partnership, the close bilateral relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel would not exist. Importantly, President Aliyev has earned the respect of a wide swath of Israeli society for his dedication in this realm and to the Jews of Azerbaijan. The relationships between Israel and Azerbaijan, as well as between Muslim Azerbaijanis and Jewish Azerbaijanis, cannot be explained away by simple mutual self-interest. Common values and a shared history permeate the modern relationship. Both countries are enriched by the human connections between them and a determination to live in diverse and religiously tolerant societies.
Arye Gut, head of the Israeli non-governmental organization International Society Projects, is an expert on the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.