Inside the World’s Most Philosemitic Country Where Jews Live Free of Fear
BAKU – It shouldn’t be exceptional, but it is – a country whose Jewish community never worries about antisemitism. It shouldn’t be hard to believe, but it is – Jews in Azerbaijan live without the nervousness and security measures so present almost everywhere else in the Diaspora. It shouldn’t be incomprehensible, but it is – Jews in this Caucasian nation are fully integrated and embraced by their Muslim-majority compatriots.
Admittedly, such an idyllic state of affairs sounds far-fetched given current and past Jewish reality elsewhere. But after seeing it in person and interviewing numerous Jews and Muslims in Azerbaijan, this reporter came away convinced it’s the real deal. I was recently there for an immersive, week-long educational trip as a guest of the Toronto-based Network of Azerbaijani Canadians organization. It invited a small group of journalists to explore this predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country, especially its rich, peaceful Jewish heritage.
Most people in the western world would be hard pressed to place Azerbaijan on a map, let alone know about its feel-good Jewish situation. Located in a tough region, the former Soviet republic is sandwiched between Russia and Georgia to the north, Iran to the south, Armenia to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. A secular country, its population of 10 million includes one of the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world, estimated between 8,000 and 20,000.
Jewish life is centered in Baku, the country’s bustling capital that’s home to three synagogues and two Jewish day schools, both paid for by the government. Rabbi Zamir Issayev, 42, is the director of the school in the heart of the city where 100 students, aged 7 to 17, attend for free. It’s a far cry from when Azerbaijan was under the control of the Soviets who prohibited Jewish education.
“The conditions for Jewish people living in Azerbaijan are the best in the world,” says Issayev, who was born in Baku, and spent many years in Israel during which he served in the army. “It may not be the best for Jews economically but in terms of safety and the absence of antisemitism, you won’t find another country as good to its Jews as Azerbaijan. We’re very thankful because we know what’s going on for Jews elsewhere.”
This reality flies in the face of the widely accepted idée reçue that no matter where Jews live outside Israel, they invariably face varying degrees of antisemitism, almost as if it were a law of human nature. During my visit, I sought the explanation behind its absence in Azerbaijan but the secret sauce proved elusive. In speaking with locals, to a person, they all say hatred of Jews, indeed of any minorities, is foreign to their country’s ethos. When commended for it, their reaction is invariably one of what’s-the-big-deal?, as if they didn’t know Azerbaijan is the rare exception to what Jews typically face elsewhere.
It’s nothing new. During the Holocaust, Azerbaijan provided refuge to 10,000 Jews who escaped Nazi conquests of other parts of the former Soviet Union. The Holocaust is part of the regular curricula at state universities and schools, and every January 27, the country’s president issues a solidarity statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Azerbaijan is also an anomaly when it comes to its relations with Israel. Defying opposition from anti-Zionist countries, including from many fellow Muslim countries, it’s about to become the first Shi’ite Muslim majority country to open an embassy in Israel. This week, its new ambassador, Mukhtar Mammadov, who arrived in Israel a few days ago, is expected to present his credentials to President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem ahead of the embassy’s official opening in Tel Aviv.. The increasingly warm bilateral ties between Jerusalem and Baku supplement the longstanding, positive story of Jewish life in this oil-rich country.
Last November, Azerbaijan’s Parliament gave the green light for the country to open an embassy in Israel. What might surprise those unfamiliar with its storybook Jewish history, the decision was warmly received by its citizens, who appreciate the significant contribution of Jews to their country and Israel’s strong support in Baku’s long-simmering, intractable conflict with its western neighbor and arch-nemesis, Armenia.
“Given how close relations are between Israel and Azerbaijan, the decision to open the embassy was only natural and much to the great pleasure of many Azerbaijanis like myself,” says Fuad Akhundov, 54, a Muslim author of books on his country’s history who lives in Baku. “The support Israel showed Azerbaijan during the 2020 war with Armenia is a big factor. As always during a war, you realize who your friends and foes are. With Israel, we once again understood that a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Akhundov gives walking tours of Baku, drawing on his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s past in which Jews have figured prominently in the last 200 years. With the start of the oil boom in the 1820s and the subsequent industrialization of the city, there was an influx of Jews from the region. As the Jewish community grew, it played an increasingly important role in the intellectual, business, scientific and artistic life of Baku.
