Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended last month’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, held there a series of meetings with world leaders. Among them, one is particularly cherished by Israel, it is Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, because of the strategic alliance that exists between Jerusalem and Baku.
'Azerbaijani-Israeli relations develop and nothing can hinder this', said recently a senior official from Israel’s foreign ministry about the cooperation between the two countries who share many similarities: old nations but young countries, democratic values, hostile and unstable environment, importance of human life and family, many ethnic groups living side by side, need to fight a distorted image and hostile propaganda campaign. Like Israel, Azerbaijan criticizes 'those who don’t want to see the reality on the ground'.
"The Azerbaijani-Israeli strategic partnership relation encompasses many different areas, like energy, security, defense, agriculture, trade but it is also mostly characterized by the human factor, with a vibrant Jewish community in Azerbaijan," Hikmat Hajiyev, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan told EJP in Baku, the country’s capital, located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, a city which mixes modernity and tradition.
The Jewish community of Azerbaijan, with around 30,000 people, is viewed today as an example in the world how in a secular country with a majority Muslim Shia population, which borders Iran in its southern part, all faith communities, including Judaism, live in perfect harmony and mutual respect.
There are 7 synagogues in the country, including two in Baku and three in Quba, an old city in the north east of the country, also dubbed the 'Jerusalem of the Caucasus', where an entire Jewish population, known as Mountains Jews, lives. The sole example in the world of a Jewish city outside Israel.
Moreover, a new Jewish Museum is being build with government financial support in Quba.
70,000 Azerbaijani Jews made aliyah – the Hebrew word for immigration- to Israel in the years just after the country gained independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union when economic hardship preceded the oil booming.
Israel, which opened an embassy in Baku as early as in 1992, buys oil from Azerbaijan, through the Baku-Tbilisi-Cyehan pipeline, while Azerbaijan is interested in Israel’s technologies, science, medical know how and is importing defense-related equipment. Annual trade between the two countries amounts $5 billion and there is a twice weekly flight between Baku and Tel Aviv.
There is an Azerbaijani-Israeli parliamentary friendship group and the ADA University in Baku, which hosted former President Shimon Peres, is partnering with the University of Haifa for an exchange of students every semester.
On the political side, it is worthy to mention that both countries face the same kind of 'double standard' attitude from the international community, and particularly from the European Union.
Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, is targeted by the Western media and also the EU political echelon for its 'settlement policy'.EU-Israel political relations are showing strains since the EU decided last November to label Israeli settlement products entering the European market. A measure denounced as 'discriminatory' by Jerusalem.
"With our friends in Israel we had a very open discussion. This is not an issue for us. Our view is not different from the mainstream view of Israel’s society and Israel’s government. We have no problem with importing such products in Azerbaijan," replies Hikmat Hajyev, when asked about his country’s position on the labelling question, as he argues that people in the settlements are working to get salaries. "If you stop importing their products, they will lose their jobs" he says.
According to him, the two-state solution "is the only guarantee for sustainable peace in this part of the world and for the security and safety of the Israeli people."
Azerbaijan, too, is regularly denouncing 'double standards' by the European Union and the media, when it comes to the image of the country and also regarding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia since 1992 along with 7 other adjacent regions, taking up 20% of the Azerbaijani territory. Since then one million of refugees have been forced to flee their homes in the disputed areas.
The two countries signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994 and since the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – Russia, France and the US- are holding peace negotiations.
"We are witnessing regular unfair criticism and attacks in the European Parliament against Azerbaijan," deplores Bahar Muradova, Vice President of the Milli Mejlis, the country’s 125-member parliament, and chairperson of the Human Rights committee.
Herself a refugee from one of the 7 occupied districts, she deplores the difference of attitude of the EU when it comes to this conflict and the one adopted by Brussels towards Russia following the annexation of Crimea.
"This is very disappointing because we attach a lot of importance to our relationship with the EU," she said.
As a result of an 'offensive' resolution of the EU parliament last September on the so-called 'violation of human rights' in Azerbaijan, Baku suspended its participation in the Euronest parliamentary assembly, a forum in the framework of EU’s Eastern Partnership grouping members of national parliaments from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
In her conversation with EJP, Muradova was proud to say that "Azerbaijan is the only country where there is no anti-Semitism", contrary to what is happening in several countries of Europe.
