Azerbaijani minister learns diaspora relations from Israel

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Fuad Muradov is Azerbaijan’s diaspora affairs minister, and as such, he visits Israel often and has close ties with Israeli leaders. 

 The official opening ceremony of the Diaspora Summer Youth Camp.  (photo credit: STATE COMMITTEE ON WORK WITH DIASPORA OF AZERBAIJAN)
The official opening ceremony of the Diaspora Summer Youth Camp.
(photo credit: STATE COMMITTEE ON WORK WITH DIASPORA OF AZERBAIJAN)

A tall, diplomatic-looking man walked into a Jerusalem café wearing a suit and tie and with a fairly large entourage, including a photographer, security guards, assistants and advisers. Many of the people in the dining establishment assumed he was an American congressman, but were surprised to hear he was a senior minister in the Azerbaijani government.

This government official is the Azerbaijani government’s chairman of the State Committee on Work with Diaspora. In a way, Fuad Muradov is Azerbaijan’s diaspora affairs minister, and as such, he visits Israel often and has close ties with Israeli leaders. 

Muradov was recently the guest of Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, coming to learn more about the well-established Israel and Jewish-Diaspora connections, which consist of many initiatives and organizational Jewish life. Here he not only met with the heads of the ministry, but also with senior officials in the Jewish Agency, Birthright Israel and other organizations dealing with connecting Jews of the Diaspora with Israel.

Muradov felt a need to promote his country while speaking to The Jerusalem Post, in a way similar to how many leaders feel the need to boast about their country’s achievements. “Women were allowed to vote in 1919. This was the first Muslim-majority country ever to enfranchise women,” Muradov boasted. “This is even before the United States allowed women to vote nationally.” 

He also stated that Azerbaijan’s small Jewish community doesn’t suffer from any antisemitism. “I told Minister Shai that if you come to Azerbaijan, you’ll see that there will be zero antisemitism. Azerbaijan’s Jews never, never had a problem, since tolerance is part of our culture.”

 MURADOV WITH Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.  (credit: STATE COMMITTEE ON WORK WITH DIASPORA OF AZERBAIJAN) MURADOV WITH Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman. (credit: STATE COMMITTEE ON WORK WITH DIASPORA OF AZERBAIJAN)

The Azerbaijan diaspora comprises about 50 million individuals who are of Azerbaijani descent. Iran hosts the largest diasporic community, with about 13 million Azerbaijanis, according to The World Factbook. According to different reports, there are between 1.5 to 3 million in Russia, and according to some sources, there may be as many as 800,000 in Turkey. Reports in the US have mentioned about 400,000 Azerbaijani Americans; Georgia has about 360,000 and there are 150,000 in Kazakhstan.

In Azerbaijan itself, there are more than 10 million citizens, of which 91.6% see themselves as Azerbaijani, according to the last census in 2009. Among the approximately 40 million Azerbaijanis around the world, the government only acknowledges about 10 million of them as constituting the Azerbaijani diaspora.

“In recent years, we started auditing our diaspora,” he explained.

“There are more than 500 organizations of Azerbaijanis in the diaspora and we realized that we have to start learning about them and seeing if they are still active.”

Azerbaijans Diaspora Affairs Minister Faud Muradov

The state committee that Muradov runs has more than 100 employees. (Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry is rather small, with no more than a few dozens of employees.) He said the committee budgets these organizations according to their activity, and to five big strategic programs that it runs.

One of the programs, called “Unite,” promotes connections between diaspora organizations in each country and budgets them if they can work in conjunction. Other programs are Azerbaijani Sunday schools and the Azerbaijani House. Muradov explained that “in our Sunday schools around the world, we teach the Azerbaijani language and culture.”

Another fascinating venture is, in the words of Muradov, “an Azerbaijani version of Birthright Israel.”

“Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark helped us very much in the beginning,” he said. The program, called “Diaspora Youth Summer Camp,” is for Azerbaijani teenagers from around the world, and is free. “Every year, we have a summer camp for young people for one week in different parts of Azerbaijan. We invite them to Azerbaijan for one week and there are different programs for them, such as language, dancing, meeting with soldiers who participated in the war, with composers, and so on.”

Yet the Azerbaijani version of Birthright is dramatically smaller and available for only a few hundred youngsters a year.

Another venture is a program for supporting students abroad. “We have a campus volunteering program, and part of our discussion with the Israeli Diaspora ministry was to learn from a similar program they run through Mosaic United,” Muradov revealed.

