History of the Azerbaijan Jewish Community
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History of the Azerbaijan Jewish Community

The Republic of Azerbaijan is the legal successor of the Azerbaijan SSR. Its area is 86.6 thousand kilometers square; its population is 8.7 million. The Constitution of Azerbaijan was adopted through national referendum on November 12, 1995. The head of the state is its president, elected for five years through direct general election. The legislative authority belongs to the Milli Mejlis, consisting of 125 members, also appointed through general election.

Since the fall of 2003, the republic’s president has been Ilham Aliyev, son of the former first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (1969–1982) and president of Azerbaijan (1993–2003), Heydar Aliyev.

In Azerbaijan, religion is separate from the state. All confessions are equal before the law. The national educational system is secular. The official language of the Republic of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani. According to the most recent census, there are people of 140 ethnicities living in Azerbaijan, 22 of them having compact settlements in different regions of the state.

There are three Jewish communities in modern Azerbaijan: Bukharian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, and Georgian Jews. The community of Bukharian Jews is the oldest, their ancestors arriving to the territory almost 15 centuries ago, according to some data. This version claims that after the Mazdakeans were subdued in Iran (late 5th – early 6th century A.D.), most of the Iranian Jews who had supported them were exiled to the outskirts of the empire, i.e., today’s Northern Azerbaijan and Southern Dagestan. The ancestors of the Bukharian Jews spoke a South-Western dialect of the Persian language, which the modern Bukharian Jewish language (Juhuri or Judeo-Tat) is descended from. However the Bukharians themselves have legends of the first Jews settling in Eastern Caucasus as early as the 8th century B.C. during the Assyrian exile of the ten missing tribes.

The first Ashkenazi Jews arrived to Baku in the 19th century after the territory of Azerbaijan was annexed by Russia through the Gulistan Treaty of 1813. At the same time Georgian Jews appeared in Azerbaijan. Also living here since the 19th century are the Judaizing Russian sectarians – the Sabbatarians and the Gers.

Since 1870, as the oil industry in Baku grew rapidly, many more Jews began arriving to Northern Azerbaijan from the European part of Russia. These were mostly intellectuals: engineers, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. There were 14,791 Jews living in Azerbaijan in 1897.

Over the Soviet period the Jewish population of Azerbaijan grew times several. According to official data there were 40,000 of them by the 1970s, and the real numbers were even larger.

After the existing Zionist organizations were destroyed in the 1920s, and most of the Bukharian Jewish intelligentsia killed in the repressions of the 1930s, the only remaining Jewish institution in the republic were several synagogues, controlled rigidly by the government. In the 1970s, a mass “Tatization” campaign was started in Azerbaijan, wherein many Bukharian Jews were forced to register as Tats. Some Shirvan Jews from such towns as Vartashen (now Oguz), Kirovabad (now Ganja), Geokchay, and others, registered in their passports as Azerbaijanis. However, all observers note that the Jewish population of Azerbaijan has never encountered any anti-Semitic behavior on the part of the population around them.

The religious tolerance of the local rulers and citizens, attracting many Jews to Azerbaijan, was noted in documents dating as far back as the 13th century, in the Ilhanide times. The high tolerance of the Azerbaijani people and the lack of anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan are described in the memoir of the famous early-twentieth-century Zionist Jacob Weinshal. The leaders of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress also mention in their appeal: “Dialogue with Islam is one of the EAJC’s main agendas. The millennium-old history of the Jews of Northern Caucasus and Azerbaijan is a striking example of an ongoing neighborliness with local Muslims.”

In the late 1980s, mass aliyah of Azerbaijani Jews began. It was caused to a large extent by the political and economical instability riddling the country in the years 1989–1993. Between 1989 and 2007 approximately 60,000 people emigrated from Azerbaijan to Israel. According to some data, the common number of Jewish Azerbaijani expatriates living in Israel equals 100,000. Over 11,000 have gone to Russia in search of a living, despite formally still being members of the Jewish community of Azerbaijan.