Azerbaijan: A “Model for Tolerance”

Along the shore of the Caspian Sea lies the republic of Azerbaijan, a country that gained independence from the Soviet Union in . Although composed primarily of Shi’ite Muslims, this country is still the home to “the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel”.

4,000 Jews currently reside in the Red Village, a Jewish community led by Milikh Yevdayev. These 4,000 know the true meaning of a restful Shabbat, and they are not threatened by their Muslim neighbors; rather, they live in peace and mutual understanding. Anti-Semitism is essentially non-existent there. As Yevdayev writes, “ To have a Jewish day school where the children are from both Jewish and Muslim parents [is] a reality we accept without conflict.” This reality is unfortunately still a dream for Jews around the world.

How did the Red Village come to be? This particular mountainous area has been home to Jews since the 13th century. In 1742, a large influx of Jews settled in the Red Village with special permission from the Khan as a means of escaping persecution by Islamic fundamentalists. Interestingly, it was not until the Soviet Union captured and enforced their authority on Azerbaijan that anti-Semitism invaded the safe haven. Synagogues were closed and destroyed. Rabbis were exiled and the Jewish community suffered. Once Azerbaijan regained independence in 1991, however, peace and democracy were restored. Remarkably, three synagogues are still standing today and the Jewish community is thriving. Singer Sarit Hadad and Nobel Prize winner Lev Landau are among many successful Azerbaijani Jews. As Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan Rafael Harpaz remarked, Azerbaijan is a “ model for tolerance…[it] is a country with no anti-Semitism.”

There has been speculation of the roots of Azerbaijan’s philosophy of peace, acceptance and democracy.  Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, specifically cites the following three reasons for the country’s unique tolerance:

1) it is on the Great Silk Road and therefore throughout history had to be open-minded;

2) the identity of the nation was built on many foundations, including that of the ruling Khazars whose leaders converted to Judaism in the eighth century; and

3) the form of Shiite Islam practiced is influenced by Sufi tradition and is committed to tolerance.”

This penchant for trade continues today. In fact, Azerbaijan currently engages in $5.5 billion annual trade with Israel. Despite pressure from its surrounding countries, primarily Iran, Azerbaijan’s president continues to remain a friend to Israel. The two democratic countries stand united against the West’s unfortunate double standard. Just as Israel has been repeatedly blamed for defensive strategies, Azerbaijan is often demonized as an active affiliate to the devastating Armenian genocide in the Nagorno-Karabakh district.

Azerbaijan offers new hope for peaceful coexistence. Muslims and Jews can live and prosper together. Muslim and Jewish nations can exist in a beautiful symbiosis. As long as there is a will, there is most definitely a way. The Red Village is proof. The issue, therefore, is not people, but bad leaders and fanaticism. We want to prosper and carve safe futures for our children. We are all the same. Perhaps then, we can all learn from the humanity displayed in Azerbaijan.