The first time I became aware of Westminster Councillor Murad Gassanly was at a Board of Deputies seminar for local councillors.
Murad was born in Azerbaijan and he regaled a colleague about the rich Jewish life and heritage of his country.
Until then, Azerbaijan had not been on our radar.
Indeed, until we met Murad, I knew little or nothing about the current situation of the Azeri Jewish community. As I was to find out, there are few better places in the world to be a Jew than this central Asian republic
We got in touch with the Ambassador of Azerbaijan in London and less than eight months later, thanks to Murad’s efforts, a Board of Deputies delegation was on its way to Baku. I was joined by Vice Chair of the International Division Ido Ben-Shaul and International Relations Officer Marius Bischoff for a seven-day journey to the capital and Qırmızı Qəsəb, also called the Red Town – the only entirely Jewish city outside of Israel.
The village is located across the Kudyal River from the town of Quba. It is the primary settlement of Azerbaijan’s population of highland, or mountain Jews, who make up the population. The most widely spoken language in Qırmızı Qəsəbə is Juhuri, which has a vocabulary which includes Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic words. Qırmızı Qəsəbə is considered to be the world’s last surviving shtetl.
The settlement is sometimes referred to as the Red Town or the Red Village, possibly because of the red tiling used on many of the roofs. Other sources attribute the name to the protected status the town received during the Soviet period, when it was shielded from persecution during the Second World War.
The history of the Jews in Azerbaijan dates back many centuries. Today, there are three distinct groups: Mountain Jews, the most sizable and most ancient group; Ashkenazi Jews, who settled in the area during the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and during the Second World War; and Georgian Jews who settled mainly in Baku during the early part of the 20th century.
We were warmly received. In our meetings with government officials and Jewish community leaders, we discussed antisemitism in the UK.
To our surprise antisemitism and security for Jews were not of concern to the Jewish community in Azerbaijan or the Azeri government. To date, there has not been a single registered case of antisemitism in the country. There isn’t even a word in Azeri for ‘Jew hatred’. Azeris pride themselves in being inclusive and a civic approach to citizenship past ethnic and religious divides. The local Rabbi of the Red Settlement told us that when he walks around in Baku wearing his traditional rabbinical robes and hat, the only reaction he receives is respect.
Azerbaijan is a role model for how Jews and Muslims can live peacefully and respectfully together and relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are excellent. We hope that further engagement between the Board of Deputies and other Muslim majority countries will lead to a stronger and deeper relationship between our communities abroad and in the UK.
- Sheila Gewolb is Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies and Chair of the International Division