March 3, 2024
Inter-Religious Tolerance and Solidarity: Jews in Azerbaijan
Caucasus News Opinion

Inter-Religious Tolerance and Solidarity: Jews in Azerbaijan

 By Fidan Ismayılzada, Adviser of International Relations Department of SCRA

Azerbaijan combines East and West, north and South and made a unique contribution to the development of humanity, its culture and heritage. Azerbaijan absorbed all the best historical path of human development. Therefore, it’s very important to know about this country and learn its history, culture, and contribution to the development of the world civilization. From the fourth century BC to the seventh AD it was an important center of Zoroastrianism. Starting from the first and second centuries AD, Christianity was brought to the north of Azerbaijan. In the seventh century Islam was introduced by Arab conquerors. We can say that Azerbaijan became the center of cultural diversity after it became part of the Silk Roads. 

The Silk Roads – caravan ways from China to Europe – played an important role in the intercultural exchange in the region. In the separate periods of the history, Heathenism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions were spread in the country and the moral culture of the people evolved through a close interaction among religious believers. Azerbaijan is one of the most poly-ethnic and poly-confessional countries in the world where national policy is defined and carried out in the principles of traditional tolerance and harmonic coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups and minorities. Protecting and promoting ethnic and cultural diversity, multiculturalism, tolerant environment in Azerbaijan has been taken as one of the main directions of the state policy and the formation of the legislative base in the field of religion. The freedom of conscience of ethnic groups living together in harmony from the ancient times in Azerbaijan and tolerance issues was paid attention in the formulation of the basis for policy and legal framework on the state-religion relation, the law of freedom of conscience as well as drafting amendments to existing legislation. The main goal is to strengthen the religious tolerance tradition which is the great accomplishment of people living in harmony in Azerbaijan from the ancient times to the present day.

Azerbaijan is a multi-confessional and multinational country. Azerbaijani is one of a few states in the world in which multiculturalism is a state policy. The state has been playing a leading role in conducting this policy, in observing its principles, in pursuing the policy of tolerance and non-discrimination. With the aim to prevent disintegrative processes in the society the Azerbaijani state does its best the policy of multiculturalism to serve to sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic development, and national security of the country.

In the separate periods of the history, Heathenism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions were spread in the country and the moral culture of the people evolved through a close interaction among religious believers.

The history of Jewish settlement roots dates back to 2600 years ago in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan people are in a good relationship with Jewish people that intermingle with the local people and even had family ties with them in the country for centuries. The Azerbaijani and Jewish peoples have a long tradition of tolerance and interaction. 

Currently, Jews are presented by three communities, which are Mountain Jews, Georgian Jews and European Jews (Ashkenazi). After Azerbaijan gained its independence, a new stage began in the life of national minorities, as well as Jews in our country. To support at the state level, the protection of the rights and freedom of national minorities, their culture, development of their language opened new opportunities in front of Jewish communities. After state registration of these communities, they freely function, new places of worship, synagogues are opened and national ceremonies and holidays are held. At present, 7 synagogues function in Guba and Oghuz cities, including the capital Baku. Six of them are Mountain Jews and one refers to European and Georgian Jews. There was opened “Smirat a-Sem” college for Jewish children in “Red Settlement” in Guba region where Mountain Jews live compactly after Isrel. Israeli instructors teach Jewish national traditions and customs here. The world’s first Museum of the History and Culture of Mountain Jews opened in the Red Settlement, in order to preserve the Juhury language, customs, unique cuisine, and the Mountain Jewish heritage rooted in the town. 

World’s first Mountain Jews Museum in Azerbaijan

In October 2010, the 200 years old synagogue of Mountain Jews religious community after thoroughly restoration was solemnly opened. On October 27, 2010 for the Jewish community in Baku was built a new synagogue on the initiative and with support of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the synagogue was opened for believers on April 5, 2011.

“Georgian Jews” in Azerbaijan are the representatives of Jewish Diaspora that reside in Georgia from ancient times. In subsequent years some part of them moved to Azerbaijan and mainly settled in Baku. Georgian Jews celebrate their national and religious holidays without any interruption, their children study as equal as citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Each year from 1995, the president of the country congratulates Jewish people on the occasion of Jewish New Year which is called “Rosh Hashanah”. The foundation of this tradition was laid by the National Leader Heydar Aliyev and today the President Ilham Aliyev successfully continues this tradition. In Azerbaijan the Holocaust is commemorated as genocide that is subject to new Jews by the fascism regime during World War II. Every year on the occasion of this day, the head of the country Ilham Aliyev addresses appeals to Jewish community of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Another Jewish community, European Jews (Ashkenazi) came to Azerbaijan, mainly in the second half of the nineteenth century during the development of the oil industry. There were architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and other representatives of different professions among intellectual European Jews coming to Baku. In 1897, nearly 2500 Jews lived in Baku and most of them were European Jews. In 1913, this number rose to about ten thousand. There was built a synagogue in Baku in 1910 as in other Jewish communities, and this was not only a place of worship but also an educational center for European Jews. There were special Jewish schools that are called “Yeshiva” in which holy books were taught as “Torah”, “Talmud”, and “Mishnah” in the city. Moreover, there were opened special gymnasium and schools for Jewish girls. 

