Appreciating Azerbaijani Sechel for U.S. Sake
What makes the country and people of Azerbaijan so appealing to many Jewish-American visitors to the South Caucasus and such a blind spot for most other Americans?
Look at Azerbaijan on the map: You see borders with Russia, Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia. Over there, and you see Afghanistan. And over here, not far, you see Israel. Look within the borders of Azerbaijan and you see the ancient Jewish town of Quba, which is believed to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel.
Knowing that Azerbaijan is an active strategic ally of both Israel and the United States certainly attracts Jewish-American attention. But getting to know Azerbaijan’s diverse ancient and modern Jewish culture, impressive multicultural dynamic, and powerfully progressive intellectual and cultural legacy—that is what is building Jewish-American sechel (profound and constructive understanding).
In modern times, Jews who came to participate in Azerbaijan’s oil-industry culture, from engineers to musicians to doctors and lawyers, contributed to the sophisticated atmosphere of Baku, the capital city. All the while, Jews in Quba continued to engage in agriculture and other less urban pursuits. And Azerbaijani neighbors continued to show ideals of neighborliness, compassion, education, and celebrating tradition.
Jewish-Azerbaijani politicians long have served in government; Jews played a key role in the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-20), which gave women the right to vote and implemented other then-progressive ideals. 19th-century Baku was even home to the first Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion,” 1891) and one of the larger region’s earliest Zionist organizations (1899).
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s January 5, 2005, “Report on Global Anti-Semitism, “Cases of prejudice and discrimination against Jews [in Azerbaijan] were very limited, and in the few instances of anti-Semitic activity the Government has been quick to respond. The Government does not condone or tolerate persecution of Jews by any party.”
But it is affinity with Muslim friends in Azerbaijan that serves as a welcome surprise and basis for friendship for many Jewish Americans. Shared ideals and traditions, if not sense of humor, draw visiting American Jews into dancing the lezginka and enjoying Nature’s-bounty “national cuisine” long into the night. The sense of being at home has much to do with shared roots that sadly have been poisoned or otherwise have withered in other parts of the world.
Ironically, paying attention to U.S. media or official rhetoric yields little or no mention of Azerbaijani culture and society. U.S. media focuses almost exclusively, and narrowly, on certain political issues. U.S. policy makers often demonstrate lackluster interest and limited understanding of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, U.S. Jewish organizations walk a careful line between appreciating Azerbaijan and not offending other interests.
It is the ongoing—certainly not “frozen”—Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that most affects the hazy isn’t-it-a-former-Soviet-republic image most Americans have, at best, of Azerbaijan. From Capitol Hill to community centers, what we know is colored by a deep, personalized hostility that has rooted since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Since the late 1980s Armenian forces have taken control of an area of almost 20% of Azerbaijani land—an area of Azerbaijan called Karabakh that Azerbaijanis consider to be the cradle of Azerbaijani culture. Armenians refer to the area as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, but the rest of the world, including the United States, considers the area to be territory of Azerbaijan and not an independent republic. Russia and Iran support Armenia. Lives continue to be lost in this conflict, and extensive Azerbaijani cultural items of Karabakh have been destroyed.
In the United States, the Armenian diaspora is, generally, far more English-literate and active than the Azerbaijani diaspora. Articles, websites, speeches, debates and other features of U.S. public dialogue are likely to represent an Armenian point of view, which can vary dramatically from Azerbaijani interpretations of the same subject matter.
The U.S. 501 (c) 3 cultural charity Karabakh Foundation is the leading organization, and among the few, that shares Azerbaijani culture, arts, and heritage with Americans. At the same time, numerous Armenian organizations share their messages with Americans. In addition, as a majority-Christian community, Armenian Americans enjoy many close affiliations with majority-Christian United States.
While within Azerbaijan there is a great deal of pro-U.S. sentiment, significant Azerbaijani attention is turning, understandably, to Russia. Many Azerbaijanis express disappointment with the lack of attention on various levels from American allies.
American Jews must take the lead in educating ourselves about Azerbaijan and in advising our leaders to pay proper attention to this considerable ally. We need to attend to this Shiite nation that is a friend of Israel and is next-door to Iran (and Russia).
As Americans we have learned the costs of ignoring or alienating our allies. And as Jews we understand what it means to have friends in a hostile world.