Against the backdrop of this autumn’s Nagorno-Karabakh war, another battle raged in Washington: partisans to the conflict seeking to sway American Jewry to their cause. In their telling, Azerbaijan was an enlightened society tolerant of all while Armenia was a deeply anti-Semitic country that supported Adolf Hitler.
Countries that embrace religious freedom seldom need to brag about how good they are to their minorities. The Netherlands, for example, seldom brags about how happy its Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, or Buddhists are. To hold indigenous Jewish communities on a pedestal, as Turkey and Azerbaijan do, is an obnoxious strategy. Not only does it suggest Jews think singularly and interpret policy through a religious lens rather than through the interests of the country in which they are citizens, but the strategy also carries an implied threat: Religious tolerance will be fleeting if Washington or Jerusalem do not abide by Ankara or Baku’s wishes. It’s the mafioso equivalent of, “Nice place you’ve got here; it would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
Indeed, representatives of Turkey’s Jewish community simultaneously tell American visitors how happy they are under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership but appear terrified of running afoul of the mercurial ruler and quietly ask for advice on securing visas. While Turkish Jews can honestly say Turkey has historically been kind to the community, the community has declined under Erdogan as Turkish Jews vote with their feet. The Turkish president, meanwhile, makes little secret of his view that Turkey’s Jews are hostages to his approval of Israel’s behavior. That the Azerbaijani government and its proxies now embrace the same strategy does not assuage concerns.
Indeed, while Azeri diplomats and officials tell visitors that Azerbaijan is home to 30,000 Jews, the true population is less than a third of that as many in the community chose to emigrate when they had the opportunity. Jews also have a long history in Armenia. Armenian officials sometimes tell visitors the country is home to 500 Jews, although both emigration and intermarriage have also taken a toll on this number, and the true figure may be only half that. Regardless, numbers of Jews are likewise a silly metric for supposed anti-Semitism. Consider the fact that the Mountain Jewish community of Azerbaijan aside, most of the Jews in Baku and its environs date their arrival just to the late 19th or early 20th centuries and tied their presence to certain industries: Does that mean that anti-Semitism declined during the influx and then increased after the Ashkenazi Jews again emigrated? Or, to question the logic in a different way, is Bhutan more anti-Semitic than Iran because Iran has more Jews? Is Canada more anti-Semitic than the United States?
Azerbaijan has historically been enlightened with regard to religious pluralism, and polls show anti-Semitic attitudes among Azerbaijanis to be less in most cases than Armenians. But there still have been anti-Semitic incidents in Azerbaijan in recent years, such as the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Baku. Nadraran, a town just 15 miles from Baku, is famous for being a stronghold of Hezbollah, though this is certainly the exception rather than the rule in Azerbaijan today.
Of greater concern, however, should be Azerbaijan’s partnership and general submissiveness to an increasingly anti-Semitic Turkey. Diplomats say the Turkish Foreign Ministry demarches its Azeri counterparts to limit the number of Jews and Israelis at diplomatic functions. Azerbaijan’s recent utilization of Syrian mercenaries, some of whom previously worked for al Qaeda affiliates or the Islamic State, also undercut the notion of Azeri liberalism. To ally with and fight alongside those who would behead Christians and enslave non-Muslim minorities is hardly a sign that Jews will remain safe in Azerbaijan. Sometimes, lavish spreads in luxury hotels for visiting dignitaries are not enough to obscure reality.
There is an irony when Azeris accuse Armenians of sympathy toward Hitler when Azeri President Ilham Aliyev appears to harbor a fascination with the German dictator. Just as Hitler defined his enemy as Jews inside Germany, Jews outside Germany, and those who would support the Jews, Aliyev has made similar comments with regard to Armenians. Aliyev has also embraced eliminationist rhetoric. “Armenia, as a country, is of no importance. In fact, it is a colony, an outpost; a territory governed from abroad which was artificially created in ancient Azerbaijani lands,” he said in 2012. In 2018, the Azeri dictator declared, “Yerevan is our historic land and we, Azerbaijanis, must return to these Azerbaijani lands.” Just last week, Aliyev repeated his quest for further territorial conquest (Azeri lebensraum) defining Zangerzur, Sevan, and Yerevan as “Azerbaijani territories” while Erdogan bragged about his “Caucasus Islamic Army.”
Simply put, while it is true that religious freedom is the canary in the coal mine to determine the reality of a regime, trajectory also matters. Azeri and Armenian officials and their respective diasporas may castigate the other, but both societies have traditionally embraced tolerance toward their indigenous Jewish communities. What should be of greater concern, however, is the recent trajectory of Azerbaijan’s leadership not only to embrace rhetoric rooted in the Armenian genocide but also to welcome as a partner a Turkish leader whose obsession lays not with territorial dispute but rather with religious warfare, jihad, and deeply anti-Semitic conspiracies. Simply put, the days of Azerbaijan being an oasis for Jews is now in the past.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.