Historically, Azerbaijani people had a positive attitude to the Jews living here, even they did not have alien rampant attitude in the period of anti-Semitism in the world. Today the Ashkinazi live in a remote environment from anti- Semitism together other Jews. Many years ago these Jews came to Azerbaijan to work, then they became worthy citizens for our country and the Republic of Azerbaijan became the eternal Home for them. Jews  who live in the Republic of Azerbaijan are active in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the country. At present, there are memorial plaques in the buildings where Nobel Prize winner physicist Lev Landau, honored doctor of the republic Solomon Gusman, national hero Albert Agarunov who voluntarily enlisted in the Azerbaijani Army in 1991 and fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, defending the territorial integrity of his homeland – Azerbaijan against invasion and aggression by Armenia and others lived here.

As well as in second Karabakh War – Patriotic War lasted 44 days like all citizens of Azerbaijan, the Jews also went to the front as a volunteer immediately after the start of the war in 2020 from September 27 till November 10, and activly participated in the liberation of their motherland alongside with the muslims and christians.

Jewish communities are considered as the most active religious communities of the Republic of Azerbaijan. There are AzerbaijaniIsraeli Friendship center, the “Sochnut” Jewish agency, “Joint”,  committees and foundations such as “Vaad L’hatzolas Nichei Yisroel” that deal with protection and preservation of jewish traditions, religious schools-yeshivas, cultural centers of jewish communities, woman society “Yeva” and other nongovernmental organizations in the republic. For instance, “Vaad L’hatzolas Nichei Yisroel” founded the Jewish School in Baku is located as a separate part of a governmental local school #46, and it functions as part of it for Jewish children.

Additionally, Hebrew language is taught at the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology. In 1990, Azerbaijani-Israeli cultural relations society was established and this society began to publish newspapers with “Az-Iz” abbreviation. 

Since 1991 the diplomatic relations were established between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the state of Israel and since then these relations are developing rapidly. All necessary conditions are created in order to worship at a high level for European Jews. Now, two synagogues in Baku, three of them in Guba and two more synagogues are available for believers. The synagogue of European and Georgian Jews (Baku city, Nasimi district, Dilara Aliyeva str., 171) that was opened on March 9, 2003 in the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Baku city is considered one of the largest synagogues in Europe for its grandeur. Moreover, “Chabad Ohr Avner” Jewish education center was opened on October 4, 2010 in Ahmadli settlement of Baku with the financial support of “Heydar Aliyev” Foundation. At the opening of the center, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar and other senior officials attended. 

Jews have been living in Azerbaijan for more than 2,600 years. Throughout this period, they have been fully part of society. Unlike many other countries in the world, there is no discrimination, social hostility or organized manifestation of anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan. High level of tolerance in society prevails and Jews obviously benefit from it. For the most part, the Jewish community has enjoyed strong relations with the government. Azerbaijan and Israel have had diplomatic relations since 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence. Nowadays friendly relations between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Israel are built on centuries of shared Jewish-Azerbaijani existence.It should be noted that Azerbaijan and Israel share resources, technology, and a strong partnership against international terrorism, which resulted in their strong cooperation in the face of Armenian aggression.

In Azerbaijan, teaching about the Holocaust is part of mandatory public school curriculum. Hayat Bilgisi (World Vision or Understanding the World) is an Azerbaijan mandatory public school book containing sections about the absolute necessity to respect and understand other cultures and religions. The book specifically deals with the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jewish people, teaching Azerbaijani youth that “the Holocaust against the Jewish people was the largest ever genocide committed against a people, solely because of their ethnicity.” Additionally, it deals with negative phenomenon, such as racism and intolerance. In that section of “Culture and Tolerance”, Judaism, along with other religions and cultures, is explained to school children. At the result of the learning this section, Azerbaijani students to possess the moral obligation to respect others and promote the understanding of multiculturalism.

In a world where religion sometimes appears to be a force of division, Azerbaijan remains an Oasis of Inter-religious tolerance.  In Azerbaijan, safety and stability were easily achieved. As mentioned above, Azerbaijan’s state policy on religions reflects the will of the people and the atmosphere created by its help provide for representatives of diverse ethnic minorities to feel comfortable within the Azerbaijani territory.

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