Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first stop on his eastern European tour on Tuesday was one he has spoken about and looked for to for some time: a meeting in Baku with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan at the Zagulba Palace.
On the agenda were signatures on agreements for trade and agriculture, taxes, economics issues, health, science and technology, with Environmental Protection Minister Zev Elkin signing on behalf of Israel. But it’s clear there was much more to this meeting.
The Azeri president said in his welcoming remarks that he believed Netanyahu’s visit would definitely strengthen bilateral ties between the two nations, and that he was looking forward to developing cooperation with Israel in tourism and education.
But in particular, Aliyev pointed out there are seven synagogues in Azerbaijan – five of them in Baku – and spoke with great pride about his country’s Jewish community as well as about those who had moved to Israel, and still maintained ties with family in Azerbaijan. He emphasized how glad he was that Netanyahu would have time to visit the Chabad Or Avner Jewish Education Center in Baku during his visit.
For his part, Netanyahu commented that the warm relationship between their two countries is especially unique in that “Israel is a Jewish state, and Azerbaijan is a Muslim state… This is an example of Muslims and Jews working together to secure a better future for both.”
After their talks, Netanyahu and his wife Sara met with members of the Azerbaijan Jewish community at the Or Avner Chabad Day School. They first met with pupils and sat with them for an open talk. Sara Netanyahu asked about their homes, Jewish customs at home and the study of Hebrew. The pupils also spoke about the weekly Torah portion. The prime minister and his wife told them that their son won the Bible Quiz and that the prime minister reads the weekly Torah portion with his son every Shabbat when the latter comes home from the IDF. Also discussed was Chanukah, the revolt of the Maccabees and their victory over the Greeks. Netanyahu told them that the Greeks are now friends of Israel.
The children said they pray every morning, go to the synagogue, eat kosher food, study at a Jewish school and keep Shabbat and the holidays. Sara Netanyahu congratulated the pupils and said, “We wish that you come to Israel both to visit and to live. We are waiting for you.” At the event with the Jewish community, schoolchildren sang Hebrew songs and waved Israeli and Azerbaijani flags.
The Israeli prime minister then told members of the Jewish community that he and his wife were pleased to be there, for two reasons: “One, we love Azerbaijan and two, we love Chabad. Relations with Azerbaijan are very close. They will be even better after this visit.
“I would like to say something about Chabad. Thirty-two years ago I met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time and he told me, I had gone to the United Nations to be Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, and he told me: ‘You are going’, how he called it, ‘to the house of eternal darkness.’ As you know, he did not have a high opinion of the UN and in any case he told me: ‘You are going to the house of darkness and remember that if you light one candle of truth, it will shine a precious light that will be seen from far away.’
“Ever since, I have tried to do just as the Rebbe said,” Netanyahu said. “But I must say that there are also different situations. Sometimes one lights a candle in a place that has light and not darkness and this is the situation here in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Rebbe taught us love of Israel and of humanity and here there is love of Israel and of humanity.
“President Heydar Aliyev and his son, President Ilham Aliyev, established and are maintaining a fund that helps, as you said Mr. Minister, Jewish education here in an Islamic country. And in contrast to what then-MK Rivlin said, we are also contributing to it, the State of Israel is also helping it.
“And how could one not be moved by the splendid boys and girls that can be seen here? But I am very moved by something else, these two flags, the Star of David and the half-crescent. Look at these two flags, this is what we want to show the world – this is what can be and what needs to be.
“It is the exact opposite, but the exact opposite of the darkness; this light, this is the light that dispels the darkness. And this is the spirit that guides us in Israel, in Azerbaijan, in Chabad and – with divine help – in many other places around the world. Therefore, I am very, very pleased to be with you. Thank you, thank you from the heart.”