Misrepresenting Israel and Azerbaijan

In a recent article by Christopher Atamian about Israel’s alliance with Azerbaijan in the Forward, usually a publication that can be depended upon for accuracy, it became apparent that the writer knew nothing of the realities of contemporary international relations nor the history of the relationship between Azerbaijan and the Jewish people.

No country in Eurasia has closer or warmer ties with Israel than Azerbaijan. The relationship between the two countries is particularly surprising because Azerbaijan is a majority-Muslim country and because Baku has not yet established a formal diplomatic mission in Israel.  But the reasons for this close relationship lie in the longstanding friendship between Azerbaijanis and Jews living in Azerbaijan. Unlike many cultures, Azerbaijanis have never viewed Jews as foreign or alien. Israelis with roots in Azerbaijan are doing a great deal to foster the emerging economic and even geopolitical cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

Relatively few people outside the Azerbaijani or Jewish communities know about the remarkable role that the Jewish community has played in Azerbaijan. The first health minister of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-20 was Jewish, and there were representatives of Jewish groups in parliament.  In addition, during the existence of the Republic from 1918 to 1920, Jewish communities published a Caucasian Jewish Bulletin, the “Palestine” newspaper, and a biweekly magazine, “Youth of Zion.”  Moreover, throughout the Soviet period, Jews played a major role in the intellectual, economic and political life of Azerbaijan.

Today, Azerbaijan is a strong independent state of the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan as led by President Ilham Aliyev, conducts its own multi-vector foreign policy, independent from Turkey or from Tehran’s foreign policy. Thus, Israel and its people have great respect for Azerbaijan and President Aliyev. They appreciate the efforts of the grand development of the economy in Azerbaijan, which is becoming an important, strong and independent actor on the international scene.

Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are a positive, strategic partnership. Azerbaijani-Israeli trade cooperation flourishes and amounts to nearly 4 billion dollars. Although previously focused on the oil and gas industry, it is now extending to other sectors of the economy. It is necessary to point out that Israel is one of the main buyers of Azerbaijani oil to world markets, but Israel has several more reasons to seek stronger relations with Baku.

First, Israel wants to show the international community their full loyalty to the Muslim countries, secular and otherwise, that remain friendly to Israel. Azerbaijan plays an important role as a reliable supplier of energy, including about 40% of oil supplies to Israel. In exchange, Azerbaijan needs modern Israeli high technology, agriculture know how and technology, communications and computer technology and modern weaponry, the list goes on and on.

Another important factor is the fact that Israel is cool to Armenia. Tel Aviv has consistently expressed support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. All these factors show that Israel and Azerbaijan have a strong economic and political basis for cooperation, supported by an all-important human bridge: the Jewish community in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani Diaspora in Israel.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I am the grandson of Boris Stoyanovsky, an officer in the Soviet Army whose family was murdered by the Nazis in Ukraine, and as such participated in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day conference in Baku. What made this a unique endeavor is that I traveled to a Muslim-majority nation, the Republic of Azerbaijan, for the conference, co-organized by the Baku International Multiculturalism Center and Baku Slavic University. During the conference, my Azerbaijani friends expressed their condemnation of the cruel actions and genocide perpetrated by the Nazi fascist regime against my Jewish ancestors. During the conference’s discourse, I viscerally felt that Azerbaijanis perceived the pain and suffering of the Jewish people as their own. As a citizen of the State of Israel, it is clear to me (and the long anti-Semitic free history of Jews in Azerbaijan), that the leadership of Azerbaijan has not only incorporated attitudes toward Jews that transcends mere tolerance into its policies, but also into the fabric of its society. Furthermore, it is evident and clear that Jews and Muslims in Azerbaijan have peacefully coexisted as brothers — and have become forever linked through common history and destiny.

Mr. Atamian writes about good Armenian-Jewish relations however, but prefers to remain silent about clear and obvious anti-Semitism in Armenia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Armenia’s Jewish minority and heritage — the products of a more tolerant time — have shrunk dramatically. The end of Soviet rule removed constraint, and anti-Semitic attacks rose dramatically. Along with Armenia’s ongoing economic collapse, these attacks drove the Jews of Armenia to flee the country. In addition, the cultural violence has continued. Anti-Semitic books have published and TV programs aired, and the Holocaust memorial in the capital of Yerevan has been repeatedly defaced.

