There is a mountainous region populated by an ethno-religious group with centuries of history but not one country recognizes its claim to that region. If you thought that I was referring to the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, you may not have heard that there is a war happening at this time in Nagorno-Karabakh. Internationally, this Caucasus region is regarded as part of Azerbaijan, but nearly all of the people living there are ethnic Armenians who have their own self-declared state, the Republic of Artsakh. In the course of the past month, Azerbaijan has been fighting a war to recapture Karabakh and restore land to ethnic Azeris who were expelled from there a quarter century ago.
I first became familiar with this conflict a decade ago when Azeri soprano Zeynab Khanlarova performed at Queens College in a concert that was co-sponsored by the Congress of Bukharian Jews of the USA and Canada. At the time, I was working for a local Assemblyman and we welcomed Khanlarova to our district with a proclamation.
In my research, I was surprised to learn that she is a People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Uzbekistan. My friend Rafael Nektalov, editor-in-chief of Bukharian Times, told me not to mention Armenia in the document. Khanlarova received her award from Armenia in 1978, when it was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, a decade before it went to war with her native Azerbaijan. “It is a sensitive subject. Do not mention Armenia to an Azerbaijani,” he said.
Two years ago, I flew from Israel to New York with a stop in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Aboard the national airline, a colorful magazine promoted the glassy office towers of Baku, Caspian beaches, its community of Mountain Jews, and the Khojaly Massacre. That last item was filled with sorrow and rage, commemorating an incident in February 1992, when Armenian forces overran this Karabakh village and killed more than 600 Azeri Muslims in one night. In Baku, the heroes of the first Karabakh War are buried at the Alley of Martyrs, which includes Albert Agarunov, a Jew who is regarded as a national hero. Last year, a statue of Agarunov was unveiled in Baku and last month, President Ilham Aliyev personally dedicated a school named after him in the Baku suburb of Amirjan.
Agarunov’s reputation extends to Azerbaijan’s 10,000 Mountain Jews as integral members of this majority Shiite Muslim nation. In the Armenian shelling of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, the local Jewish community felt that it was targeted as it tried to observe its High Holidays, and it requested world Jewry to stand with Azerbaijan. As the first Karabakh War had Agarunov as the exemplary Azeri Jewish patriot, two weeks ago Elin Suleimanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, shared a video of soldier Daniel Zarbaliv speaking from a trench, urging Israeli Jews to “support us, pray for us. The truth is with us, the truth is with Azerbaijan. Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”
Unlike its neighbors Iran and Turkey, Azerbaijan has extensive economic and military ties to Israel. In February, the historically Jewish village of Krasnaya Sloboda opened its Jewish Museum, amid fanfare from Mountain Jewish communities worldwide and messages of congratulations from public officials. President Ilham Aliyev inherited his position from his father, and his wife Mehriban serves as vice president. He certainly isn’t a democrat, but his strong-handed approach protects the country’s minorities from Islamic extremists.
In contrast, Armenia does not have a sizable Jewish community and its view of Israel is shaped by the Jewish state’s support for Azerbaijan. Although it does not have a centuries-old Jewish presence, the country’s history echoes the Jewish narrative. In 1915, Armenians were subjected to a genocide campaign by the Turks, resulting in the depopulation of most of their historical homeland, and a diaspora population that is larger than that of Armenia.
In Turkey, former churches either stand as ruins or have been repurposed as mosques. There is a population of Turkish crypto-Armenians whose ancestors converted to Islam in order to survive. Like Israel and its occupied territories, Armenia and Artsakh receive a sizable amount of financial support from the global diaspora community. Mount Ararat, the national symbol of the Armenian people is located in Turkey, but visible from Yerevan. This subject of countless songs, poems, novels, and films is inaccessible to Armenian citizens.
After gaining independence in 1991, Armenia could not expand to its historical lands in eastern Anatolia, as Turkey is too mighty and a member of NATO. So it looked east at Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region of Azerbaijan populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. Arguing that Karabakh’s placement within Azerbaijan was an unjust Soviet decision, its people sought to unite with Armenia. But unlike the Jewish state, which has nearly two million Arab citizens, Artsakh expelled all of its Azeri residents, and in turn Azerbaijan persecuted its Armenian residents. The 1994 ceasefire mediated by Russia resulted in Azerbaijan losing control of 20 percent of its territory and it has sought to recapture it. In Artsakh, Muslim landmarks lie in ruins, and likewise in Azerbaijan there are abandoned Armenian cemeteries.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has the making of a regional war. Turkey, Russia, and Iran have a stake in this war. While Israel and most Arab nations have become accustomed to each other and two Gulf monarchies have normalized the relationship last month, the divide over Karabakh has grown wider since the 1994 ceasefire that ended the First Karabakh War. Neither side is willing to compromise its position on this territory.
In this Second Karabakh War, it is difficult for this Ashkenazi Jewish outsider to support either side. The Armenians speak of their history, homeland, and survival against more powerful forces. Azerbaijan speaks of reclaiming its land, its history as a haven for Jews, and its support for Israel. Both nations point to their opponent as targeting civilians in this war. Both nations see the Karabakh as exclusively theirs, with no tolerance for members of the opposing ethnicity. The least that we can do is to recognize the mutual bloodshed, offer humanitarian support, and a willingness to meditate if called upon to do so.
The author is an adjunct professor of history at Touro College.
By Sergey Kadinsky