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

Levana Zamir, an Egyptian Jewish refugee, will never forget the day that her piano was auctioned off by the Egyptian government.  Her piano was taken away from her because she was misfortunate enough to be born Jewish in Egypt, right before the mass expulsion of Jews from the Arab world and Iran. Upon her expulsion from Egypt, she was never able to see her piano again.  To date, it is unsafe for her as a Jewish woman to live in Egypt.  Thus, she remains in Israel, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.

Similarly, in Vank in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, there is a Number Plates Wall, which memorializes all of the cars that were taken from the Azerbaijani internally displaced refugees who were forced to flee the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the 1990’s.  Until relatively recently, the Azerbaijani internally displaced citizens were not able to return to their homes.  As the State of Israel this week commemorated the mass expulsion of Jews from the Arab world and Iran, it is important to remember the many parallels between the Mizrahi and Azerbaijani refugee experience.


Salahov Elkhan, an Azerbaijani refugee originally from Kalbajar, recalled: “On a cold, frosty day, we had to leave our house and cross the steep passes of Dalidag on foot. We could not take anything from our house except the clothes we were wearing. We had to leave our house and all our property.  Otherwise, the Armenians could have killed us or taken us hostage. My older brother Yaver opened the barn door and took out the sheep and cattle and brought them to the haystack so that they would not starve …It is as if life were dying out, as if hours and minutes were left until the end of the world. Soon, no one will be here.  Everyone will disappear.  Only animals will remain in this village.”

Gazanfar Huseyn, a refugee from Lachin, has dreamed of returning to the home he was displaced forcefully from for years: “The first thing I will do in Lachin will be to restore the destroyed graves of my father, grandfather and grandmother, which were destroyed by vandals. Then, I will repair the house that I built at the foot of the mountain in Lachin.”

Samir Mammadov, a descendent of an Azerbaijani internally displaced refugee, recalled how the trauma of being forced from one’s home affected more than one generation: “I remember my parents telling me that we don’t belong here (back then we temporarily resided in Goranboy district). They were telling me that soon we will return home and live happily there. Unfortunately, it took more than 27 years for that dream to come true.”

Of course, the atrocities committed by Armenians against Azerbaijanis do not end there. In addition to expelling Azerbaijanis from their historical lands, they wiped out ancient cities such as Agdam and Jabrayil. This is an attempt to erase the history of a nation.

According to 2019 data and the official statistics, 1.2 million or 12.4% of the Azerbaijani population are refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Even if every 122 people of the world is a refugee and IDP, in Azerbaijan, every 8 individual lives the life of a refugee and IDP.

In this sense, we must not forget the Azerbaijanis expelled from Armenia. At the end of the 20th century, about 250,000 Azerbaijanis were forcibly deported from Armenia. Mass deportation of Azerbaijanis is Armenia’s genocidal policy. They continued this policy in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.

For many years, Azerbaijanis have been working outside the country to attract the attention of world powers to this issue. For example, the events held by the representatives of the Azerbaijani Diaspora in Maine and Berlin on the occasion of World Refugee Day. In particular, at the event in Berlin, representatives of the State Committee on Working with the Diaspora spoke about the problem of refugees and internally displaced persons, which has existed in the history of Azerbaijan for more than 200 years, and revealed shocking facts and figures.

The Jewish refugees from the Arab world very much can sympathize with their plight.  In a recent webinar, MK Michal Kutler Kunch proclaimed: “I am the granddaughter of Iraqi immigrants.  My Grandpa Moshe left Iraq in 1929 and went back slowly for his family.  He made his way to Israel on his own and made it in Israel on his own, with all kinds of challenging trials and tribulations as an Iraqi young man.  Instead of becoming a teacher as a learned man, he was a tailor till the day that he died.”

Similarly, Ellie Coharim, the Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the US State Department, added: “I was born in Iran to a Jewish family in the 1970’s in the Shah’s time.  The Iranian Jewish community is one of the most ancient in the world.  We date from the First Temple period, predating both the rise of Christianity and Islam.  We lived in Iran for thousands of years in ancient Persia and later Iran.  There were times where we did well, depending on the ruler.  But there were also times where we withstood anti-Semitism, pogroms, forced conversions, rapes and so on.  Throughout these thousands of years, Persian Jews persisted.  You fast forward to 1979 with the rise of Khomeini and unfortunately, it concurred with a rise of anti-Semitism.   Many of us felt a threat to our lives.  My father was threatened to be reported as a Zionist spy.  So, my family had to flee the country together with 75,000 other Jews at the time.   At this time, the regime executed the head of the Jewish community Mr. Habib Elghanian, whom we will never forget.”

In the webinar, both MK Kutler Kunsh and Coharim stressed the importance of utilizing the Abraham Accords to bring about a new reality in the greater Middle East region.  As Coharim emphasized, “You are either on the side of peace and coexistence, and advancing a beautiful future for all of our children and grandchildren or you are on the side of the Iranian regime, the terrorists in essence, who want to get in the way of peace.  That is the moment that we are in.   I believe that Mizrahi Jews and Persian Jews can play a special role.  We have a cultural understanding.  We have so much in common.   The culture, the food, the warmth of personality if I may say that.  We understand each other.  It is like cousins getting together after a forced exile.”

Dr. Seth Frantzman, Founder and Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, added: “There is a lot of hope in the region over the last two years.  There has been a huge attempt to recognize the Jewish past.”  He noted that in one of his trips to Iraqi Kurdistan, he was hugged by the locals, even though they knew that he was Jewish.  He noted that it was not like that in the past, when he used to have to hide the fact that he was Jewish.

In recent days, sources from Azerbaijan relate that they hope for a more peaceful and prosperous future.  For more than 20 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has appeared as the main ally of the Armenia. Since Iran recognized Armenia’s independence on December 25, 1991, the two countries have strengthened their political relationship on many occasions. We saw the essence of these relations in the Karabakh war in the 1990s. At the same time, the defeat of Armenia in the Second Karabakh War was also a major blow to the Islamic Republic of Iran, for Iran will no longer be able to utilize the Nagorno-Karabakh region to bypass sanctions and will not be able to reach Armenia, one of their proxies, without Russian and Azerbaijani permission.   According to various reports, this has caused the mullah’s regime to panic.  Azerbaijan, as a strategic ally of Israel, thus seeks to expand its ties with the Jewish state in the wake of the Abraham Accords and to benefit from this atmosphere of peaceful tolerance in the region.  Thus, in honor of this special occasion, may the trauma experienced both by Mizrahi and Azerbaijani refugees be utilized to build a brighter future in the Middle East.


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Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and an Israel-based journalist. She is the author of "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media."