Azeri Jews: Centuries of coexistence in Azerbaijan (Jewish Journal)


Originally published in the Jewish Journal, here.  January 10, 2008


«This,» says the guide, a man in his 20s with a round face, a hint of a mustache, beard and very short hair — «this below us is the city of Quba.»

We are standing at the top of a cliff, overlooking an urban development that at first sight looks like any other in this country — bright tin roofs, low-slung buildings, a few cars covered in dust because of the wind, but no commercial signs or logos — and, surprisingly, few mosques for a Muslim Shiite country like Azerbaijan.

Then I see the river that runs through Quba, and in the distance I notice a cluster of distinctive houses. They are more attractive, much larger, and decidedly different compared to others in surrounding areas. None of these houses looks like any other.
«This is where the Jewses [sic] of Quba live,» says the guide, pointing at the group of houses I was looking at. «They are very successful.»

Behind us is a cemetery. While the rest of the group stares at the river and the city, I walk alone toward the cemetery’s iron gates, where I immediately recognize a Mogen David. This gate is not unlike one at the cemetery outside Buenos Aires, where my father is buried, or one in Rishon Letzion, Israel, that contains my ex-father-in-law’s remains, or even the cemetery where my sister rests in L.A.’s Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills. I walk slowly, reading the Russian and Hebrew inscriptions and staring at the photographs of the deceased etched in stone.

«They [the Jews] have the best cars,» continues the guide. «Ferraris, Mercedes. They have them all. Jewses in Quba live very well.» His face portrays satisfaction and pride, and the other members of my group — journalists from Europe and the United States — listen and nod. I am with this group to cover for La Opinión an international conference on the role of the media in the development of tolerance, organized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Not unlike the Jews of Sefarad (Spain) during the First Caliphate, Azerbaijan’s Jewry is interwoven into the fabric of this state, which emerged in August 1991 from the Soviet Union. And despite their minuscule numbers — maybe 12,000 in a population of 8 million — their presence is known and acknowledged, especially that of the Jews of Quba. These Mountain Jews, as they are called, have been living in this area for a very long time, perhaps 2,500 years; they consider themselves the descendants of those Jews exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E., remaining in what is modern day Iran. In the eighth century, when the Muslims from the Arab Peninsula conquered the area, they brought the Jewish tribe, an ally, to the area of Baku to serve as a barrier against the Kazakhs to the north. In 1730, they were officially allowed to put down roots and own property in the Quba province.

In Quba

I have read this and other accounts about the Mountain Jews, and now I am ready to meet them. I am the only Jew in the group. The others seem to sense my emotion and begin taking pictures of us as we approach a small group of congregational leaders. As I reach the group of Azeri Jews, I look at them looking at us and realize, all of a sudden, that these people and I have more in common than anybody else here, and so I step up, and the guide introduces me to the head of the community, and then I say «Sholem Aleichem,» and I also say in Hebrew, «Ani Yehoudi,» and point to myself. We stare at each other, each noting our similarities, and we hug in the middle of a street in Quba, Azerbaijan.

Now I feel part of them. We enter the building, and my «cousin» speaks to me in Azeri, which is translated into English. He is a mathematician, he says. He points to signs on the wall with lists of names, those of Jews who died in the long fight against the Armenians: a few dozen. Like everybody else on our trip, he speaks of the allegiance to President Ilham Aliyev, with special attention to the memory of his father, the late President Heydar Aliyev.

While 93 percent of the population is Muslim, the constitution mandates no state religion, a legacy from the former Soviet Union. The residents wear Western clothes, and in the official meals we were offered throughout the trip, vodka, wine and beer were served. Ethnically, I cannot differentiate between Azeris and Mountain Jews. But Yevda Abramov, the Jewish member of the Parliament representing rural Quba, whom I met in Baku, explains these differences.

«The Jewish community,» Abramov says, «differs from the rest of the population in education and lifestyle. We are very educated and operate businesses. We kept the Persian language,» referring to the Jewish version of the dialect Tat, «but 25 percent of the words we use are in Hebrew.»

The MP

Like almost everything else in Baku, the Parliament building is undergoing massive additions and renovations but will no doubt maintain its unmistakable Soviet-era character — solemn, impersonal, with massive amounts of concrete, small doors and an oversized walkway. Abramov’s office is a small room, devoid of decorations, on the building’s fifth floor.
«I ran against 17 other candidates of my own party» (the ruling New Azeri Party), Abramov states. «I won over all of them, and an international agency was watching the election. This is a democracy.»

In Quba, Abramov was a teacher, a principal and a rural organizer. «Today Quba is not unlike any other Jewish community,» he tells my translator, who then speaks to me in Spanish. «Our rabbi, butcher, mohel, chazzan — all were educated in Israel.»

Since the Helsinki Accords of 1972, the Jews of Azerbaijan have been exiting the country in large numbers, mainly going to Israel, where they number more than 50,000. Since most of the emigrants were Ashkenazis from Baku, the Mountain Jews remained here, as the majority of the community in the country. Abramov, a bulky man with a prominent mustache, discusses the successes of Jews in Azerbaijan, mostly in holding government positions. There are some well-known Azeri artists who are Jewish. According to him, his country is a model for religious liberty in the world, «especially compared to Armenia,» he emphasizes, where «there are not even 10 Jewish families today.»

