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January 17, 2016 8:16 pm

Azerbaijan: A Muslim Nation Against Antisemitism

avatar by Israel Barouk

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Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo: wiki commons.

Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo: wiki commons.

As 2015 came to a close, I found myself in Baku, Azerbaijan, because I wanted to better understand and appreciate the country’s friendship with Israel and the United States.

Thinking about food for Shabbat, I ventured out for a walk and found an indoor farm-to-table grocery store on one of the quaint and quiet residential streets in a notably religious-Muslim neighborhood of the city — in a metropolis and a country boasting a 95% Muslim majority population. Like any other day, I was dressed in clothing that obviously identified me as a Jew.

I suppose it might take first-hand experience to appreciate the intense contrast; how in that specific district of Baku, concern for my security never came to mind. The anxiety I felt in Jerusalem only the week prior, a practical fear over what is happening on the streets of Israel nearly every day, was totally and noticeably absent. Many strangers smiled, and a few even said Shalom to me.

Situated around lulling, picturesque architecture and trees, this part of the city is a mix of the beautifully old and practically new; akin to the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Like Nachlaot, the religious Muslim neighborhood in Baku felt safe and protected, perhaps especially because it is religious, and religion is supposed to be good, and supportive of goodness toward others. Unlike Nachlaot, Baku doesn’t require the built-in protection of undriveable alleyways, a token of security against the threat of terrorist car rammings in Israel.

Baku is the capital of a rare, promising nation, known as the global champion of healthy cultural and religious diversity, for which it is celebrated by its citizens of many faiths. Some in the media suggest that Azerbaijan is only so tolerant because it is secular. However this is a shallow interpretation of something very deep and actually very old. The success of multifaith tolerance in Azerbaijan is not due to an absence of religion. Religious life in Azerbaijan is vibrant and visible, with proud congregations and enviable buildings for every religion and faith. Ironically, it’s easy to understand how this majority Muslim, moderately traditional, family-oriented society connects so well with Jewish and Christian neighbors. The permeating values of faith, respect, and kindness surpass any boundaries between the various faiths, and promote inclusivity and mutual appreciation.

Like any diverse Jewish community in the United States, the 30,000 Jews of Azerbaijan are uniquely cloistered and represented; Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Hasidic, with the addition of the Azerbaijani-based Mountain Jews — a 2,000 year-old community. All share the normal angsts: hopes to expand, reach more people, and keep the youth engaged with their Judaism into adulthood. Unlike in America, antisemitism is a problem they never have to deal with. This particular sentiment was explicitly and repeatedly expressed by various rabbis, community leaders, and many students I spent time with in Baku, as well as in Red Town, the all-Jewish town in the Quba region, just a 2 hour drive to the north from the capital.

The Jews of Azerbaijan appreciate that they live in this country, protected and respected, unlike most nations today, including the United States, with very active, anti-Jewish voices and movements. Spending several Shabbats in Jerusalem in the following weeks, I considered the risks of being there; of shopping in the open market where so many have been mercilessly attacked with knives, cars, and even bombs. I missed Baku and in some way wished I could switch out the scenes, and replace the dread of stabbings in Jerusalem with the peace of mind I felt wandering around that day in the most religious-Muslim neighborhood of Baku, just hours before Shabbat.

Whether in Jerusalem or Los Angeles, interreligious harmony and positive multiculturalism must be studied and shared, in schools, neighborhoods and the global media. The Republic of Azerbaijan may be rich in allies, oil, and history, but its greatest natural resource is the national value of acceptance and respect; tangible principles capable of immunizing entire nations against intolerance and hatred.

If many more communities and leaders were to study and visit Azerbaijan, and see what I have seen, it’s impressive to imagine how fast the belief and inspirational force for interreligious unity would take hold, popularizing a peace that can be examined, championed, and defended.

As many in Azerbaijan would say to this dream: Insha’Allah –God willing.

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  • Adam M.

    It’s sad to see this sort of paid propaganda in this paper.

    Any moral person with half a brain should want nothing to do with Aliyev’s oil money and destabilising, genocidal and oppressive politics.

  • Jeremy

    One of Rabbi Barouk’s many copy-pasted propaganda articles paid for by the oppressive Aliyev regime. This man is known for nothing else but being a tool at the hands of Aliyev. He lives off from spreading anti-Armenian racism and/or praising one of the most brutal dictatorships in history under the pretext of praising supposed lack of anti-Semitism in Absurdistan. Time and again, many Jews have exposed this racist Rabbi, yet he is able to continue inserting his copy-pasted BS in clueless publications. Shame on theAlgemenier for giving a platform to Aliyev’s proxy commentator.

  • Alan Stern

    Wonderful article. Azerbaijan is truly a beacon of light in a crazy region.

