As I traveled to Jordan with my Israeli counterparts on a program for young Middle Eastern and North African journalists in February 2018, I was unsure how the group would bond together. Perhaps our differences would overwhelm our desire to understand the other.
To my surprise, I found more in common with my Muslim roommate from Tunisia than the other Israelis. We shared a respect for religion that resulted in meaningful conversations and mutual understanding, though our lives and experiences were so diverse. Just a few days after meeting, we walked with linked arms down to the conference hall.
During a different trip, this one to the Muslim-majority nation of Azerbaijan in November 2019, I visited the community of Qırmızı Qəsəbə (Red Village) — which is believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish village outside of Israel and the U.S., or in other words, the last surviving shtetl.
“Here, people refer to people’s humanity not their religion, so Jews can wear a kipah in the street, and nobody will ask or bother them. Azerbaijani Jews say that other than Israel, Baku is their second home where they feel safe and free,” Mubariz Gurbanli, chairman to the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan, told the visiting Jewish delegation at the time.
Walking the streets of Israel today, despite the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not uncommon to see young Jews and Muslims displaying a unified front. Groups of women in hijabs and men dressed in the traditional robe and headdresses walk side by side with their Israeli counterparts on exchanges that intend to build cooperation between Muslims and Jews, as well as Arabs and Jews, in the wake of the Abraham Accords. The Accords’ latest milestone came on Tuesday when new Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid inaugurated Israel’s UAE embassy.
The newly established organization Sharaka, meanwhile, creates cooperation between young people in Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, focusing on bringing activists together for person-to-person encounters. Likewise, a group called Israel-Is Leaders of Tomorrow brings together young people from the Abraham Accords countries for meetups and hackathons (technology marathons).
Momentum for Jewish-Muslim relations is also building at the government level. In a historic first, Israel’s new governing coalition that was established in June includes an Arab party, Ra’am.
Normalizing relations with Arab and Muslim-majority countries was also a major objective in the era of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, culminating in the normalization agreements of the Abraham Accords. At the same time, while the Accords marked the first normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states in four decades, the history of growing Jewish-Muslim relations dates back several decades.
Arguably one of Netanyahu’s most important legacies was restoring diplomatic relations with Muslim-majority nations in Africa such as Guinea, Chad and Mali, as well as administering the proliferation of relationships with leaders from moderate Muslim-majority states including Oman, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, in particular, has served as a paradigm of Jewish-Muslim ties for decades. From 1992, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the beginning of Azerbaijani independence, Azerbaijan has enjoyed strong diplomatic relations with Israel. Though now it is more commonplace to find dialogue and relations between Muslim-majority countries and the Jewish state, Azerbaijan is a longtime shining example showing the rest of the Islamic world that with proper leadership, interfaith harmony can be actualized.
Like any relationship, the pioneering Azerbaijan-Israel connection requires upkeep. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev hosts interreligious conferences that include Israeli and Jewish leaders, with the goal of fostering cooperation and promoting ideas of multiculturalism and positive relations between Azerbaijan and its religious minorities.
“Azerbaijan has a centuries-old tradition of dialogue between traditions and religion, with all ethnic minorities living in peaceful conditions of mutual understanding and compassion in a multi-national country,” Aliyev said at the Baku Summit of World Religious Leaders during my visit to Azerbaijan in 2019.
Israel and Azerbaijan continue to cooperate in the fields of energy, health, digitization, investment, innovation, agriculture, water management and tourism. In June, the Israeli government expressed its willingness to participate in the restoration of Azerbaijani lands following last year’s war with Armenia, while a new Azerbaijan-Israel-Italy collaboration will transform Azerbaijan’s Zangilan region into a tech-savvy “smart city.”
Riding on the momentum of both long-established relationships and more recently formed alliances, fresh diplomatic openings and cooperative projects stand poised to keep open and grow this window of opportunity for flourishing interreligious ties. Following Lapid’s inauguration of the UAE embassy, Israel’s new government should continue to seize that opportunity.
Eliana Rudee is an American-Israeli journalist living in Jerusalem. Her work has been published in Forbes, USA Today and other news outlets around the world.