While the country keeps a remarkable pace of development and focuses on very rapid urban construction, exploitation of its huge oil reserves and the expansion of the apparatus of the state, its main concern is the conflict with Armenia. My hosts took me to a «recently discovered mass grave» — a horrific pile of bones at the end of a soccer field in a small town. These are, they claimed, the remains of hundreds of Azeris slaughtered by Armenians in 1918. At the same time Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire.

Abramov supports the official line. «If there is a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan,» Abramov says, «many Jews will die. Please, clarify that to the world. In the war for Karabakh, the first fallen hero was Jewish. Send the message.»

Between 1992 and 1994, the war between the two new countries left 30,000 dead and 800,000 refugees, almost all of them Azeris. Armenia, a country of less than 2 million, compared to 8 million of Azerbaijan, conquered the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, about 16 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan. One of the refugees was Emin Alesgerov, my translator. «I lived there with my grandparents; I was 7 years old, and they told us to leave. My grandparents still want to go back,» he told me.

The conflict is central to the government’s policies. Idahav Orijov, minister of religious affairs, becomes emotional describing the war. He stands by a map on the wall in his office and shows me a spot that represents his hometown in the area controlled by Armenia. Then he describes a series of settlements destroyed by the conquerors. Nazim Ibrahimov, minister of the diaspora — a population he put at 50 million (35 in Lower Azerbaijan, in Iran) in 36 countries — tells me about the need to organize that diaspora «like the Jews, the Italians, the Irish of the United States did,» to counter the influence of the Armenian diaspora.

Recovering the lost territory is considered the supreme goal of the state. To gain support for their cause, they resort to every imaginable resource, including an alleged strategic alliance with Turkey, a main ally, and Israel, with which they established diplomatic relations in April 1992. When I went to meet the head of the embassy in Baku I found an old friend.

The Ambassador

Arthur Lenk, a native of New Jersey, served as Israeli consul for communications and public affairs in Los Angeles between 1998 and 2000. We had met on several occasions back then, as the consulate implemented a distinctive process of recognizing the increasing importance of the Latino community in the United States. Then he returned to other assignments in Israel, and in September 2005 he submitted his credentials in Azerbaijan.

Now we are looking at each other, smiling and speaking Hebrew, surrounded by other Israelis and Azeris — and a sizable contingent of security agents. He invited me to the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, the 59th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Lenk says that «the most interesting thing I found here is the human link, the fact that there is a sizable Jewish community that lives as brothers and partners, as part of a Muslim country. This is not always understood in the world and is vital for Israel.

«While there are those who speak in terms of a clash of civilizations, in Azerbaijan they talk about the other Islam, the moderate. Their relationship with Israel, in business, energy and regional interests, is a compelling example of tolerance and coexistence,» Lenk says. «They are an important partner of Israel; here, we buy one-sixth of our oil.»

All together, that’s more than a billion dollars every year. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, Israel sells to Azerbaijan «battlefield aviation, artillery, antitank, and anti-infantry weapons.» The Washington Institute for Middle East Policy includes in Israel’s involvement «training for Azerbaijani security and intelligence services, as well as security for the Azerbaijani president during his foreign visits.»

While as a diplomat he emphasizes bilateral collaboration, Lenk cannot ignore the fact that there is still no Azeri embassy in Israel.

«It is true, but this is not our decision, and they must consider it in the perspective of their own interest. I try to convince my Azeri friends that the presence of Israel serves their own goals.»

In the hall of the Hyatt-Regency, Jewish youth sing the national anthem of Azerbaijan and «Hatikvah.» I stand close to Lenk — we sing too. I returned home to Los Angeles at the end of April. Since then, Azerbaijan never disappeared entirely from the news; first were stories about imprisoned journalists that sent an image of an authoritarian regime. Then, on Nov. 6, Azerbaijan announced that it foiled an attack by Wahabi extremists aided by Al Qaeda on the U.S. Embassy. Baku tries to dispel an insistent rumor about military cooperation with the United States and Israel that would allegedly include providing an air base for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. In August, President Aliyev made an urgent trip to Tehran to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, six days after the visit to Baku by Israel’s transportation minister Avidgor Lieberman.

This area is in turmoil and under tremendous pressure for change and development. In this process, the Jews of Azerbaijan, Quba dwellers, the Mountain Jews who claim to have arrived 2,500 years ago to the area, are patient witnesses as well as participants. Gabriel Lerner has worked in various editorial positions for La Opinion, the largest Spanish- language newspaper in the United States, since 1999, covering local, national and international news. A native of Buenos Aires, he lived in Israel for more than 25 years and has resided in Los Angeles since 1989. He founded a publishing company in Israel and a literary magazine in Spanish. He has written several books and is currently researching the immigration protests of 2006 in Los Angeles.