“Azerbaijan is a friend of the Jewish people, of the Israeli people and of the American people,” said Elin Suleymanov, ambassador of Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States. “This is not just a coincidence. It is a conscious decision by the government of Azerbaijan and the people of Azerbaijan.”
That was the message that Suleymanov reiterated more than a handful of times during a meeting this summer in his office in Washington, D.C. Azerbaijan is located in the Caucasus Mountains west of the Caspian Sea, south of Russia and north of Iran.
“Azerbaijan is located at a crossroads of cultures,” said the ambassador, as he reviewed his nation’s deep history.
The first secular Muslim-majority country established on the principles of a Western-style democracy with a constitution that granted equal rights to all citizens, including voting right for women, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was established in 1918.
“Everyone was allowed to work and be a part of the society,” said Suleymanov.
ADR, however, existed for only 23 months before the Red Army invaded and incorporated it into the Soviet Union as the Azerbaijan SSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Republic of Azerbaijan emerged in October 1991.
Throughout its history, the people of Azerbaijan have remained open, and that includes not only to women and the West, but also to the Jews.
Suleymanov said there were always Jews that served in parliament and that one of the country’s first ministers of health was a Jew. He grew up going to school with Jewish children, was educated by Jewish teachers and had a Jewish doctor.
According to Suleymanov, the Jewish population of Azerbaijan dates back 2,500 years.
“It is not like they live in our country — I don’t know who lives in whose country. There is a long history,” he said.
The story goes that the Azerbaijani Jews, referred to as the “mountain Jews,” arrived in the area after the Exodus from Israel. They passed through Persia, where they picked up the Farsi-based language they still speak, and eventually settled in the Caucasus Mountains.
Once, there were as many as 40,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, said Suleymanov. Today, there are between 8,000 and 25,000, an estimate that varies widely in part because many of them live in Israel or Russia but still retain Azeri passports. Suleymanov said that many of the people made aliyah to Israel, made money, but still return or buy vacation homes in the area.
What’s striking is that more than 90 percent of the Azerbaijani population is Muslim, something Suleymanov celebrates, but that also makes him uncomfortable. He was clear that he does not consider Azerbaijan part of the “Muslim world,” as most people in the States understand it.
“What is the Muslim world? Do people refer to a Christian world?” the ambassador asked. “You could have someone in Azerbaijan who is Muslim but comes from a completely different world and worldview [than Mideast Muslims]. I think we have to be careful. Muslim world is much more diverse than people think.”
Still, he thinks that the notion that his country, with a majority Muslim population, can enjoy close ties with Jews — and with Israelis — is “actually very important.”
“It shows that Israel’s relationship with a country of mostly Muslims can go far beyond a technical peace,” he said, noting Israel and Azerbaijan’s close ties since each country’s founding; Haifa and Baku are sister cities.
Last spring, Azerbaijan sent its foreign minister, Elmar Mamadyarov, on a public and political visit to Israel. The timing, said Suleymanov, was intentional and meant to show support. On that trip, Mamadyarov announced plans to build an Azerbaijan Embassy in Israel.
He said the government and the people of Azerbaijan respect both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“The Palestinians have unalienable rights, and I do believe they need to be respected. The Palestinians do have the right to have a state. At the same time,” said Suleymanov, “so do the Israelis. The Jewish state should not come into question.”
The two countries collaborate on more than one would think. According to Suleymanov, Azerbaijan supplies Israel with 40 percent of its oil — “and it’s very good quality oil,” he said. “We are very proud of our product.”
Israel each year exports to Azerbaijan more than $4 billion dollars’ worth of defense technologies, high-tech equipment and agricultural technologies.
In recent months, media critics have begun questioning the country’s historic openness and have claimed new intimidation tactics, arrests and force has been used against journalists. Suleymanov said he does not believe the reports to be accurate. He said that leaks like those making their way to the mainstream media is a sign of an open society and that just as one might watch the presidential debates in the U.S. and think that there is little the U.S. population agrees upon and that it is on the verge of collapse, so, too, there are misunderstandings when you examine his country from the outside.
He said the people of Azerbaijan are better off today than 20 years ago, and they think they will be better off tomorrow. For that, he said, there is a lot of government support. With elections scheduled for October, Suleymanov said he think the incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, will remain in office.
A main message? Focus on similarities, said Suleymanov.
“There is very little difference between Judaism and Islam,” he said. “You can focus on our differences all of your life or you can choose to focus on what unites us. … Our Jewish friends should not hesitate to talk to their Muslim friends [in Azerbaijan] and have a conversation. Azerbaijan can be a model of what could be done.”
Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.