Over the past 35 years, Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought two major wars over the mountainous region of Karabakh, long at the heart of hostilities between the two countries. Last September, armed clashes erupted on their shared border, leaving several hundred soldiers dead before Russia brokered a fragile ceasefire. Today, despite a cessation of active military fighting, tensions remain high. The two sides remain at odds over a number of issues, especially territorial claims. Each blames the other for the ongoing conflict, trading accusations of past atrocities and ethnic cleansing while both lobby for support abroad where each has its staunch defenders and opponents.
For all the foreign plaudits Baku earns for its official commitment to secularism and multiculturalism, and its generous financial support of all religions and ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan, it also faces harsh criticism from certain circles for its lack of democracy and the absence of a free press, amid allegations of human rights abuses committed by President Ilham Aliyev‘s authoritarian administration.
Azerbaijanis I spoke to, both Muslim and Jewish, didn’t seem too disturbed by Aliyev‘s less than democratic ways. Deeply patriotic, most voiced understanding of the situation, saying such measures are necessary given ongoing geopolitical challenges and security threats from Armenia and Iran. Many believe that eventually when circumstances are more conducive, Azerbaijan will become more democratic, even if few feel it will be any time soon.
Independent Member of Parliament Nigar Arpadarai is strong proponent of close relations with Israel, which gets about 40 per cent of its oil from Azerbaijan. I met her at the National Assembly in Baku, an attractive, modern city on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. She points to the past to explain her country’s warm hospitality to its Jews.
“It’s connected to some kind of deeply rooted memory not easily defined but it’s there,” she says. “The general tolerance of Azerbaijanis for other religions and traditions is an important factor. When it comes to Jews, the reasons are rooted in history. Azerbaijan and the Jews are connected though many links including trade, religion and migration from as early as the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, we don’t study this enough. For example, some Azerbaijani Jews can trace their ancestry back to those banished from Mesopotamia.”
There’s more to the story.
“Jews have always lived among Azerbaijanis in the same streets as part of this nation, not as some kind of separate group, or, God forbid, in a ghetto,” she adds. “There are many mixed marriages, we love and adopt their cuisine, they adopt ours. Lots of Jews have dual Azerbaijani and Israeli nationalities. This identity works both ways. Azerbaijani Jews in Israel don’t lose their connection to their fatherland. Most of them left in the dark and poor 1980s and early 1990s, not because anyone was pushing them out.”
She’s quick to pay tribute to the contributions of her Jewish co-citizens.
“Azerbaijani Jews are patriots of Azerbaijan, regardless of where they live,” she added. “In good times and bad times, they are near. We saw it clearly during the Karabakh war in 2020. Those who had to fight fought, those who were far away were active in social networks, media, sending money and assistance to suffering communities, telling the story of Azerbaijan and its just fight to liberate our land from three decades of occupation.”
Azerbaijan’s hard-fought victory over Armenia in the 2020 war is a hallowed chapter in the country’s recent history. As part of extensive security and military cooperation with Jerusalem dating back to the 1990s, Israeli weaponry — especially UAVs and guided missiles — proved critical in Azerbaijan’s success. After 44 days of fighting, it reclaimed most of its territory in the Karabakh region it had lost to Armenian forces in the early 1990s. In post-war celebrations in Baku in mid-November 2020, the country’s appreciation for Israeli (and Turkish) military aid was evident in the flurry of Israeli flags waved next to those from Azerbaijan and Turkey.
A month earlier, during the war on Oct. 17, in the middle of the night, Armenia fired Scud missiles at a residential neighborhood in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, killing 15 civilians, wounding many others and destroying a row of apartment buildings. In the morning, Israel’s ambassador, George Deek, traveled from Baku to Ganja, a 4-hour drive west, to pay his respects at the site and speak with survivors of the attack. People appreciated he was the first foreign diplomat to come there, even at his own personal risk as the war was then still raging. He also arranged for Israel to send humanitarian supplies for survivors of Armenian attacks.
