In mid-November, Azerbaijan became the first Shi’ite Muslim state to open an embassy in Jerusalem, the latest in a string of close, cooperative measures between the two countries, that date back at least three decades.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid applauded the move. He stated, “Azerbaijan is an important partner of Israel, and home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world. The decision to open an embassy reflects the depth of the relationship between our countries. This move is the result of the Israeli government’s efforts to build strong diplomatic bridges with the Muslim world.”
Kosovo was the first Muslim-majority state to open an embassy in Israel, in 2020. Also in 2020, other Arab and Muslim nations – namely UAE, Sudan, Bahrain, and Morocco – formalized and normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, as part of the Abraham Accords.
Good Relations Rooted in Stable Friendship
“It was not an impulsive or instant step,” Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) parliamentarian Nigar Arpadarai, told Community.
“The relations between the countries are developing since Azerbaijan regained independence. And these relations are very stable. Not once in the last three decades had we had any major differences. And apart from it there are very strong people-to-people bonds.”
She added that Azerbaijan recently opened a tourist office and trade representative office in Israel. “I am glad I could express my gratitude to Jewish friends though voting for a permanent embassy in their country.”
Azerbaijan is often touted as a model of interfaith harmony, that is, a Muslim-majority nation that embraces and protects its Jewish population.
Israel and Azerbaijan have had long-standing trade and partnership collaborations, beginning with Israel as one of the first nations to recognize Azerbaijan’s full independence, in 1991. Israel placed its embassy in Baku a year later.
Until recently, Azerbaijan provided 40 percent of Israel’s petrol, which only changed when offshore oil was found in the Mediterranean Sea. As for its part, Israel’s telecommunications corporation provided Azerbaijan with most of its telephone and cell infrastructure. Israel is one of only a few countries that do not require an advance visa to enter Azerbaijan, and today Israel is Azerbaijan’s fifth largest trading partner.
Much like Israel, Azerbaijan’s a country surrounded by hostile territory, abutting Iran, Russia, and arch-enemy Armenia.
“The embassy is very good news, and we’re quite happy. It’s good news for not only Jews in Azerbaijan, but also for the 80,000 Azerbaijani Jews that live in Israel,” said Rabbi Zamir Isayev, Chairman of Georgian Jewish community of Azerbaijan. “It will bear a lot of fruits to our relationships.”
Vibrant Jewish Life in Azerbaijan
Isayev, who is the director of one of the two Jewish schools in Baku, says that altogether about one hundred children attend his school.
About 20,000 Jews are believed to live in Azerbaijan, amongst the population of ten million, in a country roughly the size of South Carolina. There are seven synagogues, says Isayev, including three in Baku, servicing different ethnic and liturgical needs as Georgian, Ashkenaz, and Mountain Jews.
Several other cities are home to Jewish communities, including the 300 families in Ganja, and the 3,000 who reside in the “Red Village” in Quba – said to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel. Quba has two synagogues, and a new multimedia Jewish museum. Representatives say that all these communities are self-sustaining Jewishly, with kosher food, rabbis, teachers, Jewish centers, books, schools, and mohels. Evidence suggests that Jews have had a steady presence in the region going back more than two thousand years.
Increased Wide-Ranging Cooperation in the Offing
With the opening of the embassy, further bilateral relations are sure to follow, noted Rolan Yusufov, deputy head of the representative office at STMEGI-Azerbaijan International Charitable Fund of Mountain Jews. Increased cooperation might include sharing military technology, cyber-security, diplomacy, joint ventures, investment, educational structures, national security, environmental issues, and agriculture. “Israeli representatives both inside the country and outside the state have always had a deep respect for Azerbaijan,” he said.
As recently as October 2022, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a diplomatic visit to Azerbaijan, and met with his Azeri counterpart, Zakir Hasanov, and the country’s President Ilham Aliyev. Reports say they discussed security issues. Azerbaijan is the only country that Israel allows to use its Iron Dome – the counter-terror system that intercepts and destroys incoming missiles.