|Jews of Azerbaijan: Rob Eshman of Jewish Journal writes: “This group of kippot-wearing Azeri boys greeted an American visitor with laughter and shouts of 'hello' and 'Shabbat shalom!' ” |
Photo Credit: Rob Eshman
Source: Jewish Journal
Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon. To get there, you fly 13 hours from Los Angeles to Istanbul, then catch a three-hour flight to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country of some 9 million people on the Caspian Sea. From Baku, you take a bus past churning oil derricks and miles of empty desert, up into the Caucasus, through tiny villages surrounded by apple orchards. After two hours, you arrive in Quba, the capital of Azerbaijan’s northeast region. About a mile past an attractive central mosque, a simple steel bridge spans a wide, mostly dry riverbed and leads directly into Red Village.
One of the first things you see is a large brick building atop which sits — improbably, impossibly — a Jewish star. About 4,000 people live in Red Village, every one of them Jewish. That makes Red Village the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel. This entirely Jewish town exists in an almost entirely Muslim country—ancient, placid, prosperous. It is also completely unknown to the majority of the world’s Jews. I had to see Red Village to believe it. I had to figure out: What’s the deal with Azerbaijan? Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev convened 750 journalists, scholars, activists and scientists from around the world to participate in the annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum.Such shows many things, including that Islam is not necessarily hostile to either the Jews or to Israel; when politics intervene it acts a wedge between peoples. Thus, there need be a distinction made between Islam the religion and political Islam, just as there need be a distinction between Christianity and political Christianity and between Judaism and political Judaism. Politics and religion always make a toxic brew, benefiting few.
The invitation offered a chance to see for myself a country that, from what I’d heard over the years, has never quite fit the standard American perception of Muslim = Fanatic and Shiite = Really Fanatic. After all, Iran, also a Shiite nation, lies just across Azerbaijan’s southern border. But while Iran is the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. The Shiites of Iran would treat me, an American Jew with a passport full of Israeli stamps, as an enemy. In Azerbaijan, I was an honored guest.
My visit was personally arranged through Azerbaijan’s Western Region Consul General, Nasimi Aghayev. I’m not the first journalist lured to explore Azerbaijan’s incongruities, but I do seem to be the first in my crowd. Few people I talked to about my travel plans beforehand had heard of Azerbaijan, and even fewer of its Jewish connection.
You could fault Azeris for not getting the word out, but in the 22 years since it gained its independence, Azerbaijan has had to focus on rebuilding, not rebranding. What struck me first when I arrived in Baku is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a fast transition. Now that its tremendous oil and gas wealth isn’t being siphoned off to feed the Soviet empire, the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) has soared.
Yet, when the politics and its resulting hostility of divisiveness is removed from religion, allowing it to focus on what it ought to do—bettering the lives of its adherents—then there is much to bring people and nations together. Common interests come to the foreground. I have a firm belief that another large and powerful Shiite nation, Iran, which has, until recently (1979), had a long and harmonious and fruitful history with the Jewish people, will one day make peace with Israel. There is no real reason why this can't take place. When this happens, it will change everything in the region.