The Azeri Exception

By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, October 29, 2010

Someone forgot to tell the republic of Azerbaijan that Jews and Muslims cannot live together in peace. Somewhere between twenty and forty thousand Jews reside in that Shiite country, which sits on Iran's northern border and enjoys diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Israel. Can this last, and for how long?

Jewish history in Azerbaijan goes way back. The majority of Jews in the country are so-called Mountain Jews, a community that believes it was exiled from the land of Israel after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. Whatever truth there may be to the claim, there's no denying that Jews have been in the region for a long time: in 1990, archeologists found the remains of a 7th-century Jewish settlement close to the capital city of Baku.

In the early 19th century, a small number of Ashkenazi Jews also began settling in the country, and Baku's oil boom in the latter part of the century drew in more—as did the anti-Semitic pogroms in Kiev, Russia, in 1904. The first branch of the proto-Zionist group Hovevei Zion, "Lovers of Zion," was set up in Baku in 1891.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic fears pushed the majority of Azerbaijan's then-80,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel and the West. Nevertheless, a substantial community, loyal to the regime, remained. In early October, Azerbaijani President Ilhem Aliyev and Israeli Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar attended the festive opening of a new campus at a Jewish school in the capital.

Whence Azerbaijan's openness and tolerance? In the years immediately following World War I, the country established the first Islamic modern parliamentary regime in history, earlier even than Turkey's.  For a brief period, until this breath of freedom was snuffed out by Soviet occupation, Muslim women enjoyed the right to vote, Jews served as government ministers, and a Zionist activist was elected to parliament. This legacy, evidently never forgotten, was revived and refurbished after Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR in 1991.   

Diplomatic ties between Israel and Azerbaijan were established in 1992, and the two countries' strategic relationship was further upgraded with the end of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1994. During that conflict, which displaced over a million people and left 15 percent of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces supported by Iran, Baku asked for and received help from Jerusalem in rebuilding its military and supporting its cause in Washington; in return, it offered oil, open markets, and crucial intelligence cooperation.

And today? Despite Azerbaijan's secular and tolerant character, a constellation of factors, including a bad economy and domestic corruption, has left the country vulnerable to the global appeal and reach of Islamic extremism. Sunni and Shiite radicals have begun to penetrate Azeri society, threatening the country's fabric and undermining the government's moderate policies. One doomsday scenario played out in 2009 when Hizballah operatives were arrested for plotting to blow up the Israeli embassy in Baku. Azerbaijan has yet to open an embassy in Tel Aviv.

Thus, despite the countries' shared interest in preventing the spread of Islamic radicalism in general, and their shared apprehensions regarding Iran in particular, Baku's willingness to reinforce its ties with Jerusalem remains in question. And so, inevitably, does the future status of Azeri Jews.  

This is an issue that should engage the concern of others, especially in the West. Open cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel and the successful integration of Jews into Azeri society are living reminders of the possibilities of peaceful, fruitful relations between Jews and Muslims. If Azerbaijan were to fall under the influence of radical Islam, the spiritual and political darkness that is descending upon much of the Islamic world would become that much more complete.

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