A look at the life of Azerbaijani Jews, lessons for the Caucasus

Interview by | Rachel Brooks

With special guest Maryam Iskanderova

January 8, 2020

Above, previous guests submitted this image of Jewish Azerbaijani proudly serving the country during the Karabakh conflict. Read more here

Interviewer’s questions are in bold text, and the guest’s responses are in plain text throughout. 

First, perhaps you would like to introduce yourself and tell me more about you. 

My name is Maryam Iskanderova. My dad is an Azerbaijani Muslim while my mum is a mix of Gorskys and Ashkenazi Jews. I lived in Azerbaijan until I was 6 and then we moved to Istanbul and then I decided to continue my university degree in Scotland and currently I am a law student in my 3year at the University of Aberdeen,

What is your opinion of the Western treatment of Jews? Do you believe that Jews, no matter what part of the world they come from, are treated with a sense of bias by the western media, or are they treated fairly?

I do not have a positive opinion. Wherever you go there will be antisemitic people it’s just a fact that I have accepted a long time ago. Especially, in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn promoting antisemitic ideas and hiding it with antizionism. I had an Israeli friend who visited Glasgow and couldn’t walk around in his kippah without people staring.

A French journalist made an experiment in France with walking around kippah and recording people’s actions in the street. Swastikas are being sprayed to the walls in Paris. Antisemitism is having another rise and unfortunately, we Jews do not have non-Jewish allies who will speak up for us and stand with us against anti-Semitism. We are all alone. Antisemitism has been in the West due to the storyline of Jews killing Jesus, us controlling the banks and the media, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and so on.

My people have been used as the scapegoat to every problem each society has. We were even getting blamed for Corona. The media is being biased on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel is always being shown as the bad guy. There was a news article recently stating that Israel will vaccinate all of its citizens by the end of February and spotted that Palestinians in the country were not getting vaccinated without mentioning that Israeli Arabs are (getting vaccinated) and the people who do not have Israeli citizenship and are under the regime of Hamas and the Palestinian Authoritarian regime are not. In Brooklyn NY, Orthodox Jews get attacked nearly every week now and the comments under the new sections are quite antisemitic as well “Oh he probably raised the rent and got what he deserved.” And so on. 

My experience with antisemitism is a bit different since Azerbaijan is one of the rare countries where antisemitism doesn’t exist in society or the government. Istanbul was a very different one as well, not a very pleasant one, unfortunately. Wherever you go, antisemitism will be there especially in social media. My Twitter account had a header of Azerbaijan and Israeli flag together it got removed for “not following guidelines.”. 

What about the Jews of the Karabakh region, who are likewise a mixture of ethnicities? What are the experiences of forgotten Jews from the Karabakh? Would you say the world is dismissing the Jews of this region and their unique issues?

Karabakh was a mixed place that mainly had an Armenian population in Xankendi and the rest of the regions had an Azerbaijani one. The Jewish community in Karabakh was small and now it doesn’t exist just like the Azerbaijani one due to the Armenian aggression in the nineties. The Jewish community in Karabakh was not made up of Azerbaijani Mountain Jews it was made up of the refugees that used Karabakh as a safehaven from the Nazis in the second world war. 

There were Jews from: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other parts of the Soviet Union. The Jews in Karabakh were mainly Askenazi jews and had a close connection with the Jewish organizations in Baku. The people in there had to escape the Nazis in the 40s and then escape Armenians in the 90s to escape persecution. 

For the Armenian nationalists in that time, all of the non-Armenian people were foreigners and “guests” in the “Armenian territory”/ An Ukranian Jew summarised the change saying that it was easy in the 70s and 80s and they had an easy life but when even the first waves of Armenian nationalism grew it become hard for them. Maria Spector Groisman recalls that Karabakh nationalists had threatened to have her fired unless she wrote an article on praising Armenian tolerance. Another example is Alexander and Svetlana Peisakhov a mixed couple. ‘A mixed Jewish-Armenian couple, Alexander and Svetlana Peisakhov, lived in Stepanakert where their children, Sergei and Stella, were known as “local prodigies”.

However, during four years of fighting, the children’s grandparents, Niusia and Gelta Sarkisian kept them back from school and hid them in the basement. “We would bury the dead at night because the heavy shelling during the day made it too dangerous,” said Nuisia Sarkisian. 

“We were scared because our children were not Armenians. We did everything we could to get them out through Baku.”

