Nicholas Castillo: Examining the Historical and Contemporary Role of Azerbaijani Jews
The South Caucasus region has historically been home to a varied Jewish population. The two largest historic Jewish communities have existed in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Yet of the two populations, the case of Azerbaijan stands out for two reasons. Firstly, in contrast to Georgia where Jews assimilated linguistically and culturally, Azerbaijani Jews often maintained separate cultural spheres. Second, while Georgia and the state of Israel have apathetic relations, Azerbaijani-Israeli ties have blossomed. Israel, after Turkey, is perhaps Azerbaijan's closest ally - a feat made all the more impressive given Azerbaijan’s majority Shia Muslim population. For these two reasons, the Jewish experience in Azerbaijan is deserving of particular attention. This paper will examine the Azerbaijani Jews, both Gorsky and Ashkenazi, through three lenses: first a broad historical one, second examining the role of Azerbaijani Jews as intermediaries between Azerbaijan and the broader Jewish community, and lastly attempting to understand the extent to which the ties between Israel and Azerbaijan can be attributed to Azerbaijani Jews.
History of the Azerbaijani Jews
Sources indicate a Jewish presence in contemporary Azerbaijan as far back as the sixth century B.C. However, the two most significant Jewish communities in Azeri history only arrived starting in the 17th century. The first of these communities primarily arrived from Safavid Persia. In the 17th century, the Jews of Persia experienced waves of persecution and forced conversion, leading many to resettle in what was then the Quba Khanate, present day northeastern Azerbaijan. This community would come to form the basis of the Gorsky Jews, a group distinct to Azerbaijan and Dagestan. Given their shared background in the Persian world and being geographically centered around Quba, this would be the largest group of Jews in the South Caucasus to preserve a distinct identity. In contrast to their Georgian Jewish and Azerbaijani Ashkenazi counterparts, Gorsky Jews speak a distinct language: Judeo-Tat, a dialect of Persian. Today, the language is endangered at anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 speakers worldwide, though the total Gorsky community likely numbers around 200,000. The Gorsky Jews led an economically vibrant lifestyle, specializing in wine production, a field prohibited to Muslims. By the 19th century, two Gorsky families had risen to become local tycoons by exporting wine to Russian and Western markets.
The later development of an Azerbaijani Ashkenazi community occurred alongside the development of the oil industry in Baku. In contrast to the anti-semitic Slavic regions of the Tsarist empire, Baku was not only a socially liberal environment, but one with ample economic opportunity. A small Ashkenazi community arrived in the early 19th century and expanded over the course of the century. In 1832, a census found a total of 2,154 Ashkenazi Jews in Baku. By 1913, the community had grown to 9,689, nearly five percent of the city's total population. Like their Gosky counterparts, the Ashkenazi Jews of Baku flourished economically as financiers and bureaucrats within the growing oil industry. Despite their small size, the community played an outsized role in Baku’s economic life. The Landaus family best exemplifies the Ashkenazi community of Baku. An Ashkenazi family that had fled the Kiev pogrom of 1905, they became a prominent family in Baku’s social and economic scene, specializing in engineering, oil, and medicine.
Throughout the Soviet period, both the Gorsky and Ashkenazi Jews retained good relations with their neighbors. Baku served as a place of safety for Jewish refugees during the 1920s, with Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the anti-semitic violence of the Russian Civil War and Gorsky Jews fleeing Dagestani pogroms in 1926 and 1929. The increased anti-semitism across much of the Slavic Soviet Union during the post-World War Two period was not replicated in the Azeri SSR. Instead, Ashkenazi Jews retained high status in Baku society. There is also no evidence of the kind of academic discrimination against any Jews, Gorsky or Ashkenazi, that was commonplace throughout the Slavic SSRs.