Not surprisingly, Azerbaijanis were touched by Deek’s show of solidarity, making him one of the most popular foreign diplomats stationed in Baku, consistent with the country’s affinity for Israel. During an interview in his 7th floor office in the Israeli embassy, situated next to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Baku, Deek took pride in Israel’s positive standing in Azerbaijan. He cited a survey commissioned by his embassy last year that asked Azerbaijanis to list the foreign countries they like most. As expected, Turkey, given its traditionally close ties with Baku, came first. Surprisingly, Israel placed second, with more than 70% of respondents saying they have a very or somewhat favorable view of the Jewish state.
Today, the site in Ganga where Deek paid his respects has been preserved in its missile-ravaged state as a poignant memorial to the victims of the attack and as a reminder of the war. During my recent visit to Ganja, I met Arif Babayev, head of the city’s small Jewish community. He insisted, notwithstanding the conflict with Armenia, he lives in a nirvana for Jews.
“In Azerbaijan, no one ever reminds us we’re Jewish,” says the Ganja-born Babayev, 65, an engineer who works for the municipality. “There’s no place in the world where the tolerance is like it is here. The people and the government have always been good to us. We’re considered family. We don’t know the meaning of antisemitism in Azerbaijan. Whereas in many countries, Jews worry about walking in the streets in certain areas, I can walk anywhere in Azerbaijan at any time of day, even at 3 in the morning, and nobody will say anything to me about being Jewish. People here don’t perceive me as a Jew, they see me as an Azerbaijani.”
While visiting synagogues and other Jewish institutions in several cities, I was gobsmacked by the absence of protective measures so common elsewhere in the Diaspora. No armed security guards, no metal detectors, no checking of bags, no questions asked, no concrete barriers in front of buildings against car bombs, no worries. Entry was open to all. Compared to the highly fortified Jewish sites in other countries, the contrast in Azerbaijan was, at first, almost unsettling as if negligent on the part of community leaders. They later assured me it wasn’t, much to my amazement.
Rolan Yusufov, 21, lives in Baku, where he was born into a family of Mountain Jews, who make up a large portion of the country’s Jewish community. Tracing their origins to ancient Persia, the first Mountain Jews settled in the Caucasian region more than 1,500 years ago.
“I’ve spent my whole life in Azerbaijan and I can tell you I’ve never experienced any antisemitism,” says Yusufov, who oversees youth affairs at the Stmegi Foundation of Mountain Jews. “If it exists here, it’s very, very rare. I don’t recall hearing of any antisemitic cases locally.”
He’s heard about the challenging situation for Jews elsewhere from relatives who live abroad.
“I get the impression that multiculturalism is now a term many countries like to use,” he adds. “For us, it’s a relatively recent term but Azerbaijanis have been practicing it for thousands of years. They’ve demonstrated it with their tolerance, friendship, love and peace. That’s why Jews have been living here in such incredible conditions for a very long time.”
Arzu Jaeed is a young Azerbaijani Muslim woman who in 2021 made a documentary film about her country’s Jewish heritage after learning about it. One of her closest friends in Baku is Jewish. Currently living in Washington, DC where she works for Google as a project manager, Jaeed often visits her homeland which is where I spoke with her.
“I made the film because the story of Jews in Azerbaijan fascinated me and I wanted to tell it,” says Jaeed, 30. “After living the past few years in the US and seeing the racism and antisemitism there, I realized the way Jews and Muslims in my country are so close to each other is extraordinary and worth exploring. Literally, there’s no difference between us. We don’t differentiate between a Muslim Azerbaijani and a Jewish Azerbaijani. We even look the same.”
When asked if she has ever heard a Muslim compatriot speak negatively about a Jew, Jaeed responded definitively, ”Never, not even once. I’ve never even seen antisemitic graffiti in Azerbaijan, which I’ve seen in the US.”
Later in our conversation, she referred fondly to Albert Agarunov, the late Jewish decorated war hero in Azerbaijan where he’s a beloved figure. He died in 1992 at age 23 while fighting Armenian forces during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Thirty years later, Azerbaijanis continue to honour his memory. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, a large crowd of Jews and Muslims gathers at his monument erected in Baku in 2019 and go to his grave in Martyrs’ Lane near the National Assembly.
Agarunov died defending his tank battalion against invading Armenian forces in Shusha, just before they captured the city which they then occupied for 28 years until Azerbaijan liberated it in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Located in the Karabakh Mountains in the southwest of the country, Shusha is considered Azerbaijan’s cultural capital.
