Azerbaijan's Jews: At Home in Harmony

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 those close to him, behind. He has lived all his life in the Oghuz District of Azerbaijan, which has been densely populated by Jews for over 300 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 around fifty 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’”.

Aftun Simandiyev says that Jews and Azerbaijanis live in peace and agreement, and that he sees few differences between the two in terms of manners and customs.

“As regards customs, they are very similar. For example, if local Muslims are celebrating Novruz, for us it’s Channukah. We commemorate the third, seventh and fortieth 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”.

He maintains contact with his family by phone, but he has not even considered leaving to join them.

“My family lives in Israel. I periodically talk with them by phone. But I have never thought of leaving these places. Even if they ask me to, even then I would leave here. After all, the graves of my father, mother and brother are here. And my future place, alongside my mother”.

Red Town, Quba

Red Town (Qırmızı Qəsəbə), in Quba district, is a unique, Jewish village that is densely populated by Mountain Jews. 

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. A native of the town, Russian millionaire God Nisanov hasn’t forgotten his past and supports the community both in spirit and materially.

Yevda Abramov, another native of Red Town and a deputy of the National Assembly, is considered the voice of the Jewish community. He is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. He was elected a deputy 12 years ago, from the 53rd Quba-Qusar electoral district. 

Mountain-Jew fine arts practitioners are also active participants in Azerbaijan’s cultural life. The famous singers Ayan Babakishiyeva and Khayyam Nisanov are representatives of indigenous Mountain Jews and beloved performers for Azerbaijanis. The young Azerbaijani millionaire businessman, Azad Kerimov, is also a representative of the Mountain Jews.

In search of a better life

According to official data, 8,900 Jews live in Azerbaijan at present. But according to data from the Jewish community, they number at more than 26,000. Jews live in communities located 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, Georgian Jews (who resettled from Georgia), and Ashkenazi (European) Jews. Six synagogues are officially registered in Azerbaijan, and are now in an excellent condition. 

European (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.

In 1881 the first serious pogroms in the Russian Empire took place. Discriminatory politics worsened their situation. In connection with this, for many Jews Baku became a place where they could flourish. It was mostly educated urbanites who came. In this way they differed from the primarily agrarian, Judeo-Tat-speaking Mountain Jews.

European Jews quickly occupied a specific professional niche. At the start of the 20th century, 75 of the 238 lawyers and 69 of the 185 practicing doctors in Baku were Jews. Jesse Gindes was Minister of Health in the government of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. In Baku, Jews created a number of enterprises, the most famous of which was the Rothschild family’s company.

A wave of nationalism in the country and the emigration of Azerbaijani Jews

Jewish emigration began even during the USSR: many left for Israel during the years of the first Aliyah and later, in 1967-82. The reason was primarily an economic one; many were simply not content with life in the USSR. The second wave of emigration began during the process of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and continued afterwards. But it was not just Jews who emigrated en masse at that time, but also Azerbaijanis and members of other nations.

During the nineties another reason served as a catalyst for Jewish emigration. The January events of 1990, the rise to power of the National Front and the economic crisis influenced the decision of many Jews to leave their homeland. For her research, Sevil Huseynova, a graduate student in the Institute for European Ethnology at Humboldt University, had a number of discussions with Jews in Azerbaijan and with those who moved to Germany. 

In their talks with Huseynova, almost all these Jews pointed to the January events (especially the Armenian pogroms) as a significant turning point in their lives: “For them, life in Baku was divided into before and after the events. 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 worl”.

But there were those who came back. Though it was very few who returned, primarily people who grew up in Baku in adulthood and who hadn’t managed to find themselves a livelihood in Israel. When they came back, they settled in and found a niche in independent Azerbaijan.

The years of the flourishing of the diaspora

Despite the fact that the majority of Jews emigrated from Azerbaijan, the years since the dissolution of the USSR have seen the active reconstruction of the Jewish diaspora, which has in turn formed a mutually loyal relationship with the government of Azerbaijan. 

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

The heads of the international Jewish communities have on several occasions made note of the tolerant ethnic and religious policies of modern Azerbaijan. Of course, there is a reason for this: the fact that a multitudinous Jewish community is flourishing in a Muslim state positively influences the country’s international image. And the Jews that have emigrated from the country have become a sort of political resource for the government, representatives of the Jewish community in various countries, and they often support the government of the country from which they emigrated. 

As in the Soviet period in Azerbaijan, anti-Semitism is practically non-existent on an everyday level. However, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes do exist among the nationalistic and religious organizations, and this periodically manifests in various forms. For example, a number of organizations, such as the Islamic Party, have attempted to hold protests with anti-Israeli slogans often heard at meetings in Nardaran. However, the government has generally been quick to react to such anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli demonstrations.

Authors:

Günel Mövlüd

Aziz Kerimov

Gaji Gajiyev

Consultant: Sevil Huseynova, graduate student in the Institute for European Ethnology at Humboldt University.

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