In determining the reason for the absence of anti-semitism in Azerbaijan, examining the geography and human geography of the territory is important. What is today Azerbaijan had served as a historic cultural crossroads with Byzantine, Slavic, Persian, Arab, Mongol, and indigenous influences all shaping the territory’s cultural history. Researchers have pointed to this history of multiculturalism as one possible explanation for greater tolerance within Azerbaijan. There are also of course certain flukes of history that likely laid the cultural foundations for the acceptance of Jews, for instance the tolerant attitudes professed by medieval Azerbaijani leaders. Moreover, the Jewish community in Azerbaijan remained small throughout its history, and shrank at times. A 1952 census only found 9,716 Ashkenazi Jews and 13,000 Gorsky Jews. Therefore, Jews likely simply attracted less attention than other parts of the Soviet Union, where Jews could make up far greater shares of a local population.
The Azerbaijani Jewish Community's Role Connecting Azerbaijan to the World Jewish Community and The State of Israel
With the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, much of Azerbaijan's Jewish community left for Israel fleeing an economy in freefall as well as the instability brought on by the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. As of 2016, roughly 30,000 Jews remained in Azerbaijan compared to roughly 100,000 Azerbaijani Jews in Israel. Many have however maintained economic, familial, and cultural connections to Azerbaijan. Both within Azerbaijan and Israel, Azerbaijani Jews have frequently functioned as both cultural ambassadors and poster children for their original country.
The Azerbaijani Jewish community has been involved in the broader Jewish world for over a century. Ties between the state of Israel and Azerbaijani Jews go back to before the formal establishment of the state in 1948. A contingent of Gorsky Jews took part at the landmark Zionist Congress of 1898. Through the early 1900s, Zionist writing was published in Azerbaijan, in Russian aswell as Judeo-Tat. During The 1920s, a total of 200 Azerbaijani Jewish families relocated to Palestine. While Jewish political activities were suppressed by the Soviets beginning in 1922, the loosening of restrictions during the twilight years of the USSR allowed
for Jewish political mobilization and the rebuilding of ties from within Azerbaijan to the broader Jewish world.
Today Azerbaijani Jews within Azerbaijan promote and treasure their connection to Israel, something their Israeli counterparts reciprocate. Baku boasts a number of active synagogues and secular Jewish institutions. These include an Azerbaijan-Israel Friendship Organization, a Jewish Women’s Organization, and several Jewish schools. While these schools are largely secular, they are described as having a “strong nationalist and Zionist ethos.” Many Jewish institutions - schools, community centers, and children’s camps - are run by American and Israeli Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency for Israel. These organizations receive visible support from the highest echelons of Azeri society, evidenced by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s strong track record of personally meeting with Jewish American delegations when they visit Baku. These connections are reciprocated within Israel, where there is a sense of patriotic energy among Azerbaijani Jews on par with their former Azeri Muslim neighbors. Azerbaijani synagogues routinely display Azerbaijani flags and portraits of community members who serve in Azerbaijan’s military. Small protests by the Azerbaijani community in Israel are also common, and were especially present during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
The impact of this community’s public presence can be seen in Jewish media outlets, who routinely publish articles on Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani Jews. For some outlets, these articles are standard exploratory pieces focusing on Jewish relations with Azerbaijan, with the JTA publishing four such pieces in 2021 as of July. While these articles are politically neutral, they nevertheless aid in raising the profile of Azerbaijan. Other publications are clear attempts at improving public relations for the South Caucasus country. Exemplifying this, the writer Arye Gut - published six times in the Jerusalem Post in 2020 - frequently writes lovingly of Azerbaijan in Jewish publications. His writings border on the propagandistic, boasting in one article that the autocratic Aliyev has “earned the respect of Israeli society and the Jewish community in other states of the world for his commitment to secularism, multiculturalism and tolerance.” In that article, Gut draws on Azerbaijan’s history of tolerance to argue for closer Azerbaijani-Israeli ties and, in the Jewish read publication, explicity compares the contemporary Armenian government to a modern Nazi regime.
Assessing the Impact of the Azerbaijani Jews on Israeli-Azerbaijani Relations
Many public figures have credited the Azerbaijani Jewish community and its good experiences in Azerbaijan as the basis of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations. President Aliyev has routinely drawn upon his county’s legacy of welcoming Jews when speaking in Israel and with Jewish foreigners arriving in Azerbaijan. Speaking in 2000 at the Israeli embassy in Baku, Aliyev stated “the friendship between Azerbaijan and Israel has deep roots. For centuries Jews lived continuously in Azerbaijan as equal citizens. Azerbaijanis never consider them foreigners.” Years later, Aliyev reaffirmed this idea during a 2016 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing the Azerbaijani Jewish community as a “great factor in our bilateral relations.” Prime Minister Netanjyahu responded in agreement, referring to Azerbaijani Jews as a “bridge between our nations.”