Moreover, despite the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, there are 30,000 Armenians living peacefully in Azerbaijan, she explained. "Isn’t this tolerance and respect of human rights ?," the MP asked.
Turning to the succesful integration of one million refugees from Nagorno Karabakh region, she believes the EU, which is increasingly coping with the migrant crisis, has to learn from Azerbaijan’s experience.
Despite the 'cooling' in its relation with the EU, Azerbaijan attaches great importance and hope in the upcoming visit to Baku of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
"We expect this visit will lift all misunderstandings and revitalize our relations," says Dr Azay Guliev, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament who also chairs the Council of State Support to NGOs, as he explained that his country has proposed and initiated a strategic partnership with the EU based on close cooperation.
"We are not asking for money, we are not troublemakers, we are not sendig migrants to Europe. We only want equal partnership," notes the foreign ministry’s spokesperson ahead of Mogherini’s visit in March.
But both him and Guliyev are stressing that the EU leadership must recognize the inviolability of Azerbaijan’s international borders and territorial integrity in conformity with international law when it comes to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
"If you support Ukraine or Georgia’s integrity, why not supporting Azerbaijan’s integrity ?", Guliyev asks. "We hope that this conflict will end peacefully and that the occupied territory will be returned to Azerbaijan", he says.
Mogherini will also be hearing from her Azerbaijani hosts how much the country cherishes its multiculturalism and tolerance – two notions regularly praised by the EU leaders in their speeches.
Soon after her visit, the country will host the Global Forum of United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which was established to eliminate the tension between the West and the Islamic world. Holding this forum in Azerbaijan in 2016- which has been named Year of Multiculturalism in the country- is not only symbolic.
"Our multiculturalism should be developed as an example for the rest of the world at a time when anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are the main threats to our common home", says Azay Guliyev.
"Wasn’t Azerbaijan the first country to give voting rights to women in 1918, even before the US did so ?" he asks to counter his country’s critics.
Originally published by European Jewish Press
Taking Williamson’s lead, the UK can spearhead the global fight against antisemitism
Following two weeks of unabated and frankly terrifying attacks on Jewish people, Jewish buildings and indeed Jewish identity in the UK, last week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured) offered hope. Rather than simply condemning the huge spike in Jew-hatred, Williamson has gone a step further than perhaps any other leader by identifying a key remedy – Addressing antisemitism head on in schools. If Williamson’s justified concerns are translated into action, it could signal the UK taking a leading role in the European and indeed the global fight against the world’s ‘oldest hatred’, writes Robert Singer.
Thankfully, leaders have made clear that there is no place in the UK for Jew-hatred. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan were among those across the political spectrum to unequivocally condemn the 600 per cent rise in antisemitic incidents, which have seen a rabbi physically assaulted, calls for “Jewish blood” and a sickening pledge to rape Jewish women.
Sadly, this worrying trend is far from confined to the UK. Time and again, in cities across the world, Jews have been targeted under the feeble pretense of criticizing Israel. In some countries, such as Germany and France, governments have taken short-term measures to alleviate the threat, banning demonstrations where necessary and using legislation to prosecute racists.
Williamson though, is demonstrating a more nuanced, long-term approach. In a letter to headteachers and school leaders, he made clear that schools are not only expected to deal properly with an “atmosphere of intimidation” for Jewish students and teachers. Crucially, Williamson also said that schools also have a responsibility to educate in an impartial and balanced fashion, rejecting materials or organizations that “publicly reject Israel’s right to exist”. In other words, Williamson understands that the disease of antisemitism flourishes in an educational void. The antisemitic violence and chaos on Britain’s streets was born out of ignorance, a lack of knowledge which can be remedied in the classroom.
He is perhaps the first leader not only in the UK, but internationally, to recognize this and call for a revised educational approach to combat antisemitism. In over a decade of work at World ORT, one of the world’s largest educational networks operating in five continents, I have witnessed first-hand how quality, balanced education can change lives and indeed the world. While legislation and law-enforcement are the immediate tools to keep Jewish communities safe, only education can guarantee their future.
