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Azerbaijan: Israel's #1 trade partner from independent states of former Soviet bloc

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?

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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.

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Diana Cohen Altman is Executive Director of the Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. 501 (c) 3 cultural charity foundation focused on Azerbaijan and the rest of the Caucasus. A former museum director, Ms. Altman teaches and writes about Azerbaijani Jewish history.

21 COMMENTS

  1. After expelling over a quarter million Armenians from Baku in 1990, Azerbaijan then became "tolerant". The remaining Armenians fought and won the right to live in their native Nagorno-Karabakh free from Azerbaijani jurisdiction.

    Regarding Azerbaijani "tolerance" today, take a look at the photos here: http://www.demotix.com/photo/8076640/protest-action-nardaran&popup=1 showing Azerbaijanis burning Israeli, Armenian, UK and American flags, earlier this year.

    Apparently, it is challenging to write about Azerbaijan-Israeli relations without having to parrot the belligerent anti-Armenian sentiment pervasive in Azerbaijan.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  2. Selected deletion of fact tends to expose the underlying purpose of Ms Altman's article. Read about the Azerbaijani football fans booing and yelling when it came time for a moment of silence for those murdered by terrorists in Paris last month http://azerisport.com/football/20151118010625429.html. Mysteriously, the video has just been taken down.

    Rather than to repeat the obvious, see The Azerbaijan Conundrum at http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/195931/the-azerbaijan-conundrum, with subtitle, "Sure, Azerbaijan is tolerant of its Jews. But that’s no reason to excuse the despotic, human rights-violating regime in charge."

    Yerevan, Armenia

  3. Since the author found it necessary to call into question Armenian influence in the U.S., Armenian lobbies, a close affiliation of Armenians with the US (all three items should sound familiar to this readership in another context) in regards to Azerbaijani-Israeli relations, let's contrast Ms Altman's political rhetoric with hard reality: Armenia has received, by the State of Israel, twenty-four Righteous Among the Nations awards, Azerbaijan: zero.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  4. Inferences about Armenian undue influence or relationships with Jews or Israel are the responsibility of those commenting. The author, writing about Azerbaijan from a cultural perspective, joins in inviting readers to educate themselves about Azerbaijan using available reliable resources.

  5. Armenian killers killed jewish population of Guba in Azerbaijan in 1918.They received the wepons from Russia and created uprise and stabbed Turkey at Back with the help of Russia.Killed local people and created their fake genocide here is the link for the evidence where their lie exposed:http://www.turkishnews.com/en/content/tag/the-armenian-question-in-120-documents-from-the-russian-state-archives/ . After being deported they used these wepons against of Local people of Azerbaijan: Turks,Mountian Jews:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Azerbaijan . At the same time you can barely find any other nation in Armenia rather than armenians or pardon Haiks
    Here is the true history of their nation :vho.org/aaargh/fran/livres7/Kamuraneng.pdf

  6. Article based on observation of historical facts and development in regards to the Jewishes society in Azerbaijan. Quite strange to read contr-arguments in comments which actually nothing but the desire for slander. Don`t like? I know that some people very good in reintepretation of historical facts in according to their interests, but this is not a case for this time. Want to say something different? Why don`t write about Jewis society in Armenia? O, clear, actually it is mononational state. But I believe, that the ability to write fairy tales about the past can be useful

  7. There is a need to provide true and unbiased information for the West and American society about Azerbaijan. Armenian lies and propaganda have gone too far by exploiting the western media where Azerbaijani presence has been very little or unvisible for many decades.
    American jews can do a lot to introduce Azerbaijan's culture, achievements, and pain which caused by occupation of 20 percent of its territories and ethnic cleansing by Armenia. This also would be in interests of Jews, especially for those who regard Azerbaijan as their homeland.

  8. I a.m met recognize Ms Diana Cohen Altman October 2014 I rebemmber articles Ms Altman about 2 thousand year Jewish history in Azerbaijan .25 thousand Jewish population live in Azerbaijan love peace and solitaridy with Jewish people .Jewish people struggles indipentiends with Azerbaijani people key historic role Also Israel and Azerbaijan very good relations partnerships 2 thousand year historical friendship Azerbaijani and Jewish society armenia betrays Azerbaijani people armenia enemy countrys threats for Azerbaijan armenia occupy forces murdered a lot Azerbaijani citizens 1 million refugees left expelled our home town .

  9. Ms Altman, as “the author” you didn't just write about “Azerbaijan from a cultural perspective” but spend much of the article on Armenia and Armenians. I stand corrected if the Azerbaijani culture perspective is predicated upon spending half one's time denigrating Armenians.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  10. There are several ethnic groups (lazygis, tatars, tatars, talish and so on) and national minorities (russians, armenians, greeks and so on)in Azerbaijan. All are the citizen of the country and have all citizenship rights regardless their nationality/religion/language. Azerbaijan is a land for every human being, but as far as I know Armenia is a homogeneous and Apartheid country in the Caucasus region! There is not Artsakh, there is an occupied Azerbaijani territories-Karabakh!

  11. What a BS article, Azerbaijan first off is one of the worst "Islamic" human rights abusing countries on the planet and second there was no such thing Azerbaijan before 1915 and third those territories being fought for have been Armenian for thousands of years! Most of all the USA support for Israel is from evangelical Christian community, well just wait until the news of Israel selling billions of dollars of weapons to an Islamic country that are being used on the "FIRST" Christian country!

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