This doesn’t happen often.
And by “often,” I mean, “never.”
The president of a Shi’ite Muslim nation reached out to his country’s and the world’s Jews to wish them a happy new year, or “shana tova” in Hebrew.
President Ilham Aliyev sent a message of greetings to the Jewish community of Azerbaijan on the Rosh Hashanah holiday (Jewish New Year), then pinged it via e-mail to the rest of the world. The message reads:
We consider ethnic and religious diversity a historical achievement of the modern Azerbaijani society, in which traditional friendship, brotherhood and tolerance among different nations have always reigned.
Guaranteeing human rights and freedoms for everybody – irrespective of their language, religion and ethnicity – is one of the key priorities of our policy aimed at ensuring stability, peace and civil solidarity.
The independent State of Azerbaijan have always attached a particular emphasis to this issue and necessary democratic and legal basis had been created in the country to ensure that all national minorities, including the Jewish community, safeguard their national and cultural originality and traditions and develop their language and culture.
It is with great pleasure that I would like to note that our Jewish citizens are actively involved in the socio-political life of our country and the process of building democratic statehood.
The Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of renewal, repentance and moral purity. May this dear day bring good news, joy and happiness to you and your families.”
It’s possible that other Muslim rulers went through the motions of wishing their Jews a happy holiday. But what makes Aliyev’s pronouncement so meaningful is he seems to mean it. Azerbeijan is a small nation with a history of tolerance and an active engegemnt with israel and world Jewry. As I wrote in a column several years ago:
It is a majority Shi’ite country—70 percent Sh’ite, the rest mostly Sunni. It is a democratic secular state whose religious and ethnic minorities are embraced. Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote in 1919—one year before the United States did.
“My teachers were Jews. My doctors were Jews,” [Azerbaijan Consul General] Suleymanov said. “They have lived with us through good and bad times.” (Azerbaijan’s most famous Jew? Chess grand master Garry Kasparov.)
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held his Holocaust denial conference earlier this winter, the Azerbaijani television station aired a debate on it featuring Arthur Lenk, Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan (yes, the same man who was Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles in the mid-‘90s).
“He got one full hour,” Suleymanov said. “There was a feeling he won the debate.”
It’s not just about tolerance. One-sixth of Israel’s oil supply comes from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an economically thriving, moderate and tolerant majority-Islamic nation with great oil wealth—like the real Kazakhstan, in a way.
Of course, Azerbaijan is small—8 million people to Iran’s 75 million. But Azeris, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Azerbaijanis, account for some 20 million Iranians. Mullahs who have tried to gain traction for fundamentalist teachings in Baku have met with little success, and Azeris in Iran have had a liberalizing influence.
This is no shallow PR effort. The Jewish Journal’s contributor Gabriel Lerner traveled to Azerbaijan in 2008 and reported on a country where coexistence is a centuries-old value.
“Not unlike the Jews of Sefarad (Spain) during the First Caliphate,” Lerner writes, “Azerbaijan’s Jewry is interwoven into the fabric of this state, which emerged in August 1991 from the Soviet Union. And despite their minuscule numbers—maybe 12,000 in a population of 8 million—their presence is known and acknowledged…”
So, President Aliyev: Shana Tova right back at you. A year of peace for Muslims and Jews in Azerbaijan, and everywhere else too.