Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume Issue 18 Issue 2
Authors: Giuliano Bifolchi and Silvia Boltuc
The conference held in Baku on the Caucasian Jews underscored the positive state of relations between Azerbaijan and Israel. Notably, it shed light on Baku’s strategic use of cultural diplomacy to foster stronger ties with Tel Aviv and garner support from the global Jewish community.
This diplomatic approach is especially significant as it coincides with a period when Azerbaijan has faced international scrutiny and criticism because of its blockade of the Lachin Corridor, a situation that has contributed to a humanitarian crisis in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh.
By emphasising their shared cultural heritage and collaborative academic efforts, Baku aims to mitigate the negative repercussions of this blockade and build stronger bridges of understanding and support on the international stage, particularly in Israel and the Jewish community.
Conference of Jews of the Caucasus organised in Baku:
On August 30th, 2023, the Azerbaijan University of Languages in Baku hosted the international scientific conference titled “Heritage and Culture of the Jews of the North and East Caucasus”, that attracted over 60 researchers from around the world, including Azerbaijan, Israel, Russia, the United States, and France.
Various academic institutions from Azerbaijan and Israel organised this event such as the Centre for the Study of Sephardic and Eastern Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, the Ashkelon Academic College, the Baku International Centre for Multiculturalism, the Azerbaijan University of Languages, the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the STMEGI International Charitable Foundation for Mountain Jews.
The conference covers a wide range of topics, with speakers addressing diverse aspects of the heritage and culture of Jews in the Caucasus. These include discussions on customs, traditions, multiculturalism in Azerbaijan and its relationship with the Jewish community, issues of national and ethnic identity, Zionist activity, Azerbaijani-Israeli relations, the history of the Jewish community in Baku, language and ethnic identity, the modern era of Jews in the Caucasus, the experience of Mountain Jews during World War II, cultural and artistic contributions, and the broader study of sources pertaining to Jews in the Caucasus.
The conference promoted mutual understanding and academic collaboration, underlining the importance of preserving and celebrating the rich cultural diversity of the Caucasus.
In his opening remarks, Shimon Ohayon, professor at Bar-Ilan University, expressed his optimism that the conference would revitalise research efforts concerning the historical heritage and culture of Mountain Jews and Jewish communities in the Eastern and Northern Caucasus. He underlined the importance of initiating this work and commended Azerbaijan for its reputation for tolerance towards different cultures and faiths.
Kamal Abdulla, the Rector of the Azerbaijan University of Languages, highlighted the institution’s role in promoting linguistic diversity and fostering language centres. He mentioned the success of Azerbaijani language centres abroad and expressed a desire to see similar institutions established in Israel. Abdulla also praised the harmonious coexistence of various cultures and religions in Azerbaijan and the strengthening friendship between Azerbaijan and Israel.
During the conference, Kamal Abdulla shed lit on the March 1918 genocide, wherein, according to Azerbaijani sources, Armenians not only targeted Azeri, but also Mountain Jews.
Ravan Hasanov, the executive director of the Baku International Centre for Multiculturalism, celebrated the inclusive and harmonious environment in Azerbaijan, where individuals of different backgrounds enjoy equal rights and engage in their respective cultural and religious practices.
Azerbaijani media covered the events and attempted to disseminate the news, focusing the attention on Baku’s role in promoting Azerbaijani-Israeli relations and preserving the Jewish community in the Caucasus.
For instance, according to Azerbaijani sources, the head of the community of Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, Melih Yevdayev, in his speech at the conference, emphasised that the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict showed the unity between Azeri and Jewish people in Azerbaijan. He also informed the audience that, for the first time in the Caucasus, a Religious and Cultural Centre of the Jews will be built in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan-Israel Diplomatic Relations: A Geopolitical Scenario
Azerbaijani-Israeli relations have a deep-rooted history, dating back to the early 19th century, when the first Jewish settlers arrived in Baku. Over the years, Jewish communities, including Mountain Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, and Georgian Jews, have thrived in Azerbaijan, with several synagogues and cultural centres enriching the landscape.
The presence of various Jewish denominations in Azerbaijani Parliament underscores the favourable environment for Israeli interests in Baku.
Israel swiftly recognised Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, beginning diplomatic relations in 1992. While Azerbaijan established its embassy in Israel only in 2023, it signifies a growing alignment in their political ties.
This shift is driven by Baku’s desire to strengthen its relations with Tel Aviv, especially after the latter’s successful diplomatic initiatives in the region. Meetings and negotiations between top officials have been constant since 1995, solidifying political cooperation.
The visits in Azerbaijan of Israeli Minister of Defence Benny Gantz in October 2022 and ISraeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen in April 2023 have reinvigorated Azerbaijani-Israeli relations and set the course for a new phase of cooperation, focusing particularly on security and defence collaboration.
Economic relations have flourished, with trade volume increasing significantly in recent years, reaching $1.7 billion in 2022. Energy cooperation is a cornerstone, with Israel importing 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan. Agriculture, water management, and technology exchange are also key facets of economic collaboration, particularly given Tel Avivi’s expertise in water management.
Both nations have found common ground in technology and cybersecurity. Azerbaijan established a Cybersecurity Centre in collaboration with Israel’s Technion Institute to train specialists. This initiative seeks to enhance national cybersecurity capabilities.
Military-technical cooperation has a history dating back to 2004, marked by the provision of Israeli arms. This relationship has evolved, with Tel Aviv playing a significant role in Baku’s defence capabilities. UAVs, radar systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, and naval vessels are among the military assets Azerbaijan has acquired from Israel.
The relationship between the two countries is influenced by the regional dynamics, particularly the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran views Tel Aviv as a primary adversary, making Baku’s close ties with Israel a subject of attention. However, Tehran’s response to Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation has been relatively quiet in recent times, reflecting its broader foreign policy interests.
In conclusion, the international scientific conference titled “Heritage and Culture of the Jews of the North and East Caucasus,” served as a significant platform for Azerbaijan’s cultural diplomacy, particularly in its engagement with Israel and the Jewish community.
Against the backdrop of heightened regional tensions, notably the Azerbaijan blockade and the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, Azerbaijan has strategically sought to counterbalance Armenia’s increasing support.
The conference shed light on historical events, notably the so-called March 1918 genocide, suggesting that Armenians targeted members of the Jewish community, possibly with the aim of garnering Jewish support and international attention for Azerbaijani cause.
Furthermore, the conference underscored the enduring and robust relations between Baku and Tel Aviv, which have expanded across various sectors, including academia and research. This collaboration provides Baku with an additional avenue to convey its perspective on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the international community.
However, it is imperative to acknowledge the geopolitical complexities in the Caucasus, particularly the Iranian relations with Armenia and Tehran’s fluctuating relations with Baku. Indeed, Iran has closely monitored the growing Israeli footprint in Azerbaijani territory, and while its response has been relatively restrained in recent years, it remains a factor that must be considered in the context of Azerbaijan-Israel cooperation.
As they navigate the complex geopolitical landscape, both nations will expand their cooperation in various fields. The collaboration between Azerbaijan and Israel may assist Tel Aviv in countering Tehran and offer Baku a new perspective to gain global support in the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh conflict with Armenia.
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