Sunday, January 13, 2008

Azeri Jews: a model of coexistence?

Tajikistan,Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are becoming increasingly hostile places for their Jewish citizens, but there is one Muslim ex-Soviet republic where the Jews seem to be thriving: Azerbaijan. Gabriel Lerner in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles asks whether the republic could provide a model of Jewish-Muslim coexistence. (With thanks: a reader)

"This is where the Jewses [sic] of Quba live," says the guide, pointing at the group of houses I was looking at. "They are very successful."

Behind us is a cemetery. While the rest of the group stares at the river and the city, I walk alone toward the cemetery's iron gates, where I immediately recognize a Mogen David. This gate is not unlike one at the cemetery outside Buenos Aires, where my father is buried, or one in Rishon Letzion, Israel, that contains my ex-father-in-law's remains, or even the cemetery where my sister rests in L.A.'s Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills. I walk slowly, reading the Russian and Hebrew inscriptions and staring at the photographs of the deceased etched in stone.

"They [the Jews] have the best cars," continues the guide. "Ferraris, Mercedes. They have them all. Jewses in Quba live very well." His face portrays satisfaction and pride, and the other members of my group -- journalists from Europe and the United States -- listen and nod. I am with this group to cover for La OpiniĆ³n an international conference on the role of the media in the development of tolerance, organized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Not unlike the Jews of Sefarad (Spain) during the First Caliphate, Azerbaijan's Jewry is interwoven into the fabric of this state, which emerged in August 1991 from the Soviet Union. And despite their minuscule numbers -- maybe 12,000 in a population of 8 million -- their presence is known and acknowledged, especially that of the Jews of Quba. These Mountain Jews, as they are called, have been living in this area for a very long time, perhaps 2,500 years; they consider themselves the descendants of those Jews exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E., remaining in what is modern day Iran. In the eighth century, when the Muslims from the Arab Peninsula conquered the area, they brought the Jewish tribe, an ally, to the area of Baku to serve as a barrier against the Kazakhs to the north. In 1730, they were officially allowed to put down roots and own property in the Quba province.

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