Azerbaijan's story mirrors that of Israel - opinion

There are striking parallels between Israeli and Azerbaijani history that underscore the countries’ unique bond.

 Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman planted an apple tree at the Genocide Memorial Complex in Guba, Azerbaijan, in 2018. (photo credit: JACOB KAMARAS)
Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman planted an apple tree at the Genocide Memorial Complex in Guba, Azerbaijan, in 2018.
(photo credit: JACOB KAMARAS)

Among the apple trees at the Genocide Memorial Complex in the Guba district of Azerbaijan, there sits a tree planted by then-Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman in 2018, in memory of the victims of the Armenian killing of more than 50,000 Muslims across Azerbaijan in 1918. The victims also included 200 Jews – and the marker describing Liberman’s visit is a powerful reminder of the commonalities in the Azerbaijani and Israeli stories.

The complex’s museum is designed as two knives pointed toward the ground, evoking the bones that were found in excavations of the site, providing evidence of the murders that took place there. The message conveyed by Azerbaijani officials at the complex is that, despite Armenian attempts to deny the events of 1918, the truth will always come out.

It was actually not the museum visit that I was mainly anticipating during my recent trip to Azerbaijan. Guba is also home to the Red Village (Krasnaya Sloboda) – believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish town outside of Israel and the US, and the historic home of the Mountain Jews

The Mountain Jewish community

There, the Mountain Jews Museum, which is now open to visitors after delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, raises awareness about the traditions of “a small, proud people who know how to appreciate and preserve their culture and history, who managed to hold on to their traditions through the centuries,” said the museum’s general-director Igor Shaulov.

The Mountain Jewish community is not necessarily well known by world Jewry, but it must not be an afterthought, as there are approximately 200,000 Mountain Jews living worldwide today. “We try to pass all their traditions and cultural aspects to the next generation to preserve them for the future,” Shaulov told me.

 The Israeli delegation in Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022.  (credit: NICOLE LASKVI/DEFENSE MINISTRY) The Israeli delegation in Azerbaijan, October 3, 2022. (credit: NICOLE LASKVI/DEFENSE MINISTRY)

When it comes to the affinity between Azerbaijan and its Jews, the symbolism of the two museums in Guba is unmistakable. Azerbaijan’s Muslim majority and Jewish minority each work not only to preserve their history, but to ensure a vibrant and tolerant future.

Rolan Yusufov – deputy head of the office for youth affairs at Stmegi-Azerbaijan, the International Charitable Fund of Mountain Jews – said that as the Mountain Jewish community’s representative at a national youth forum, he had the chance to ask Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, “How can young people preserve our country’s tolerance?” According to Yusufov, Aliyev emphasized that “our strength lies in diversity, mutual respect and patriotism.”

“As part of the youth of Azerbaijan, I feel the same responsibility and will listen to the words of our president, and help preserve the unity of our people,” Yusufov said.

He added, “Jews throughout history have been subjected to antisemitism, oppression, but it was in Azerbaijan that they always felt love, equality and respect. In Azerbaijan, Jews, Muslims, and Christians congratulate each other on holidays and exchange warm words and gifts.”

By contrast, an October 5 article in Armenian Report states regarding Israel-Azerbaijan energy cooperation (according to a translation), “The Jews do not care who they make money from, the main thing is that this money, and a lot of it, is available to a potential buyer. In this regard, the black oil sultanate is an ideal partner for greedy Jews.” This aligns with the Anti-Defamation League’s past survey research, which found that Armenians believe in a series of antisemitic stereotypes at an even higher rate (58%) than Iranians (56%).

Like Liberman before him, Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Azerbaijan, as recently as this month.

Azerbaijan is rejuvenating its land

Today, there are striking parallels between Israeli and Azerbaijani history that underscore the countries’ unique bond. After the land was long neglected, Israel experienced a natural bloom and economic boom following the establishment of the modern state. Today, two years after liberating the Armenian-occupied territory of Karabakh – affirmed as Azerbaijani territory by four UN resolutions – Azerbaijan is also in the process of rejuvenating its land.

The early fruits of this labor are seen across Karabakh, whether it be the establishment of a smart village (where electronic methods and sensors collect data to efficiently manage assets, resources and services) in Zangilan, a choice that mirrors Israeli ingenuity; a new international airport in Fuzuli; and the cultural restoration of Shusha, known prior to the Armenian occupation as the “Conservatory of the Caucasus” due to its status as a significant political, economic and cultural center.

Azerbaijanis’ return to Shusha in 2020 resembled Israelis’ momentous return to eastern Jerusalem in 1967. Shusha and each restored city in Karabakh will eventually feature two museums – one marking the tragedy of occupation and the other celebrating liberation.

Simultaneously, throughout Karabakh, the vestiges of not only neglect but intentional destruction serve as a painful reminder of three decades of Armenian occupation – such as looted homes, mosques (including those that were used to house livestock), and cemeteries, as well as what UN experts estimate to be more than one million explosive devices in the area.

When Armenians had several weeks to withdraw from Karabakh following their surrender in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, they used the time to plant difficult-to-detect explosives such as remote-controlled and plastic mines, complicating the Azerbaijani redevelopment of the liberated territories.

“All that can be done as a crime with mines, they did it,” says Araz N. Imanov, senior adviser to Azerbaijan’s president in the Karabakh economic region.

Imanov found his grandmother’s skull in a looted grave. “This is not only a crime against Azerbaijan, it’s a crime against humanity,” he says. “When we liberated Karabakh, we didn’t expect to witness that the level of hatred was this high during the occupation.”

Yet for Azerbaijan, it is only fitting to take a page from the Israeli playbook. The road to restoration and redemption in Karabakh has still just begun, and it is budding with hope for a prosperous future. 

And for both Israel and Azerbaijan, nations typically subjected to media bias and double standards in the international community, the Genocide Memorial Complex in Guba can serve as continued motivation and inspiration that the truth will always come out.

The writer is the managing editor of the San Diego Jewish World, the former editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, and the founder of Stellar Jay Communications, a PR firm representing Azerbaijan.