While visiting the city, I met Zahur Hasanov, from the local municipality’s Information Department, who waxed effusively about Jews and Israel.
“I’m excited that Azerbaijan will have a stronger diplomatic presence in Israel as it’s in the interest of both countries,” says Hasanov, 43. “Israel is our friend and I don’t think a single person should be against it. For us, Israel represents the future. We see it as a model in its approach to the economy, technology and agriculture. To build what Israel has created in the middle of the desert is very impressive. You need courage and a vision which our people admire.”
Growing up in Baku, some of his classmates and close friends were Jews, two of whom now live in Israel. Today, decades later, he remains in frequent contact with them through a Whatsapp group and sees them every time they visit Azerbaijan.
“For me, antisemitism is unacceptable,” says Hasanov. “There’s no logic behind it. Azerbaijanis are against antisemitism as human beings and as citizens. I don’t understand its nature and don’t accept its arguments.”
He postulates why Azerbaijan differs from most countries when it comes to its relationship with Jews.
“It’s very difficult to explain to the world why Azerbaijan loves Jews,” adds Hasanov. “Maybe it’s on the level of a shared DNA. We’ve lived in peace with Jews for millennia. We’ve never had a conflict with them and over time it’s become almost a passion. Unlike in other Muslim countries which have had good and bad periods for its Jews, we’ve never played that tricky game with our Jewish citizens. They’ve always felt secure in Azerbaijan. I think we have the same nature as hardworking people. Jews have always been our friends, there are mixed families, we know their religious holidays, which we celebrate with them. Even if it’s difficult for people outside Azerbaijan to imagine, we feel almost as blood brothers. We take it for granted. We’ve just lived this way for so long. Maybe it’s good there’s no real explanation.”
Hasanov, who has visited Israel, acknowledges the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents a challenge for many people in his country.
“We’re in an awkward situation,” he explains. “As Muslims, we’re the same faith as Palestinians and when I see them suffer, I feel sorry for them. I admit when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, I don’t know many details but I know you should always be open in terms of your values and beliefs. As a Muslim, I think Muslim solidarity is important. But that doesn’t mean we should be against Israel. My mind is with Israel even if my heart is with the Palestinians.”
When Azerbaijanis meet Israel’s top man in Baku, Ambassador George Deek, many are surprised to learn the diplomat representing the Jewish state isn’t Jewish.“Naturally, it’s surprising and confusing for most people here,” says Deek, 38, a former attorney in Tel Aviv, who, when appointed to his current post in 2018, became the first Arab Christian to serve as an Israeli ambassador. “The sense of surprise is great for helping me explain about the diversity of Israeli society. But frankly, at this point, I’ve stopped correcting people because it gets tiring.”
When receiving visiting Israelis in Baku, he’s often asked how he explains the absence of antisemitism in Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijanis have often lived under big powers, such as Russia, Persian empires and others, who often bullied them,” he told me. “So they know what it means to be a minority, to be different while preserving their identity and culture. Therefore, I think it’s easier for them to put themselves in the shoes of minorities. They have a minority mentality, and that’s a very good thing. This in addition to an already well-established history of good relations with the Jewish community here that has created fertile ground for mutual tolerance and friendly coexistence.”
He also has an interesting perspective on the tendency of many people in Azerbaijan to make little or no distinction between their Jewish compatriots and Israelis.
“Azerbaijanis understand that Israel is the Jewish state, so naturally for them every Jew has a home there and a sense of belonging there,” says Deek. “Because Western-style anti-Zionism has thankfully not reached Azerbaijan, they don’t have the urgency to differentiate between the Jewish state and the Jewish people. That’s usually something used as a tool for those who say, ‘I have no problem with Jews, I have a problem with the Jewish state.’ I’m not saying Azerbaijanis shouldn’t differentiate between Jews and Israel as a matter of accuracy, but only that there’s been no practical need for it because there’s neither antisemitism nor anti-Zionism here.”
A showcase of Jewish life in Azerbaijan is Krasnaya Sloboda, (or Red Village in English due to its many red roofs). An almost exclusively Jewish village, it’s a 2½-hour drive from Baku in the mountainous northern region of Guba near the border with Russia’s Dagestan republic. Sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem of the Caucasus, it was founded in 1742 by a Muslim emir in a neighboring town as a haven for Mountain Jews in the region. Today, it’s home to about 600 permanent residents, most of whom are Mountain Jews, and several times that number in the summer when many former locals return temporarily from Baku, Russia, the US or Israel to spend the warm season there.
