In a world of diversity, tolerance as an active concept requires interaction with others. It becomes applicable only in cases where there are notable differences between individuals, groups, ideas and structures.
Tolerance is not essentially normative in the treatment of the difference. It should not be confused with an appeal to charity. It does not want to assimilate or eliminate differences but to negotiate for the development of new values and common visions.
The philosophy of tolerance rests on the following ideas: respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of the cultures of our world, our modes of expression and the means of human beings. It is encouraged by knowledge, openness, communication and freedom of thought, conscience and belief.
Every year on 16 November, the international community celebrates ‘the International Day for Tolerance’. Considering this I have chosen to highlight the fabulous model of tolerance and multiculturalism established for centuries in Azerbaijan. It is an important thing especially in these fragile moments that we live, the rise of intercommunity violence and interfaith hatred in different societies. The rare testimony of the Jews in Azerbaijan, a Muslim nation, having strong relations with Israel, it shows the world in transformation the possibility of emerging relationships based on values of reciprocity and solid friendship among peoples.
It is a great subject of astonishment to see a perfect harmony in Azerbaijan between communities culturally, religiously different. Most foreigners do not hide their astonishment when one sees Azerbaijan, a Muslim country that can reserve such a welcome to the Jewish Communities. One could not imagine especially at a time when most European countries were upset by the rise of extremists in society.
The history of Azerbaijan itself and its peoples is multicultural. In particular, the history of the Jews in Azerbaijan is exemplary. This is exemplary because Azerbaijan, a country with a Muslim majority 96%, is against anti-Semitism. 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 150 ethnicity living in Azerbaijan, 22 of them having compact settlements in different regions of the state.
There are three Jewish communities in modern Azerbaijan: Mountains Jews (or Bukharian Jews), Ashkenazi Jews, and Georgian Jews. The community of Mountains 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 Mountains Jews spoke a South-Western dialect of the Persian language, which the modern Mountain Jewish language of Old Persian origin called Juhuri or Judeo-Tat, related to the Persian spoken by Jews in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and also containing many Turkic and Semitic elements.
As of 2016, approximately 9,000 Jews live in in perfect harmony with Muslims and other religions in Azerbaijan. Recognized as Juhuros, Mountain Jews self-nominate, would be descendants of the 12 tribes exiled from the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V in the VIII century BC.
Historians, however, agree on the presence of Jewish communities in the Eastern Caucasus as early as the 3rd century. Fleeing persecution in Persia, the Mountain Jews settled in the area and were gradually cut off from their Persian roots over the centuries. Thus, in the 7th and 8th centuries, their number increases in the North Caucasus and on the territory of the present Republic of Azerbaijan because they are fleeing the Arab threat to the south, contained by the Khazar kingdom, Crimea to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
At the same time, a part of the Khazar elites converted to Judaism, creating favorable conditions for a growth of the Jewish population in this region.
It was at this time that Krasnaya Sloboda gained prominence. Described “Jerusalem of the Caucasus”, Guba (a region in northeastern Azerbaijan) remains today still the main locality of origin of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan. The arrival of the Russians in the eighteenth century enabled them to come into contact with the orthodox Jews of Russia and break their isolation, even though the different communities of the Mountain Jews had a longstanding relationship with each other: from Azerbaijan in Dagestan and even in the western Caucasus. They have, in both the Caucasus and the emigration, a common language, juhuri. Sometimes called “Judeo-tat”, juhuri is a language of Persian origin, hedged by Hebrew, which is written in Hebrew, although it has been regularly affected by changes in alphabets.
Despite the fact that many countries in the world are helpless in the face of rising extremism, living together in mutual respect astonishes foreign visitors when they see in Azerbaijan how a Muslim majority-Shiite country welcomes communities Jews and other minorities also protected by a government committed to multiculturalism and the fight against anti-Semitism, radicalism and all types of racism. People welcomed warmly when people came out with their kippa or when they practiced their religious faith in the synagogues. In addition, Azerbaijan and Israel face existential threats of religious extremism and Islamic fundamentalism. Both are old, the two allied countries are surrounded by religious extremism destabilizing the region.
Upon arrival in this country, you might discover some basic facts about Azerbaijan that apparently do not exist in this combination anywhere else. First, it is, a Muslim democratic nation. Second, there has never been a pogrom in Azerbaijan. There is simply no anti-Semitism. This is not only a function of no incitement to violence by religious clerics. People are proud of their pluralism and ethnic, cultural and religious communities. Third, the government and people openly support the State of Israel.
On the contrary, to a large-scale hatred between Arabo-Muslims and Jews, Azerbaijan renews all hope of coexistence just to return to the way of living together. While these are the facts that make Azerbaijan unique, the remarkable aspects of this nation are not in the facts, but in the details. Announcing his planned visit to Azerbaijan in the winter of this year during the briefing, the Prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stressed the importance of Azerbaijan to say that it has a long border with Iran, is a secular state that has long had warm relations with Israel. Nearly 96% of its 10 million inhabitants are Muslim, the vast majority of them Shiites.
The case of Azerbaijan shows us we must counter this tendency to isolationism by restoring strength and substance to the culture of tolerance. We must again emphasize the extent to which cultures are enriched by mutual exchange and understanding. We must remember the historical facts, recall how peoples and identities have mingled, engendering richer, more complex cultures with multiple identities. Using the living testimony of world heritage sites, we can show that no culture has ever grown in systematic assimilation or in isolation, and that multicultural diversity is strength, not a weakness. We must say again that tolerance is not naive or passive acceptance of difference: it is a fight for coexistence, the respect of fundamental rights. Tolerance is not relativism or indifference. It is a commitment renewed every day to seek in our diversity the bonds that unite humanity.