The Azerbaijani House initiative has 18 branches around the world, three of which are in Georgia. “We teach our young generation the Azerbaijani language, but also their local language and other skills in engineering, physics or chess,” he said, explaining that he sees great importance in Azerbaijani expats integrating into their new respective countries, while maintaining a strong identity and connection to their homeland.

Who is Muradov?

MURADOV, 42, married and a father of three living in Baku, has been in his role since 2018. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and speaks Azerbaijani, English, French and Russian. He was a member of parliament for many years and served as a deputy of the National Assembly.

He said he enjoys learning from different countries about how they connect with their respective diasporas. “There are a few models of diasporas in the world. Israel uses the Jewish model, but there are others, such as the Italian or Irish models.”

Asked what he had learned from each model and government, Muradov shared what he had discovered when he met with Italian diaspora organizations in New York. “I met with an old Italian diaspora chairman and he told me that his challenge in the ’90s was to change the image of Italians,” since they were all perceived as mobsters. “This Italian-American leader launched a special scholarship program for Italians in the US. They made sure that these young and promising individuals would be at the top of their class in fields such as culinary [arts], art and even the movie industry. And that’s why now they [Italians in the US] have top restaurants, [are involved in leading] movies, composers like Nino Rota and movie producers such as [Martin] Scorsese.”

Muradov explained that the Azerbaijani government has launched a similar scholarship program for their constituents, “but we have decided to do it with students in the best universities [in the US].” The idea is to give scholarships to leading Azerbaijani students living or studying in the US for them to study in Ivy League universities.

Muradov added that from his perspective, the Irish diaspora in the US is “very well integrated,” stationed at the top positions in many fields. “Just look at the US Senate or Congress and you will see how they are not considered a diaspora, but proudly mention their roots and background.”

He smiled saying, “We learn so much from the Jewish Diaspora, and every year we find out that there are so many organizations or initiatives that we’ve never heard of.” Mentioning the names of leaders of Jewish organizations in the US such as David Harris (American Jewish Committee) and Malcolm Hoenlein (Conference of Presidents), he said “just meeting with these leaders is like a history class. They both visited Azerbaijan many times.” 

More than just having similar diasporic interests, Muradov said Jewish and Israeli leaders visiting Azerbaijan is important to see how “we bring the model of how Muslim countries can cooperate with Jews, [while] not harming other interests.”

According to various surveys and data, about 9,000 Jews are living in Azerbaijan. In 1989, there were more than 40,000 Jews in this country, but most of them left after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to leading Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola, there are only about 7,000 Jews who are part of the “core Jewish population.” Yet Muradov speaks of a very different amount. “I think there are tens of thousands of Jews” in Azerbaijan, he said.

When asked what Israel can learn from Azerbaijan regarding the connection with its diaspora, Muradov gave two examples of initiatives he has creatively invented during his time as chairman. The first, One Plus One, is for Azerbaijani citizens to invite a friend or family member from the diaspora for a three-day tour. The government funds a large portion of the visit and assists in creating a tailor-made program to suit the tourist’s interests. 

The second initiative is Diaspora Map, a website that specifies where there are Azerbaijani organizations worldwide, in addition to coordinating councils, official representatives of the Azerbaijani government that coordinate between the different organizations. “If you are visiting one of these countries or are considering moving there, you can get all of the contact information about the Azerbaijani community and actually be in dialogue with them,” he explained.

In his visit here, Muradov also met with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Oded Forer and Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister and Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, along with members of the Israel-Azerbaijan Parliamentary Friendship Group and others. The meetings focused on the activities of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Israel, cooperation between the two countries and investment attraction, he said.

During his visit, Muradov also presented awards to Chief Rabbi of the Mountain Jews Synagogue in Tel Aviv Shmuel Simantov, head of the Jerusalem Branch of the AzIz Israel-Azerbaijan International Association Alexander Agranovsky and Prof. Michael Agarunov. They were awarded the Medal of the Republic of Azerbaijan “for service to the diaspora.” Opera singer Camelia Ioffe and singer Tarlan Aliyev performed songs in Azerbaijani and Hebrew.

“Please tell your readers to visit our country,” Muradov concluded. “You’ll realize how safe it is for Jews to visit Azerbaijan. As opposed to other countries such as Germany, where there are guards with guns, outside of our synagogues there aren’t any security personnel, simply because we never needed them.”