Local residents I met there spoke in glowing terms about the situation for Jews in Azerbaijan in general and in their remote village in particular.
Born in Red Village, Yafa Yadadayeva, 59, has spent her whole life there and today works for the local government. She says the town receives excellent support from the national government, and that life for Jews there is “near-perfect” due, in large part, to the fact that all residents, the Jewish majority and small non-Jewish minority, get along extremely well. In recent years, she’s noticed a growing number of Diaspora Jews coming to visit the village, considered Europe’s last surviving shtetl.
Anatoliy Manashirov, 60, also born locally, works as the maintenance coordinator at the Six Dome Synagogue, one of two active Jewish houses of worship in the town. Built in 1888, it returned to its original purpose after being renovated in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR. During Soviet rule, when religion was prohibited, the synagogue was converted to a carpet factory. Manasirov said he’s never experienced antisemitism in his life, which he’s spent entirely in Red Village.
Azerbaijan’s benevolence to those not part of its Muslim majority is more than a time-honored tradition. The respect shown to its many ethnic and religious minorities, including Jews, Christians and even Armenians, is official government policy that includes financial support for these groups.
Last September, as head of the Baku-based, government-funded International Center of Multiculturalism, Ravan Hasanov spoke at the United Nations in New York about Azerbaijan’s commitment to cultural diversity. He was participating in an event marking the 30th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
When I met him in Baku, Hasanov was effusive in his praise of his Jewish co-citizens.
“Although most people in Azerbaijan belong to the Islamic faith, this is perhaps one of the world’s most secular and tolerant countries that promotes intercultural, inter-religious dialogue,” says Hasanov, 33, who was born in the Karabakh region. “Our Jewish community, like all our other minorities, are supported morally and financially by the state. Jews have been living here for millennia and have sacrificed their lives for our country, including falling in battle while fighting for Azerbaijan.”
The picture he paints would have many Diaspora Jews outside Azerbaijan shaking their heads in disbelief.
“We’ve always been together in the country’s good days and bad days,” he adds. “Jews are not outsiders. Respect and support for them here have always been at the highest level and I’m confident that’s the way it always will be. If tomorrow the Jewish community were to say it needs two more synagogues, the government will do it.”
To back up his claim, he cited soon-to-be-completed projects paid for by the government.
“Later in 2023 in Baku, thanks to state funding, there will be a big, new Jewish cultural center next to one of the synagogues that will include a kosher restaurant and guest houses,” he explains. “That’s in addition to renovation work being done at other synagogues. At all of them, there’s no police because there’s no need. There are no attacks, no antisemitism in our society. I never witnessed something like this in the countries in Europe where I’ve lived.”
Given Azerbaijan’s exemplary record where Jews are concerned, it’s surprising it’s not better known outside the country.
“Azerbaijan’s Jewry is Azerbaijan’s jewelry,” says Fuad Akundov, the Baku-born historian, in his fluent English. “Our history is generally devoid of institutionalized antisemitism. We are one of the rare spots in the former Russian Empire that never had any anti-Jewish pogroms. For centuries, Azerbaijanis have had a real respect toward Jews and they responded in kind. We’ve shown ourselves immune to the deeply rooted antisemitism that historically shaped public opinion and discussions in many European countries or the Russian Empire we were once part of. This is something that makes Azerbaijan’s Jewish history really different. It’s much more the history of cooperation and mutual respect rather than confrontation and hatred.”
If only other countries could learn from the example of enduring interfaith harmony between Muslim and Jews in Azerbaijan.
“Throughout our past, Azerbaijanis had no bone to pick with Jews, we had no conflict with them,” Akundov adds. “Neither did we have the inferiority complex that underpins so much intolerance and phobia in other countries. I see the current rise in antisemitism as a new epidemic of an old disease which Azerbaijanis are lucky to be immune to. The good thing is Jews managed to survive these things throughout their history. If sadly there are only a few countries that don’t need any vaccination against this epidemic, I’m proud to say Azerbaijan is one of them.”
May Azerbaijan remain forever true to this remarkable heritage.