General Information on Azerbaijani Jewish Organizations
There are three Jewish communities in modern Azerbaijan: Bukharian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, and Georgian Jews. The community of Bukharian Jews is the oldest, certain evidence points to their ancestors having arrived to the territory almost 15 centuries ago.
In the late 1980s, Azerbaijani Jews began making aliyah in masses. This was caused to a large extent by the political and economical instability riddling the country in the years 1989-1993. Between 1989 and 2010 approximately 40,000 people have emigrated from Azerbaijan to Israel. In the latter years, the rate of aliyah has been 150–200 people a year. According to some data, the number of Jewish Azerbaijani expatriates living in Israel now equals 100,000. Over 11,000 have gone to Russia in search of a living, despite for- mally still being members of the Jewish community of Azerbaijan.
According to information from the leaders of religious communities, there are about 16,000 Jews currently residing in Azerbaijan, of which:
a) Bukharian Jews – about 11,000 (6,000 in Baku, 3,600 in the Krasnaya Sloboda neighborhood of the city of Quba (pronounced Guba in Azerbaijani), and 1,300 in the other regions of the state, mainly in the cities of Sumgait, Ganja, Oghuz, and Goychay);
b) Ashkenazi Jews – 4,300 (of which 3,300 in Baku);
c) Georgian Jews – about 600.
Also, there are descendants of Sabbatarians living in the settlements of Privolnoye and Kirovka.
Since 1996, Jewish communal life in Azerbaijan has flourished. The Sochnut Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Va’ad le-Atzala have initiated a significant number of various programs. Under the auspices of the Joint, the charitable organization Chesed-Gershon, the Jewish cultural center, the Hillel youth club, and a kindergarten came into being. The Sochnut created the Amishav youth club and 22 groups of educational programs in Baku and other cities in Azerbaijan where Jews live – Sumgait, Ganja, Quba, Oghuz.
The Va’ad le-Atzala has helped open a yeshiva and a school in Baku in 1999-2001, and another yeshiva in Krasnaya Sloboda. Another Jewish school and kindergarten was opened in Baku in September 2002 (receiving their official license in 2003) with the aid of the Or Avner Foundation. In May 2010, the Chabad Or Avner learning complex in Baku (director general – R. Matityahu Louis) moved into new, specially built premises.
In December 2005, a kindergarten was opened in Krasnaya Sloboda, also within the Or Avner network. In October 2006, an educational center was opened by the Jewish Agency office in Baku. There is an active Maccabi sports organization with over 300 members (director general since September 2010 – S. Ikhilov).
There are women’s charitable organizations in Baku: the humanitarian Association of Jewish Women (est. 1992) and Hava (est. 1996) – which have assumed the responsibility of providing medical care, material and other support to Jewish families in need.
There are four monthly Jewish magazines published in Baku: Nash Izrail (Our Israel, published by the Jewish cultural center of the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan); Or Shelanu (Our Light, published by the Jewish cultural center of the Joint); The Tower (published by the Hillel youth club); and Chesed-Gershon (published by the welfare center of the same name). In November 2004, the Chabad-Lubavitch community of Azerbaijan launched a website called Jews of Azerbaijan: www.jewish.az.
There are eight Jewish religious communities registered in the state: five in Baku (the “Azerbaijani Jews” community, led by Chabad representative R. David Mirov, a community each of Bukharian, Ashkenazi, and Georgian Jews, and the Jerusalem community) and one each in the Krasnaya (Evreiskaya) Sloboda settlement in the Quba region, Sumgait, and Oghuz. There are Ger communities in Privolnoye and Kirovka. Krasnaya Sloboda is the only remaining settlement in the FSU where Jews live in a compact manner, and virtually the only traditional Jewish settlement in the world which has remained on the same spot for approximately 300 years. There are synagogues in all these towns, and a prayer house in Privolnoye.
The Ashkenazi and Georgian synagogues in Baku (chairman of the religious community of European Jews is Gennady Zelmanovitch, member of the EAJC General Council, chairman of the community of Georgian Jews – Abik Charukhchev) occupy a new multi-story building, erected with the aid of the EAJC instead of the old decrepit one. The community is supplied with matzos for Pesach with the support of the Congress.
In late August 2010, after a series of delays, the issue of government funding to construct a new synagogue for Mountain Jews in Baku instead of the one being demolished in the renovation of its neighborhood was resolved.
Fall 2007 saw the closing of the Narimanovskoye cemetery in Baku, raising the problem of reburying the Jews who were interred there, which has since been solved successfully.
After the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Azerbaijan since 2001, R. Meir Brook, left Azerbaijan in March 2010, the position was taken by R. Shneier Segal.
The government is kindly disposed toward the Jewish community, proving the state’s democracy and the nation’s tolerance. President Aliyev pays regular visits to Quba, meets with the leaders of the Azerbaijani Jewish community, speaks to the community on Holocaust memorial days, and offers annual Rosh ha-Shana greetings. At the parliamentary elections of 2005, Jew E. Abramov was elected a delegate of Quba. In July 2007 the decision was made that entry exams to universities would not be sat on Saturdays. Anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan is evident among radical Islamists and in certain political circles. On October 5, 2009, the Felony Court issued a verdict of conviction to the terrorists who intended to blow up the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan. The terrorists were sentenced to imprisonment for 12 to 15 years.
