Photo Credit: Mindy Stein
Mindy Stein with Ambassador Elin Suleymanov

I was fortunate to have been invited to the Chanukah party co-hosted in Washington by the country of Azerbaijan and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations.

Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country, strategically located (bordering both Iran and Russia), that has developed a close relationship with Israel. It has purchased nearly five billion dollars’ worth of defense equipment from Israel and is Israel’s largest oil supplier.

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My first encounter with Azerbaijan took place three years ago when its ambassador to the U.S., Elin Suleymanov, came to the Presidents Conference to meet with us – a meeting I attended as a representative of Emunah of America. Conference representatives subsequently received an invitation to attend a reception in Washington for the Republic Day of Azerbaijan.

I thought it was important to show our support for a country that is not only strategically important but that serves as a model of diversity and tolerance – and friendship with the United States and Israel.

I traveled to Washington for that reception, along with Gerald Platt and Ken Abramowitz, both of the American Friends of Likud. The room was filled with about 500 people including military personnel, congressmen, and people in Arab garb from Saudi Arabia and other Mideast countries.

As far as I knew, Gerry, Ken, and I were the only Jews in the room. Ambassador Suleymanov greeted the three of us warmly, and when he addressed the crowd, he thanked everyone for coming, including ” my Jewish friends. ” Needless to say, we were very moved and happy we’d made the trip.

In light of that earlier experience, and because of the increasingly close relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel, I had no doubt that the right thing to do was to once again travel to Washington to attend the Chanukah party. I wanted to show my support for (and encourage) the warm relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel, which was one of the goals of the Presidents Conference in co-hosting the party.

When I spoke to Ambassador Suleymanov and his wife, I told them we pray that the warm relationship and mutual economic cooperation between Azerbaijan, the United States, and Israel will grow ever stronger and that Azerbaijan will continue to use its influence to help foster peace and further development in the region.

I also attended the party to show my support for the Presidents Conference itself, which was being criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) by some of its own member organizations for holding the event in a Trump hotel.

The Conference had asked Ambassador Suleymanov to rent a room near the White House, so that those who were attending the Chanukah party there could participate in both events. The only other stipulation the Conference made was that the food be kosher. The Ambassador rented the room at the Trump International Hotel simply because it was the best practical solution.

At the party, Presidents Conference Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein presented commemorative menorahs to the ambassadors of 13 countries, including seven with Muslim majorities, as well as the chief of the PLO delegation in Washington, Maen Areikat, to thank them for their assistance in helping put out last month’s devastating forest fires in Israel.

After the speeches and photo-ops were over, I took the opportunity to approach Mr. Areikat. I told him that hopefully the evening’s events were an important overture and a sign that peace could eventually be achieved.

He replied, “When your Prime Minister Netanyahu recognizes his immediate neighbors like he recognizes Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, there can be peace.”

I responded that I know there could be peace if they would just utter the sentence “We recognize Israel as a Jewish state. ” Mr. Areikat hesitated and then said: “We can say that after an agreement is signed. ” And he told me he liked my dress.

We exchanged cards, and I intend to keep in touch with him to see if we can have any further dialogue.

The beauty and essence of the evening can be gleaned from the speeches by Mr. Hoenlein, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, and Ambassador Suleymanov. A few excerpts:

Malcolm Hoenlein: “We are indebted to the people who are here because there is no greater demonstration that all of the charges and all of the predictions of Israel’s isolation were answered when Israel faced the disaster of the fires. Countries came immediately…to demonstrate that there is a common humanity, just as Israel responds first and foremost wherever there is a tragedy, whether in Nepal, whether in Haiti….

“This is really the test. We understand the political machinations. People have to say things and do things, but this is really the bottom line, that we have common aspirations; we have common hopes, and anyone who cares about their children and grandchildren, about the future of the world, shares in those hopes and aspirations…”

Ambassador Suleymanov: “We…hope to be able to be a friend for Israel and a friend for the Jewish people among the Muslim nations.… [W]e want to be able to help Jews and Palestinians find points for agreement, to come together to work together, and ultimately we hope that will help to resolve the longstanding conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We want people to talk to each other.”

Ambassador Dermer: “Not only can we light candles together, we can douse flames together, and the fact that all of you represent countries who in our hour of need were there for us, is deeply appreciated.”

The words spoken by these three men should be a lesson not only for the nations of the world but also for us Jews. The Presidents Conference – especially Malcolm Hoenlein, who devotes his days and nights to the benefit of Jews everywhere – deserves kudos and our continued support for hosting the event and for all their wonderful work on behalf of Klal Yisrael.

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Mindy Stein is honorary national president and chairman of the board of Emunah of America.