Therefore, Gavin Williamson and the government he represents must not lose momentum. The UK has always played a unique role in fighting Jew-hatred. The country proudly stood almost alone at one point in the fight against Nazism. British soldiers were among the first to eventually liberate the concentration camps and uncover the horrifying depths to which antisemitism can descend. Should Williamson’s words be turned into action, then the UK can again become a standard-bearer in the fight against antisemitism.
To this end, the following three-point action plan for UK education can provide an effective framework. Firstly, headteachers and school staff must be able to define antisemitism. They must recognize what it is they are guarding against. Time and again in recent weeks, naked antisemitism has been dressed up as anti-Zionism. It is crucial to be able to distinguish where criticism of Israel ends and antisemitism begins. Fortunately, the globally recognized International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism makes clear that “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is antisemitic.
Secondly, headteachers and teaching staff must be equipped to identify how antisemitism manifests itself in the classroom, in the playground and among pupils on social media. They must also be given the tools to respond appropriately.
Thirdly, educating about contemporary antisemitism must become part of the school curriculum. While ongoing, impressive efforts in Holocaust education are crucial, young people must understand that antisemitism isn’t confined to history. As recent events have shown, it is very much alive and kicking. Quite rightly, hundreds of UK schools have adapted their curricula accordingly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Tragically, the time has come for schools to teach that Jewish rights are equal too.
Quite simply, Jewish communities should never have to live in fear. Like so many others, Jews in the UK and across Europe are worried. Action is needed now, which can not only alleviate immediate concerns, but which will make clear that antisemitism won’t rear its ugly head again in the future. Education is the key to making this happen. Turning Gavin Williamson’s sentiments into concrete educational action would be a powerful statement that the UK is prepared to lead Europe and the world in finally consigning the ‘oldest hatred’ to history.
At World Jewish Congress plenary assembly, EU Commission president outlines EU strategy to combat antisemitism
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told hundreds of Jewish community leaders from around the world that the European Union is committed to combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, including through a forthcoming rollout of the first ever EU strategy to advance these goals, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.
Von der Leyen spoke to the delegates of the World Jewish Congress’ Plenary Assembly, which comes together every four years to address key issues affecting Jewish communities and set the organization’s policy for the years ahead.
“For decades, you have been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of Jewish communities around the world, to eradicate antisemitism and to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive, and I am here to tell you Europe is with you in this fight,” she said. “Because sadly, antisemitism is not confined to a distant past. It is still very present in Europe and across the world.”
She emphasized, “Antisemitic crimes and hate speech must be brought to justice.”
Von der Leyen discussed the frightening increase in antisemitic hatred in Europe, including most recently violent anti-Israel demonstrations and graffiti in European streets and on synagogues. She highlighted the multi-pronged approach of EU’s new strategy, which will:
- Strengthen the fight against antisemitism;
- preserve the memory of past atrocities and ensure all European students learn about the Holocaust, “no matter their background, family history or country of origin”, and;
- foster Jewish life in Europe.
The COVID-19 pandemic in particular, said von der Leyen, has shown how quickly antisemitic conspiracy myths can spread.
She contoinued, ”The duty to protect the future of the Jewish people starts with remembering the past, but of course it does not end there. Europe can only prosper when its Jewish communities prosper too. Seventy-six years after the Holocaust, Jewish life in Europe is thriving again in synagogues, in schools, in kindergartens and in the heart of our communities. And we must continue to protect it.”
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union, which proposes new European legislation and implements the decisions of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.
Commission vice president confirms: EU to present comprehensive strategy to prevent and combat antisemitism later this year
Promoting our European Way of Life European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas (pictured), has confirmed this week that the European Union would adopt later this year a comprehensive strategy that will complement and support member states’ effort on preventing and combating antisemitism, educating on the Holocaust remembrance and fostering Jewish life in Europe, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.
Together with Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Schinas opened an high-Level Conference 'Protection from racial discrimination and related intolerance' hosted by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Co-operation of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU Francisco André.
In a panel discussion, Katharina von Schnurbein, uropean Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, addressed the issue of 'Countering hate speech: the role of human rights education, history teaching and the media in countering it online and offline'.
She stressed the need to find new ways of teaching about the Shoah in a multi-cultural, digital society and for all actors to work together – European legislation, national enforcement, platforms and users – to address hate speech, including Holocaust denial and distortion online.
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