With support from Israel even during the first Karabakh war, the majority of the Jews even in Armenia had to hide their Jewish identity as they would get blamed for helping Azerbaijanis. Steve Sverdlow who did the work for Karabakh Jews of Karabakh gives another significant example of discrimination against the Karabakh Jews: ‘When the war broke out in 1988, Daniel and Svetlana Groisman was living in Shushi, now Nagorny Karabakh’s second-largest town. Daniel joined the Armenian army fought from 1990 until the ceasefire in 1994. Says Svetlana, “My husband helped retake Shushi. So many fled during the war. We aren’t even Armenian but we stayed and didn’t betray Karabakh. But now people call us Yids.”

After the war, the new government paid out compensation to veterans of the conflict but Daniel was denied the benefits awarded to “pure-blooded” Armenians. When the city court confiscated the Groismans’ garage in 1998 and gave it to an ethnic Armenian veteran, the family was told “Only Armenians are full-fledged citizens. You should leave for Israel!’

What is your opinion of Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan? Will it perhaps lead to more Jews from Karabakh or Jewish IDPs in Azerbaijan seeking to “make Aliyah” and become citizens in Israel? 

Israel and Azerbaijan have a friendly relationship. It makes me happy as an Azerbaijani Jew to see both of them getting along. Many Jews from Azerbaijan moved to Russia, America, and Israel as the living conditions in Azerbaijan are harder than in there.

But many of them will still get buried in Azerbaijan and visit it a couple of times a year as they see Azerbaijan as their home. I don’t think Aliyah is going to happen for the Azerbaijani Jews if the living conditions in the countries get better. It’s hard to say; I’m not an economist. We can see them moving back to Karabakh now since Azerbaijan gained its territory back, 

What are the experiences of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus region? With so much racial and religious diversity, how do people maintain a good and fair relationship? Do you believe that this can serve as an example of civil rights throughout the world? 

Azerbaijan is the most secular Muslim country. In the capital city of Baku an Ashkenazi synagogue faces a Mountain Jewish synagogue from walking distance of the Teze Pir Mosque and the Russian Orthodox Church that is nearby, and no security anywhere. Azerbaijan is also the place where the Jerusalem of Caucasus is: the Red Village, the only Jewish town in the world that is outside of Israel.

During the second Karabakh war: Christians, Jews, and Muslims prayed together and Azerbaijani Jews prayed from Israel. Azerbaijan has a Jewish hero Albert and there was a Christian martyr from the second war who protected his country. The tolerance of religion in Azerbaijan should be an example for civil rights. Azerbaijani Muslims are not so religious and even the religious ones wouldn’t care. Everyone’s religious life is personal no one will try to change you. My parents-maintained respect for each other during their marriage. We have celebrated Jewish celebrations and Muslim celebrations in my family and even our Muslim and Christian neighbors have joined us for Shabbat dinners. I think the key is to respect each other’s opinions and religious beliefs. 

How do Jews in Azerbaijan educate regarding holocausts, being that both Jews and Azerbaijani have been subjected to racially motivated pogroms over the last century? What is one way that people of the Caucasus can socially educate and prevent future hate crimes and pogroms? In your opinion, how can this also help people from Armenia who argue that many of their current politics and conflict escalations are the result of traumas in their society caused by pogroms? 

Or in other words, how can we teach peace and decertify hate in the Caucasus?

The holocaust is an important subject not only in the Azerbaijani schools but in society as well. Azerbaijanis feel proud that their country was a safe haven for Jews during those horrible times. Also, both sides of my family and many Azerbaijani families have served in the war so, in my opinion, post-soviet countries schools make sure that their students know how the war was including the holocaust. I wouldn’t say that Azerbaijanis compare what they went through (Khojaly massacre) to the holocaust but it’s obvious that there is an understanding from both sides.

What the Caucasus needs is peace. Georgia has a good relationship with both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia need to understand each other more and see the conflict from each other’s point of view as well and also include each other’s history in their own school education. Azerbaijanis and Armenians got along well during the USSR I do not see why it shouldn’t happen now as well.

To prevent future pogroms and so on Armenia has to give up on the nationalistic drive it has right now. Azerbaijan opened Armenian language classes and is going to give citizenships to the Armenians in Xankendi, a nice gesture to build a strong relationship.

Many Armenians recall the Armenian genocide when the topic of Karabakh is being spoken but the Armenian genocide is a conflict between Turkey and Armenia. Many countries do not recognize it, Azerbaijan is just one of them. Israel and the UK also do not recognize the genocide. Sumgait pogroms and Baku pogroms are a horrible mark on Azerbaijan’s history, but Azerbaijanis can also feel paranoid as they were the victims of the Khojaly massacre that was done by Armenians. Both countries have to give a good education to the new generation on this to not spread the hate and see where the mistakes were.