Anti-Semitic statements and utterances are mainly generated by the followers of the Islamist and pro-Iran Islamic Party of Azerbaijan and the Green Party. Thus, in April 2010, the members of the IPA demanded the resignation of I. Aliyev on the grounds that he had allegedly “given over to the Jews the management of most of the vitally important facilities of the state”. After the incident when the Israeli navy intercepted the so-called “Freedom Flotilla” during its attempted breach into the Gaza Strip, Islamists held anti-Israeli events in Lenkoran and Nardaran (a village in the environs of Baku) in early June 2010.
In early September 2010, Islamists held an anti-Israeli rally in Baku,dedicated to the so-called El-Quds day (El-Quds is the name Islamists use for Jerusalem). An effigy of Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu and the flags of Armenia, Israel, the U.S., and the United Kingdom were burned at the rally.
Diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Israel were established in 1992. The Azerbaijan-Israel cultural relations society was founded and began publishing the Az-Iz newspaper (aziz means dear, darling in Azerbaijani). An Israeli embassy was opened in Baku in 1993 (ambassador since September 2005 – Arthur Lenk), but an Azerbaijani embassy has not yet been established in Israel, even though an Azerbaijani cultural center did open in 2008. There are Israeli companies functioning actively in Azerbaijan.
There is currently an Israeli-Azerbaijani inter-parliamentary group in the Knesset, presided over by Knesset member Robert Ilatov. The Azerbaijan-Israel Association (Az-Iz) was founded in April 2007, headed by Yosef Shagal and counting over 40,000 members. There is a congress of Azerbaijanis in Israel (president – Alex Shapiro-Suliman).
Israeli president Shimon Peres paid a visit to Azerbaijan on June 28-29, 2009. Agreements were signed providing for developments in the relations between Azerbaijan and Israel in the fields of culture, education, science, and information and communication technology.
In December 2009, the head of the Central Europe and Eurasia Department of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Pinchas Avivi visited Baku. Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman paid an official visit to Azerbaijan on February 8-11, 2010.
The economic relations between the two states have also intensified. Thus, after 2009 the total trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Israel reached about $4 billion, with the increase of non-petroleum goods deliveries comprising almost 50%.
On May 8, 2010, a delegation from Azerbaijan, including all the leaders of Azerbaijan’s Jewish organizations, opened the Heydar Aliyev Avenue in the city of Hadera.
On July 7, 2010, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee David Harris paid a visit to Baku. During his visit, he met with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, and Milli Mejlis Speaker Oktay Asadov.
Azerbaijan is trying to form a pro-Azerbaijan lobby of Israeli and American Jewish politicians who could help revoke the Jackson-Vanik amendment and the sanctions stipulated by the 907th amendment to the Freedom Support Act before the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is settled, and to prevent the persecution of Armenians in 1915-1923 from being proclaimed genocide.
The Azerbaijani government strives to get the Jewish community involved in the policy of “Holocaustizing history” wherein they attempt to prove facts of mass killing of Quban Jews by Armenians in 1918-1919 in order to identify them with the Holocaust, like with the capture of Khodjali in 1992. The film Genocide, dedicated to this topic, was presented in March 2010. It became known in 2010 that a pantheon will be built in Quba in memory of Jews who perished over 1918-1919.
On February 9-13, 2006, Baku and Quba were visited by a joint delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. On May 14-16, 2006, a Knesset delegation visited Baku with the help of the EAJC. On September 4, 2006, EAJC General Council chairman Yosif Zissels hosted a delegation of Jewish writers, arriving in Baku as part of a mission of solidarity with the Jewish state, organized by the EAJC. The delegation met with the chairman of the Azerbaijan State Committee on Diaspora Relations Nazim Ibragimov, the leaders of the Writers’ Union of Azerbaijan, the leaders of the state’s Jewry, and the general public. On September 15, October 27, 2008 and December 11, 2009, EAJC president Alexander Mashkevich visited Baku.
The Azerbaijan branch of the International Association of Jewish Studies and Jewish Culture was founded in 1992. A scholarly center was opened by the Jewish cultural center (led by Mikhail Agarunov), whose goal is to create a database on the history, culture, and ethnography of the Jewish communities of Azerbaijan, to examine the collected documentation, and to publish the results of their research. The Jewish cultural center holds annual Jewish book festivals in Baku, Ganja, Quba, and Sumgait.
In May 2005, in time for the anniversary of the victory over Nazism, a Holocaust museum was opened in Baku.
Sixth-grader from Baku, Ramila Mamedi, won first place among high- school students at the international contest “Children Draw Chabad”, which finished in April 2010.
In May 2010, a dictionary of the language of the Mountain Jews – Juhuri – by M. Y. Agarunov was published in Baku. The published tome includes the Juhuri-Russian dictionary (with 14,000 words and expressions) and the Russian-Juhuri dictionary (over 19,000 words). In the dictionary, the Mountain Jewish script was for the first time rendered in the Latin alphabet, used only by Mountain Jews from Azerbaijan.
In January 2010, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev issued a decree to decorate Matvey Elizarov, member of the EAJC General Council, with the title “Honored Worker of Physical Culture and Sports”.
The President of the Jewish Women of Azerbaijan organization, Larisa Reikhrudel, was decorated with the French Order of the Legion of Honor in April 2010. In September 2010, pianist Ivetta Plyam, professor at the Azerbaijan State Conservatory, was named “Honored Culture Worker of Azerbaijan.”