However, while there truly is a remarkable history of Jewish acceptance in Azerbaijan, these figures are largely exaggerating the role played by this community in shaping Israeli-Azerbaijani relations. In truth, the Azerbaijani Jews play a small role in shaping either economic or political ties.
Economically there are strong ties between Israel and Azerbaijan. Between 2000 and 2005, Israel went from Azerbaijan’s tenth largest trading partner to its fifth largest. But the relationship is dominated not by firms owned or staffed by Azerbaijani Jews who put their cultural background to use, but rather by typical Israeli and Azerbaijani firms. The Israeli companies with the largest presence in Azerbaijan are large pre-established companies, like the telecommunications company Bezeq. There is little evidence that Azerbaijani Jews have driven this increased economic interconnection. From the Azerbaijani perspective, there is a natural interest in having access to quality goods and services from Israel. For the Israelis, there is an equally predictable interest in access to Azerbaijan’s oil reserves and markets.
Azerbaijan and Israel’s political affinity for one another is the result of realpolitik much more than any affinity based on Azerbaijan’s lack of anti-semitism. Israeli-Azeri relations originated in Israel’s desire to gather allies in the Caucasus/Caspian Sea region and Azerbaijan’s interest in distancing itself from the anti-Western world and establishing a post-Soviet foreign policy. The relationship has then matured from there on the basis of shared military interest. Israel and Israeli firms began supplying Azerbaijan with weapons after Azerbaijan's loss in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. In return for these sales, Israel has an ally bordering states Israel sees as regional competitors, if not enemies: Turkey and Iran. There is a mutual interest between Israel and Azerbaijan in curtailing Iran in particular. For Israel, the Islamic Republic is seen as an existential threat. For the largely secular Azerbaijanis, Iran’s regional support for Islamism, refusal to recognize Azerbaijani claims to the oil and gas reserves in the Caspian, and mistreatment of it’s own Azeri population makes it a hostile actor. Likewise, the two states have shared interest in countering radical Sunni Jihadism, with Israel facing threats from Arab and Palestinian Jihadists and Azerbaijan facing threats of terrorism from Chechnya and Dagestan.
There is a cultural component underlying Azeri-Israeli relations. However, it is not the role played by Azerbaijan Jews. Rather, both states share a mutual view of themselves as small societies facing eternally hostile environments on all sides: Arabs in the case of Israel (though in a physic scene this is connected to the larger history of anti-semitism as well) and Armenians, Russians, and Iranians in the case of Azerbaijan. Notions of siege define the popular consciousnesses of both peoples, leading to a shared sense of urgent pragmatism for both states’ foreign policies. Eitan Naeh, former Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan, put it well in 2002, saying “Countries that don’t have too many friends find each other.” A historic friendship between Azerbaijani Jews and Azeri Muslims does play a role in creating a baseline familiarity, but the heart of the relationship is always in relation to geopolitical interest. Describing the connection between popular consciousness and political interest in the Azerbaijani-Israeli relationship, scholar Alexander Murinson writes “the collective memory of a shared existence between Azerbaijanis and Jews for many centuries reinforces rational “realpolitik” calculations and geopolitical perceptions of Azerbaijani-Israeli common interest.”
The Jews of Azerbaijan have had a unique experience. Unlike most other segments of the Jewish people, they have not experienced state sanctioned anti-semitism within living memory. While experiences of anti-semititsm are foundational to many Jewish communities, Azerbaijani Jews have almost the opposite phenomenon, with attachment to Azerbaijan being a foundational element of their identity. This has allowed them to play a role as ambassadors between world Jewry and Azerbaijan. However, the economic and political implications of this role have been minimal. The great cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel should be seen not as a special outgrowth of the high social status of Azerbaijani Jews, but rather as the natural conclusion to geopolitical realities facing the two states.
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