By Diana Cohen Altman/JNS.org
Is Judah Maccabee rolling over in his grave? Hardly. Indeed, the hero of the Hanukkah story would have delighted in the sheer scope of Jewish American organizations and individuals weighing in on the Dec. 14 “Hanukkah party celebrating religious freedom and diversity” at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The hosts—the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan—may have expected a reaction of a different sort.
The Hanukkah party co-organizers drew inspiration from the Jewish community that has thrived in the Muslim-majority, South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan—possibly since the destruction of the First, not Second, Temple. Meanwhile, amid tense civic times and rising acts of anti-Semitism, many Jewish Americans contemplate Hanukkah themes of Jewish freedoms and community solidarity. The 2016 Hanukkah party affords an opportunity to broaden our intellectual portfolios and our perspectives.
Programs such as the Dec. 14 Hanukkah party afford insights into internal cultural dynamics that are often beyond the scope of international relations or traditional conflict-based diplomacy. Experiences of this type can help us reframe our own cultural dilemmas. In the case of Azerbaijan, we can find inspiration from a primarily Turkic society in which Jews and Muslims enjoy mutual respect, and where acts of anti-Semitism are nearly nonexistent.
Americans who are asked to cite what they know about Azerbaijan at best may recall Soviet-era overlays onto the culture, or may quote from narrow analyses of territorial conflicts with neighbors. After all, Azerbaijanis have been out from behind the iron curtain for a mere quarter century. Contemporary news stories rarely bring Azerbaijanis into view for Americans.
Perhaps the best-known members of the Azerbaijani Jewish community are the so-called Mountain Jews, who scholars believe landed in Quba (north of Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku) in the 5th century A.D. Said to be escaping persecution in Persia, the Mountain Jews became well-known as rugged horsemen and guardians of their Jewish traditions. Many of the thousands of Mountain Jews today spend time in Israel, with whom Azerbaijan maintains a strong relationship in numerous sectors.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Azerbaijan this week to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, other officials, and representatives of the country’s 30,000-strong Jewish community. The prime minister visited Azerbaijan not to introduce Israel to Azerbaijan, but to strengthen already close and strategic ties between the two nations. The Azerbaijani people, Jews and Muslims alike, reveled in the visit.
Baku itself boasts a Jewish population of several thousand individuals. Some previous inhabitants, including members of the Rothschild family, came as professionals in the country’s various oil booms. Others found sanctuary after fleeing the Nazis or pogroms in Russia.
Guests at the Dec. 14 Hanukkah party might expect to hear the story of Albert Agarunov, a state-designated National Hero of Azerbaijan, who died fighting for Azerbaijan during the early phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that continues to this day.
Born in 1969 in Baku to Mountain Jewish parents, Agarunov earned a degree in technology and worked at a machine-building factory. After Azerbaijan gained independence, Agarunov volunteered to fight for the Azerbaijani army in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia. On Dec. 8, 1991, Agarunov and his colleague Agababa Huseynov gained recognition for disabling several Armenian tanks and armored trucks. In May 1992, Agarunov was killed after playing a major role in defending the historically significant Azerbaijani town of Shusha.
Visitors to Baku, like Netanyahu, pay homage to Agarunov in his final resting place in Martyrs’ Lane, adjacent to the National Assembly building. Azerbaijani schoolchildren memorialize him, and international visitors to Baku learn Agarunov’s story from plaques in this city.
Azerbaijanis telling Agarunov’s story often express a special pride in the fact that he volunteered to fight for his country. More than one generation of young Muslim Azerbaijanis has openly relished Agarunov’s sense of solidarity with his Muslim compatriots. Jewish visitors witnessing this appreciation for a member of the Azerbaijani Jewish minority begin to understand tolerance as it is practiced in Azerbaijani culture.
Throughout Azerbaijan, visitors witness Jews and Muslims sharing life’s joys and sorrows. The Mountain Jewish family in which Agarunov was raised nurtured its own unique set of customs, but also freely incorporated the surrounding culture. Azerbaijani Jews have worked side by side with Muslim colleagues as contributors to Azerbaijan’s abundant intellectual and technological achievements. During times of adversity, Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis have looked to each other as sources of strength devoted to the common cause of Azerbaijan.
Many American Jewish guests will arrive at the Hanukkah party at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue fraught with concerns for America’s future. We owe it to ourselves, however, to open our minds and hearts to the citizens of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani people have shown themselves to be steadfast and reliable friends to the U.S. and to the Jewish community.
We can learn from our friends just as we learn from Judah Maccabee.
Diana Cohen Altman is the executive director of the Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. 501(c)(3) organization that focuses on the culture of Azerbaijan. Altman is a former director of the B’nai B’rith National Jewish Museum and Center for Jewish Culture.