Yemenite and Azerbaijani Jewry
Celebrating the parallels and differences.
The Economic Peace Center of former Israeli Communication Minister Ayoob Kara together with the Association for the Society and Culture, Documentation and Research of Yemenite Jewry and Aziz, one of the Azerbaijani Jewish groups in Israel, recently held an event titled “From Jewish community in Azerbaijan to Yemenite Jews: A History of Two communities” at the Yemenite Jewish Museum in Netanya, Israel. Azerbaijan’s Tourism Attaché in Israel Jamilyeh Talibzadeh alongside prominent members of both the Azerbaijani and Yemenite community in Israel attended the event.
As editor of the Economic Peace Center, I was one of the speakers and organizers of this event. At this event, some people asked me, why should Yemenite and Azerbaijani Jews have a joint event together? After all, the two communities are very different from each other. However, I decided to have this joint event because I believe that we have more strength and more power if we stand united with each other and do joint events with others that are very different from us. This is the best way to build alliances, by celebrating differences and uniting around them rather than using it to divide us.
Now, we Jews are celebrating Lag B’Omer, where we remember that the students of Rabbi Akiva perished in a plague due to their lack of love and respect for one another. In the eyes of G-d, love and respect for fellow man was considered a greater value than Torah scholarship, which is why he buried the Torah knowledge of 24,000 great students just out of their lack of respect and love for the other. Considering this, it is important to promote Azerbaijan’s multiculturalism policy as a model that others should emulate, as the multiculturalism policy of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and his successor President Ilham Aliyev seeks to support every ethnic and religious group in the country, believing that celebrating all ethnicities and religions together is what makes us great.
As I said in my talk, “Azerbaijan does not seek to assimilate its minorities like America and Europe in the past. Rather, they accept them the way that they are, viewing their culture and faith to be a valuable contribution to the country. The Jewish community in Azerbaijan has greatly benefited from this reality. While Jewish students in American, Canadian and European universities suffer from systematic anti-Semitism, Jewish students studying on Azerbaijani universities do not. While many Jews in America fear wearing Star of David necklaces due to fears of anti-Semitism, Jews in Azerbaijan do not have such worries. In fact, it is so safe for Jews in Azerbaijan that the local Jews there do not even lock up the synagogues at night. Even the State of Israel is not that safe for Jews, as the riots on the Temple Mount and the recent series of terror attacks have demonstrated.”
Dr. Yigal Ben Shalom, the head of the Association for the Society and Culture, Documentation and Research of Yemenite Jewry stressed that like Azerbaijani Jewry, Yemenite Jewry has ancient roots: “Jews arrived in Yemen before the destruction of the First Temple. They believed in the prophesy of Jeremiah that the temple would be destroyed. That is one version. The other one is that they are descendants of the Queen of Sheba, who came to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. There, they maintained their tradition and followed the ways of the Bible. Later on, there would even be a Jewish kingdom in Yemen for 300 years.”
However, he noted that this kingdom was later on taken over by the Byzantines and then Islam afterwards became the dominant religion in Yemen: “The Jews then became dhimmis. But, they maintained their faith and created great philosophy.” He noted that in the 1600’s, the Jews were ethnically cleansed from their homes and sent to Mawza: “Close to a third of the Jewish population in Yemen was eradicated.” When they returned, Dr. Ben Shalom emphasized that the Jews found that the synagogues were burnt and many things that were important to them disappeared. According to him, the situation improved a bit under Ottoman rule and then there was the Aliyah to Israel: “30 percent of Yemenite Jews were in Israel before the country was established.”
Lev Spivak, the head of Aziz, spoke afterwards and noted that the event was held on the birthday of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev: “For us Azerbaijanis, he is like Herzl, Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion all in one. He also established Azerbaijan. Today is his 99th birthday.” Spivak then stressed that Azerbaijani Jews also have an ancient history exactly like Yemenite Jews: “The first Jews came to Azerbaijan after the destruction of the First Temple. The city of Shushan where the Megillah of Esther is today in Azerbaijan.”
According to Spivak, this is the legacy of the Mountain Jews, although Azerbaijan also has a Georgian, Ashkenazi and other Jewish communities as well: “Many Ashkenazi Jews arrived with the arrival of the oil and they have a completely different culture.”
Afterwards, prominent Middle East scholar Dr. Mordechai Kedar spoke about the difference between being Jewish in Azerbaijan and being Jewish in Yemen: “On the surface, there is not much of a difference. Both are Muslim countries. But when you look at what actually happens in the area, Azerbaijan is light years away from Yemen. They are on two separate planets. In Yemen, Jewish orphans were forced to become Muslim. Thus, if the mother and father die, the child is forced to become Muslim. This is something terrible. There, they used to marry off the girls very young before puberty. They did this not because it needed to be this way but because the Muslims there used to abduct young girls and abuse them.”
However, Dr. Kedar noted that this did not happen in Azerbaijan: “It is a different world there. Their status in the Diaspora was completely different. They are doing great economically, socially and in every aspect. They are both Muslim, so why the great difference? The difference is that in Yemen, they are Arab. In Azerbaijan, they are not Arab. Islam was born in the Arab world and adopted the culture of the Arab world. This means that in the Arab world, they treated the Jews according to the traditions of the Arab tribes of the desert, who lived in order to survive. In this culture, anyone who is foreign is an enemy.”
“But in Azerbaijan, this culture does not exist,” he stressed. “Islam is not part of the local culture. They became Muslim by the sword. As a result, they barely practice Islam. Unlike the Arabs, their roots are not Muslim. Therefore, they don’t have a problem with the Jews. When you have a people that was not originally Muslim and converted by the sword, then they don’t adopt the hatred and the jealousy of the Jews. This is why the Jewish experience in the Caucuses is very different from the Arab world. They are more multi-cultural and Turkic there. That concept is very well-rooted there.”
Dr. Dana Barnett, the director of Israel Academia Monitor, in her talk spoke about the rise of anti-Semitism in academia in Europe, America and even Israel. However, she noted the lack of anti-Semitism in Azerbaijani academia: “There, the Jews live quietly. For this reason, it is very important that diplomatic relations continue to develop between the two countries for many years to come.”
In conclusion, Azerbaijan’s Tourism Attaché in Israel Jamilyeh Talibzadeh declared: “I would like to tell a story about the late Heydar Aliyev. In my office, I met a rabbi from America. He told me an episode about old times. He said, ‘I regularly visit Azerbaijan and every time, I learn new things.’ What was interesting for me is that during the Soviet period, Jewish people could not celebrate the holidays so freely like they would like to. All of the Soviet republics had strict limits and restrictions for celebrating holidays. And when it came to Passover, there was a decree from the Soviet Union to destroy all of the machines cooking matza.”
“But unlike in other Soviet republics, this rabbi himself saw this old machine, almost an ancient machine, for making matza,” she proclaimed. “It was during the years when Heydar Aliyev was in the leadership of the country. This shows how he assisted Jewish people and helped to preserve their culture and holidays. They could celebrate their own holidays and make matza for Passover, which is very important. Today, this unites two nations, two peoples. These traditions came from old times and we are going to keep it and to develop it so the ties between both countries flourish.``
Rachel Avraham is the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by former Israeli Communication Minister Ayoob Kara. She is also the author of "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media."