  • Ramin

    Azerbaijan is the only country who hosted all Jew people from all over Caucasus region ( mostly nothern parts – Georgia , Dagestan … ) that were pressed out during 17-18 centuries. The village named Krasnaya Sloboda is the proof for that historical fact , and the Jew population there , that is living for centuries in a harmony with Azerbaijans are the live proof also.
    To the consideration of all the people in the world , Azerbaijan , despite on being a small country is a multicultural at the same time ( Talish in the south , Lezgi and Avars in the north , also Kurdish , Jewish , Russian , Turkish , Persian , Armenian , Polish , Ukrainian , Turkmen etc are Azerbaijans in 5th and more generation .
    This country is the first ever oil exporter in the world and the place where Nobels , Rotschild and Siemens got their wealth.
    About the genocide of Armenians : When Turkey was fighting against French and English colonists in the front ( western Istanbul part ) in Turkey for the independence , Last both asked Russia to rise Armenian population in rearward to make it weak. Armenians were promised all the east lands ( nowadays Armenia ) . Thousands of Turkish ethnic people were killed with special atrocity also in nowadays Azerbaijan .
    Azerbaijan natives who were under the rule of Russian empire together with Iran who closed their eyes for those real massacre and genocide acts in many villages and cities ( ethnic clearance ) made by terrorists Dashnaks asked for the help of Turkey . Turkey also was angry for the betrayal act of their Armenian citizen and made that ( same ) and worse answer act for Armenians .
    Dashnaks were implementing ethnic clearance on the territory of Azerbaijan since the Turkmenchai agreement between Russian and Iran empires in 1828 . The most horrible act that is not popular among historians is 1905 , when almost all the Azerbaijani population was killed or repressed to Iran or nowadays Azerbaijan from today’s Armenia ( then it was the Azerbaijan Iravan khanate with the capital Iravan – today Yerevan) .
    Mass repression of ethnic Azerbaijans in 1948 , 1988 are the proof that Armenians were planning to clear the Azerbaijan origin ethnicity to create pure Armenia with the mono ethnic , chauvinist population with very powerful diaspora that will use the fact that they had aggression from Turkish ( Muslim ) side . Stalin ( Georgian origin ) hated Turks and Azerbaijans probably were in his black list ( 1948 repression of Azerbaijans from Armenian SSR) Of course that strategy is super effective , but the crime against innocent people will never be forgotten and the history will paste everything on its places.

  • Gnomercy9

    Azerbaijan has managed to build a secular state that is not hostile to religion, indeed welcoming it. The EU and US are secular as well, but are growing increasingly hostile to religion.

  • I am very sorry to have to say this, and I need to research a little more, but since Azerbaijan is so close to Turkey I was wondering if the Azerbaijanis were involved in any way with the Armenian genocide. So I googled that question, and sadly there appears to have been at least mass murders of Armenians in Azerbaijan in the 1988 – 90 period. Granted that is not when the well known genocide by the Turks in the WW1 period. Anyone know anyone that knows this history well. I regret that I don’t have the time to stay at the computer for longer now. Hopefully tomorrow.

    • Ramil

      I will answer your question. If you google Armenian Azerbaijan Nagoro karabagh conflict you will find the truth. Armenia occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijans teretory. And it is still under occupation. And please google also Khojali genoside. See some photos also. And you will understand who is the real killer

    • Nijat

      You should google ’31 March genocide’ and ’26 February genocide (Khojaly massacre) as well, which committed by the Armenia against civil azerbaijanis.

    • Roy Jayson

      armenians firstly began agression towards Azerbaijanians, they slaughtered many Azeri young schoolchildren in 1969 year in modern Armenia,however, nobody talks about it.In addition, the territory of current Armenia historically belonged to Azerbaijanian people,when Russia invaded Azeribaijanians land in 19th century, Russians brought thousands of armenians from Iran and Turkey and they established armenian state in Azerbaijani land

  • Dato Somekhi

    Mr. Barouk,

    While you were in Baku, on 30 December 2015,, reported that on the previous day Azerbaijani parliament member Zahid Oruj exclaimed,”It is good that the chairman of the Milli Majlis is not a Jew.” This comment did not appear to be condemned in any government-run media in Azerbaijan. This fact contradicts your thesis. Some Jews actually follow such anti-Semitic events.

  • I really enjoyed from your comprehensive and kindness writing about North Azerbaijan
    Azerbaijan not only has diversity of civilizations and multi cultures, but also has a big tolerant with other religions. The secularism is one of most important value of Azerbaijani society.

  • Postman

    This is why Azerbaijan is often presented as an example of multiculturalism and tolerance

  • Alison Weston


  • Joy D. Brower

    If memory serves, didn’t hundreds – if not thousands – of Jews from Ukraine and other parts of the USSR escape the horrors of World War 2 by being sent East to Azerbaijan? I seem to recall my uncle mentioning that some of our family (descendants of the first wife of our great-grandfather) managed to survive that horrific time by spending the duration of the War in Azerbaijan.