311_Azerbaijan, Aliyev and Leviev.
(photo credit: Tal Rabina)
BAKU, Azerbaijan – About 200 people, including Azerbaijani President Ilhem
Aliyev, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and businessman Lev Leviev, gathered in
the capital of this moderate Muslim country just north of Iran on Monday for the
inauguration of the new campus of a Jewish school.
The Chabad Or Avner
school, which was built at a cost of $10 million donated by Leviev and other
philanthropists, is spread out over 15 dunams of land overlooking the Caspian
Sea and has about 400 students. The premises also include a Jewish community
center and a sports facility, which will cater to the country’s estimated 12,000
Background: Azerbaijan – a nation on the rise
“Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for a long time, and for generations
they have shown how well they get along with other people,” Aliyev said,
addressing the crowd at the ceremony. “We call on all other nations to treat
minorities, like we do, with respect.”
The ceremony illustrated the
importance that the government of this strategically located country sees in its
ties with Israel and the Jewish people.
Azerbaijan is more than Iran’s
next-door neighbor. For centuries it was part of greater Persia, until it was
conquered by Russia 200 years ago. There are currently more ethnic Azerbaijanis
living in Iran, where they make up 25 percent of the population, than in
However, two centuries of separation have led to significant
differences between the two groups, which both speak Azerbaijani and adhere to
Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan
when it declared independence in 1991, and the two have had diplomatic ties ever
President Shimon Peres recorded a statement ahead of the event,
thanking Aliyev for supporting the country’s Jewish community.
“I want to
salute you, your courage and wisdom on upholding the value of building schools
and centers for all religions so that no book is lost and no prayer goes
unheard,” he wrote. “I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, on the
traditional way you treat the Jewish people and Israel.”
greatly influential in bringing about the opening of the new school campus
through his ties with the late Heydar Aliyev, the former leader of Azerbaijan.
In 2005, he flew to Baku to personally ask the father of the current president
to prevent its closure due to a lack of permits.
“He asked me, ‘Why don’t
you invest money in our country?’” Leviev recalled. “I replied, ‘How can I
invest in a country which doesn’t like Jews?’ He was surprised, and said that
many of the teachers and doctors were Jewish, that he was very fond of Jewish
people... During the press conference, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll build the school,’
and also asked that I return on Hanukka and invite him to light a
The elder Aliyev died in 2006, but Leviev said his son was
following in his father’s footsteps and had donated the land on which the new
Jewish school stands.