An interfaith miracle in Azerbaijan
In an era of unprecedented Jewish-Muslim breakthroughs, it takes a lot to surprise. Yet President Ilham Aliyev did just that last week when I met him in Baku, taking several groundbreaking actions to foster the long-term success of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community — the largest in the Muslim world — and elevate his country’s efforts to fight international anti-Semitism.
Aliyev is by no means new to the interfaith cavalcade that has gained so much speed in recent years. In fact, Azerbaijan has served as a model of tolerance for — and the embrace of — different faiths and ethnicities in the three decades since its independence. Jews, among others, have prospered as a result.
But Aliyev went above and beyond when I explained to him the tenuous economic state of the Ohr Avner Chabad school in his capital, Baku, which represents the epitome of Jewish education in Central Asia. The 10-year-old school historically received its funding from local and foreign philanthropists, but it has expanded significantly with the flowering of Jewish life in Azerbaijan.
For Aliyev, interfaith harmony is not just a worthy ideal; it is a strategic vision. The Azerbaijani leader moved immediately to meet the school’s funding shortfall. And he asked me to raise any future financial challenges directly with him, so that his government could address them promptly.
Coinciding with Hanukkah, the Jewish festival that commemorates a miracle, I could not help but see in these gestures another manifestation of the historical miracle that modern day Azerbaijan represents. Just a few decades ago, during Soviet rule, the Jews of this country could not even practice their religion freely. Hebrew courses were banned and persecution was rampant. Many Jews left for the US or Israel.
Azerbaijan has served as a model of tolerance for — and the embrace of — different faiths and ethnicities in the three decades since its independence.
Rabbi Marc Schneier
Amid the explosion of Muslim-Jewish partnerships now taking hold in the Islamic world, Azerbaijan’s development must not be overlooked. Its transformation into a paradigm of inter-communitarian cohesion is just as impressive as Bahrain’s safeguarding of the Gulf’s only indigenous Jewish population and the UAE’s midwifing of the world’s newest such Jewish community.
The Baku school is especially meaningful. As Aliyev tells it, education is critical for the future of interfaith harmony and a vibrant body politic, in which all groups contribute to the success of the nation. By supporting the school, the Azerbaijani government is telling its people that Jews have a place in the country, while also sending a powerful message internationally that the Jewish story is part of the Azerbaijani national narrative.
Indeed, the Chabad Ohr Avner, which overlooks the Caspian Sea, does a sensational job preparing Jewish youths to be active and devoted Azerbaijani citizens. Offering a cutting-edge curriculum that combines teachings of Jewish culture, tradition and Hebrew language with modern-day science and technology learning, the children are also taught to respect and cherish the different sects of Islam present in Azerbaijan. Led by Shneor Segal, Azerbaijan’s chief rabbi, it also provides kosher food to the Jewish community.
Aliyev did not finish with the school.
We had spoken earlier in the year about the ways in which Azerbaijan could expand its efforts to promote warmer Muslim-Jewish ties worldwide. Since then, Azerbaijan has opened a travel and tourism office in Tel Aviv. And now, the president said, he was instructing his government to participate for the first time in International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.
By joining the nations of the world participating in this solemn day of remembrance, Azerbaijan will be taking a concrete political action to raise awareness about the dangers of extremism and intolerance, discrimination and hate. For there is no better way to ensure we “never forget,” as the mantra dictates, than by actively remembering and aggressively educating.
I was honored that President Aliyev asked me to announce these steps. Hosting a menorah-lighting event in Baku that evening, with guests including foreign dignitaries and an Azerbaijani government minister, as well as students from Rabbi Segal’s school, I relayed Aliyev’s vision of peace and unity and spelled out his newest announcements. I was not the only one who felt the palpable sense of being part of an ongoing miracle.
- Rabbi Marc Schneier is President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and a noted adviser to many Gulf states. He is the co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Muslims and Jews.”