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Azerbaijan's Jews: Hard-Won Harmony

The Caucasus country’s deep-rooted Jewish community is holding on in the face of massive emigration. From Meydan TV.

by Gunel Movlud, Aziz Kerimov, and Gaji Gajiyev 8 February 2017

Aftun Simandiyev is 74 years old. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Simandiyev family, like many other Jews, emigrated to Israel. But he didn’t want to leave the country that he considers his homeland and the graves of loved ones behind. He has lived all his life in the Oghuz district of Azerbaijan, home to many Jews for hundreds of years.


“I live alone. Now I’m a pensioner. Every morning, after having breakfast and feeding the chickens, I go downtown to meet with friends. Don’t pay attention to the fact that I’m so old. In my time I was a pretty good carpenter, I built about 50 homes here for my fellow villagers, Jews and Muslims. I get along better in modern-day Azerbaijan. During the Soviet period everything was much more difficult. They didn’t let you build things as you wished. But now, ‘do what you want.’ ”


Simandiyev says that Jews and Azeris live in peace and concord.


“As regards customs, they are very similar. For example, if local Muslims are celebrating Novruz, for us it’s Hanukkah. We commemorate the third, seventh and 40th days after a death. I personally don’t miss a single funeral, because I too have to die some time. I’ve lived here for 74 years already, and I don’t remember a single conflict on national or religious grounds in our region.


Aftun Simandiyev


“My family lives in Israel. I talk with them regularly by phone. But I have never thought of leaving these places. Even if they ask me to, even then I would not leave here. After all, the graves of my father, mother, and brother are here. And my future place, alongside my mother.”


Red Town


After some 2,000 years in what is now Azerbaijan, Jews follow several traditions and religious practices that met here under a unique set of historical circumstances.


As was the case throughout the Soviet Union, in Azerbaijan easier conditions for Jewish emigration starting in the 1970s, and then the end of travel bans as the USSR collapsed, saw the large majority of Jews depart for Israel and elsewhere. Yet many traces of their presence remain, even flourish.


Qirmizi Qasaba (Red Town), in the mountainous Quba district, is a unique place, populated almost exclusively by Mountain Jews, one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the eastern Caucasus.


All the homes, synagogues, and cultural centers are in excellent condition. The members of the community lead an active life, publish their own newspaper, actively gather in the synagogues and take part in the political and cultural life of the country.


Qirmizi Qasaba natives have made a mark both locally and abroad. Perhaps the best known, Russian billionaire God Nisanov, hasn’t forgotten his past and supports the community both in spirit and materially.


Yevda Abramov, another native of the town and a deputy of the National Assembly, is considered the voice of the Jewish community. First elected a deputy 12 years ago, he is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.


Mountain Jews are also represented in Azerbaijan’s cultural life, notably the popular singers Ayan Babakishiyeva and Khayyam Nisanov. The young millionaire businessman Azad Kerimov also belongs to the Mountain Jews. 


In Search of a Better Life


According to official data, 8,900 Jews live in Azerbaijan at present, compared to around 50,000 four decades ago. The Jewish community estimates the true number at 26,000. Jews are clustered primarily in Baku, in such regions as Oghuz and Quba, and in regions on the border with Georgia. They are members of three groups: Mountain Jews, making up the majority, Georgian Jews (who resettled from Georgia), and Ashkenazi or European Jews. Six synagogues are officially registered in Azerbaijan.


While the ancestors of the Mountain Jews first came to the region many centuries ago from Persia, Ashkenazi, or as they were called during the time of the Russian Empire, Russian Jews, began to settle in Baku with the start of the oil boom in 1870, in search of a better life, or to escape the pogroms that swept many parts of the empire starting in 1881. Discriminatory politics worsened the situation for many Russian Jews, for whom Baku became a place where they could flourish. The city attracted mostly educated urbanites, who stood out sharply from the primarily agrarian, Mountain Jews, speakers of Judeo-Tat, a form of Persian.


Ashkenazi Jews quickly occupied specific professional niches. At the start of the 20th century, 75 of the 238 lawyers and 69 of the 185 practicing doctors in Baku were Jews. In Baku, Jews founded a number of enterprises.


Waves of Emigrants, Ripples of Returnees


Many Soviet Jews left for Israel when barriers to emigration fell in the 1970s. The reason was primarily an economic one; many were simply not content with life in the USSR. A second wave of emigration began as the Soviet Union began tottering toward collapse, and continued afterwards. It was not just Jews who emigrated en masse at that time, but also Muslim Azeris and others.


During the 1990s local turmoil also served as a catalyst for Jewish emigration. The January events of 1990, the rise to power of nationalist parties, and the economic crisis influenced the decision of many Jews to leave their homeland. Sevil Huseynova, a graduate student in the Institute for European Ethnology at Humboldt University, has done research into these events.


Most of the Jews Huseynova interviewed, both in Azerbaijan and Germany, pointed to the violent events of January 1990, when Soviet troops were sent in to restore order in Baku following a pogrom against the Armenian community, as a significant turning point in their lives: “For them, life in Baku was divided into before and after those events,” Huseynova says. “The majority of Jews emigrated to Israel. Many of them had relatives there, and they could receive help in the first months of emigration. Without a doubt, they moved for a better life. To a country that was associated with the West and the capitalist world.”


But there were those who came back, though very few. A number of Jews returned, mainly those who had grown to adulthood in Baku and hadn’t managed to find themselves a livelihood in Israel. When they came back, they settled in and found a niche in independent Azerbaijan.


Although the bulk of Jews have emigrated, the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union have seen the active reconstruction of the Jewish community, which has in turn formed a mutually loyal relationship with the government of Azerbaijan.


The government has opened cultural centers, clubs, and schools for Jews, and renovated and constructed synagogues.


The leaders of international Jewish communities have on several occasions noted the tolerant ethnic and religious policies propagated by the Azerbaijani government. Of course, there is a reason for this: the fact that a multitudinous Jewish community is flourishing in a Muslim country positively influences the country’s international image. The Jews in emigration have become a sort of political resource for the government, and they often support the government of state in which they were born.


As in the Soviet period in Azerbaijan, anti-Semitism is practically non-existent on an everyday level. However, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes do exist among nationalistic and religious organizations. For example, anti-Israel slogans have appeared at protests by the Islamic Party and similar groups in place like the conservative Muslim stronghold of Nardaran. The authorities in Baku enjoy good relations with Israel, and have generally been quick to react to such demonstrations.

This article was originally published on Meydan TV, a news site operated from outside Azerbaijan. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission.

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