Beginning on June 12 and continuing into the end of this week, Azerbaijan hosts the inaugural European Games, and with no coincidence, Israel has sent the largest sports delegation in all of Israeli history to participate. 142 Israeli competitors are enjoying Baku, capital of the Muslim-majority Republic of Azerbaijan, a safe and welcoming country for all Jews. Over 6,000 athletes are competing now in Baku, from 50 nations, representing 20 categories of sport. Israel has been especially successful so far in Rhythmic Gymnastics and Wrestling. The groundbreaking size of the Israeli delegation is a testimony to the unique friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan, supported by the two thousand year old friendship between the Azerbaijani and Jewish people, and the centuries old Azerbaijani belief system and practice of multiculturalism and inter-religious harmony.
However, over the last few weeks, a well-orchestrated global campaign has been unleashed to defame and discredit these Games and Azerbaijan.
Like Israel, Azerbaijan may take steps to secure the safety and integrity of its nation and investments, and like Israel, will also suffer the consequences of making complex decisions in front of a hungry and angry media, lashing out in simplicity. Several news sources posit which European leaders were NOT in attendance at the Games’ opening ceremony, but very few list the various heads of state and government, celebrity performers, activists, and the over 30,000 watching the Games live each day. Azerbaijan has faced its share of uncertainty, and like Israel, is brutalized by a propaganda machine, one clearly intent on destroying their identity and credibility in the eyes of the world.
The two nations share the stress and strain of targeted media campaigns, but it comforts me that at least many are aware that media bias against Israel exists, or at least they have heard the argument. I count Israel as blessed to at least have some voices in the world to push back on outright falsehoods. But Azerbaijan has less support, if only because it is so much lesser known, and is Muslim, and too many associate that fact with the extremist forces Azerbaijan fights against, all the while serving as constant and unyielding partner to the United States and Israel, at significant risk. Just as American support for Israel has never been more crucial, our policy makers must support and protect this rare secular, progressive and prosperous ally in the Caucasus, powerfully and publicly.
I applaud and appreciate that my brothers and sisters from Israel were not only safe and included in the European Games, but deeply welcomed, and already walking around Baku with 8 medals. The European Games have given Israel a small respite from the daily barrage of violent extremism and media attacks from across the globe, and on the soil of a boldly rare friend. The courage of Azerbaijan is highlighted by the absolutely crucial role this small Caucasus nation plays in the regional and greater global spheres, and not only as it relates to peace and Israel; it is far more complicated. Azerbaijan is the only nation in the world that borders both Iran and Russia, putting the country in an important global strategic nexus. Azerbaijan with its vast energy reserves, proposed natural gas pipeline to Europe and geo-strategic location is poised to shift the international economic and political dynamic in Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. Azerbaijan is also an important partner in combating international terrorism. The recent U.S. State Department report on counterterrorism named Azerbaijan a significant partner in the fight against against terrorism, extremism and international money laundering, and praised the country for its ongoing successful collaboration with both the U.S. and NATO.
It is not difficult to understand that the same forces that challenge Israel’s right to exist have their eye on the critical role Azerbaijan plays. Any hope for the West and for Israel relies on mass recognition and support for the safety and strength of this paramount ally.
For these exceptional 142 Israeli athletes, and for those of us privileged to witness it live or on the television, the meaning of Israel’s presence and participation in the European Games is weighty, and speaks to what is possible. To see this dream realized in a Muslim nation is exceptional on surface level, and vital to those aware enough of the greater meaning. In the case of the first European Games in history, and behind a cloud of media smoke, the greatest feat was not actually any kind of sport, but instead the teaming up of two nations as friends, a bond that transcends the ills of bias and represents the essence of hope and tolerance.