Moses Bekker, the acclaimed scholar of the Human Rights Institute of the Azerbaijan, said that it was Rimma Varzhapetyan who emphasized – in her “Anti-Semitism in Armenia” work several years ago – the fact that Armenian history textbooks and mass media glorify the activities of the “Dashnaktsutyun” organization and its famous Armenian anti-Semite leader, Dramastamat Kanayan, aka “Dro”. It should be mentioned that during the World War II, General Dro personally took part in the annihilation of thousands of Jews. In addition, according to Ms Varzhapetyan, the current leadership of the country needs this “fighter” for freedom of Armenia as a symbol for justifying their expansionism plans. Ms Varzhapetyan does not consider the glorification of the fascist, the man who was personally involved in the annihilation of Jews in the Armenian history textbooks as anti-Semitic. Is she ready, being a Jew, to justify the activity of the Nazi criminals only because they are Armenians?

Similarly, Mr. Atamian should understand that history has never forgotten the cruelty of a 20,000-strong Armenian legion as part of the Wehrmacht in the WW II. “The aim of the Armenian legion led by nationalist commander Dro (who personally participated in the annihilation of thousands of Jews) was to persecute and annihilate Jews and others disliked by the German army. At the same time, the Armenian legion organized death marches at concentration camps.” In his “Death Tango” book, the late Azerbaijani historian Rovshan Mustafayev provides extensive evidence of the Armenian units’ involvement in genocide of Jews, particularly a report of sonderkommando “Dromedar” about the operation in Western Crimea; as a result of this operation, 17,645 Jews were executed.

A strong cult surrounds Dro and Nzhdeh in Armenia, which is considered a close ally of Russia. In honor of these questionable men, they mint coins and glorify them in both feature and documentary films. A square in the Armenian capital has been named after Garegin Nzhdeh. A cult cannot be created by some marginal political groups – it is the government that stands behind these acts.

The successors of Dro and Nzhdeh are incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan and Minister Seyran Ohanyan, both of whom committed a bloody massacre in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in late 20th century. Serzh Sargsyan’s words say it all: “before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that stereotype.”

The bloody act of genocide, which was committed with incredible brutality and barbarism in Khojaly, is one of the most horrible tragedies of the late 20th century. Cruel and merciless scenes of that massacre will always remain a never-healing scar in the hearts of Azerbaijanis. Armenian armed forces and units of mercenaries did not spare life of any Khojaly resident who failed to leave the town and its suburbs. As a result, 613 people were killed and 487 were wounded. In addition, 1,275 civilians (including elders, children and women) were taken hostage and subjected to unprecedented tortures, insults and humiliation. This tragedy is an act of evil against humanity.

Thus, no one should be surprised at the fact that most of the Jewish population of Armenia either left the country or married Armenians in order to avoid additional attention. Unfortunately, the government of Armenia is doing almost nothing to prevent the rampant and growing anti-Semitism in the country. Several hundreds of Jews who now remain in Armenia will continue to suffer unless Armenia quits its policy of limited nationalism and stops accusing foreigners of their own economic and political problems.

As an Israeli citizen of Azerbaijani background, I can say proudly that the leadership of Azerbaijan shows a great degree of deference and partnership to the Jewish community. Under the patronage of President Ilham Aliyev and the First Lady, two synagogues and the largest Jewish educational center in the South Caucasus have been built. Plans are in place for the first Azerbaijani Jewish museum, which will be the first Jewish museum in the South Caucasus.

The ancient town of Krasnaya Sloboda (Quba) in northern Azerbaijan, said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel, is the pride of Azerbaijan. In this region, Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis have been living harmoniously for centuries. In the area of Quba, Muslims and Jews have linked by the tragic events of 1918-19 when the Armenian Revolutionary Party, an Armenian nationalist and socialist group also called Dashnak, massacred thousands of Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis together. Importantly, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has earned the respect of a wide swath of Israeli society for his dedication in this realm and to the Jews of Azerbaijan. The relationships between Israel and Azerbaijan, and Muslim Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijani Jews, cannot be explained away by simple mutual self-interest. Common values and a shared history permeate the modern relationship. Both countries are enriched by the human connections between them and a determination to live in diverse and religiously tolerant societies.

About the Author
Arye Gut is a noted expert on the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and the head of the Israeli NGO, International Society Projects.
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