That intriguing, but seeming odd couple of the East — Israel and Azerbaijan — cannot be explained by oil and arms alone. Even the menacing glare toward both countries from nearby Iran does not illuminate how these two came to be partners with deep trade ties.
The modern Israel-Azerbaijan bond began with Israel’s recognition of Azerbaijan after the latter’s 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. Some 25 years later, friendships, substantive cultural and educational exchanges, and extended business ties belie expectations of how a Muslim-majority country might interact with Israel. A surprising number of Azerbaijani young people have traveled to and studied in Israel.
To begin to sense why the Israel-Azerbaijan partnership succeeds, one must leave aside the enormous political and religious considerations that dominate most analyses of the Caucasus and the Middle East. Clues appear in the epic sweep of history and the vital role of culture in both countries.
Israelis and Azerbaijanis, respectively, live on land that bears the footprints of a great many who have come and gone over centuries. A 100-year-old Azerbaijani citizen will have lived through the Russian Empire, Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, and, since 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan. An Israeli of the same age, if not born in Palestine, will likely be a refugee from an Arab country or from Nazi Europe and will have witnessed the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. A tour around both countries reveals citizens in a vast array of physical types, which serves as a visual reminder of complicated history.
Just as culture can help to explain the Israel-Azerbaijan partnership, it can be distorted and used by enemies to disparage both the relationship and the countries themselves. Both Israel and Azerbaijan face relentless questioning of their history and their very existence. Virtually every Israeli and every Azerbaijani recognizes some connection between culture and existence.
Azerbaijan’s ancient Jewish population in the country’s Quba district, and its more recent Jewish community in Baku, as well as Azerbaijani Jews living in Israel, form a vital, concrete link between Israel and Azerbaijan. Baku is quick to point out that Jews have long served in important positions in Azerbaijani government. As evidenced throughout the country, members of the Muslim majority long have enjoyed strong relationships with Jewish neighbors.
To outsiders, Israelis and Azerbaijanis both exude a profound connection to their respective centers — Jerusalem and Baku. This deep affinity also resonates around the world from within the far-flung Azerbaijani and Jewish diasporas. Yet visitors to Jerusalem and Baku often are startled by the multicultural flavors of these cities, where bewildering synergies reveal themselves in everything from the arts to civic life.
Even amid the rich diversity in action in the public places in Baku and Jerusalem, elements of a distinct cultural narrative are everywhere. Monuments, performance venues, museums, preservation initiatives and more signal how heritage is threaded into people’s everyday lives in these places.
Whereas Jewish if not Israeli culture is widely documented throughout the world, Azerbaijani culture is little known in the West. Few English-language resources provide the needed information and context. Yet scholars from the East and West tout the Azerbaijani cultural legacy — music and literature in particular — and its influence on a broad geographic region. Rug collectors know that Azerbaijani carpets are among the best of the best.
Certainly overlapping elements of culture, such as the extraordinary story of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community in Quba, contribute to the success of the Azerbaijani-Israeli partnership. Many Azerbaijanis recognize the role of Azerbaijani Jews in building Azerbaijani society. Azerbaijani Jews in Israel are sharing their story and helping to expand the Jewish Israeli cultural narrative.
The Israeli and Azerbaijani narratives are by no means parallel, but they both contain a strong theme of adversity, as do other cultures. From joyous humor and dancing to doleful folk songs and artistic compositions — both Azerbaijani and Israeli culture show the talent to express through culture great delight and terrible sorrow.
Still, few would argue that the Israel-Azerbaijan partnership is based on a cognitive analysis of culture, and yet most would agree that certain commonalities undergird the relationship. The saga of the Jewish people and Israel is widely told, unique and impossibly multifaceted. The story of the Azerbaijani people and their tie to their land is epic and known to a growing number of people who examine the intricate history.
The Israel-Azerbaijan partnership is more than the sum of its parts; like most relationships it is a dynamic fueled in part by mystery. And yet breaking free of conventional norms and stereotypes, one can understand that these two countries see something in each other that just makes sense.
• Diana Cohen Altman, principal of Cultural Diplomacy Associates, serves as executive director of the Karabakh Foundation.