Friday, November 20, 2015

Azerbaijan: a ray of light in a sea of intolerance

As far as Muslim-majority states go, Azerbaijan, with its 12, 000 - strong Jewish community, is a ray of light in a sea of darkness. Even during the Soviet era, the state prided itself on its tradition of tolerance towards minorities. Peter Rothholz wrote up his visit for JNS :

The summer synagogue in the 'Jewish village' of Quba has no security guards

At a time when thousands of Jews are fleeing rampant anti-Semitism in France, the United Kingdom, and other European countries, there is one country where “it’s becoming attractive even for some people to come back” from Israel and other countries to which they had previously emigrated. According to Rabbi Shneor Segal, the Israeli-born rabbi of The Jewish Community of European Jews in Baku, that country is Azerbaijan.

Located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and bordered by Iran, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, Azerbaijan has a Jewish community that traces its roots back some 2,000 years. Throughout that period—and even during the years from 1920 to 1991, when it was a part of the Soviet Union—Azerbaijan has prided itself on its tradition of tolerance and acceptance of minorities. Among the country’s population of 9 million, 95 percent are Muslim and about 12,000 residents are Jews.

As part of a recent delegation to Azerbaijan from Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, I visited six synagogues there, as well as a Jewish day school and Jewish Community Center. There were no police, private guards, or noticeable security measures at those sites, unlike a city such as Los Angeles and many European cities. Azeri Jews can also walk the streets wearing yarmulkes without fear of being harassed.

Azeri Jews participate fully in the social and economic life of the country without reference to their religion or ethnicity. Education is free from grade school through university, so individuals are limited only by ability and ambition. When our delegation asked the Hon. Tatiana Goldman, a Jewish member of the Azeri Supreme Court, about the effect of her Jewishness on her career and life, she replied, “I don’t even think about it. I think about my work.”

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