Rabbis at Odds: Rabbi of Armenia Castigates Rabbi of Azerbaijan
At the request of the Turkish government, the Chief Rabbi of Turkey and Jewish leaders in Istanbul periodically make public statements against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the international community. Turkish officials make similar anti-Armenian demands from American-Jewish organizations during their frequent visits to the United States.
Azerbaijan's leaders, who blindly mimic Turkey's position on most issues, routinely oppose international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, even though no one accuses Azeris of having any role in that crime. Making the racist assumption that "Jews control the world," Azeri officials, just like their Turkish counterparts, go to extraordinary lengths to win over "the Jewish lobby" in the hope of using the Jews to counter Armenian demands.
In recent years, Meir Bruk, Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jewish Community of Azerbaijan, following the footsteps of the Rabbi of Istanbul, has made several anti-Armenian statements, the latest of which was prominently featured in the Azeri newspaper Zerkalo on June 12.
Rabbi Bruk was quoted as saying that "Armenia is spiritually and economically weak because it lacks tolerance." He praised Heydar Aliyev, the former despotic President of Azerbaijan, "as a model of tolerance." The Rabbi claimed that only 200 Jews are left in Armenia due to Armenian intolerance toward Jews. He urged Armenians to return Karabagh back to Azerbaijan and made the ludicrous promise that the Jewish Diaspora, "which keeps under control important political and economic levers in the world," would come to Azerbaijan's assistance. He further claimed that the interests of "the Jewish lobby" and Azerbaijan coincided.
Interestingly, the first objection to these anti-Armenian remarks came from the Jewish leaders of Armenia. On June 16, Gersh-Meir Burshtein, Chief Rabbi of Armenia, Rimma Varzhapetian, Chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Armenia, and Willy Weiner, President of the Menorah Cultural Center, issued an open letter criticizing in the strongest possible terms the statement of the Rabbi of Azerbaijan.
The Jewish leaders of Armenia accused Rabbi Bruk of knowing little about the issues he spoke about, including the situation of Jews in Armenia. They also wondered whether the Rabbi of Azerbaijan was being paid off by Azeri authorities to make such statements.
They blamed Rabbi Bruk for not knowing that Heydar Aliyev, the so-called "model of tolerance," had done everything possible to force the minorities of Azerbaijan, including Jews to a lesser degree, to assimilate or depart from the country. They urged Rabbi Bruk to compare the number of Jews who are in Azerbaijan now to those living in that country a century ago. Furthermore, they disputed Rabbi Bruk's figure of 200 Jews currently living in Armenia by pointing out that there are four Jewish cultural, religious and community centers and a functioning Synagogue which Rabbi of Azerbaijan should have known.
The Jewish leaders of Armenia also questioned Rabbi Bruk's judgment calling for the return of Karabagh (Artsakh) to Azerbaijan which would lead to the elimination of its Armenian population similar to what took place in Nakhichevan.
Rabbi Burshtein, Ms. Varzhapetian and Mr. Weiner also accused Ilham Aliyev, the current President of Azerbaijan, of continuing his father's intolerant policies which is exemplified by the vicious murder of an Armenian lieutenant by an Azeri officer during a joint training session in Hungary. The killer was hailed as a national hero in Azerbaijan.
The Jewish leaders of Armenia further asserted that even during the harshest Soviet times there was practically no anti-Semitism in Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan. They also advised Rabbi Bruk not to exacerbate the already complicated relations between the two neighboring states and "not to be a puppet in the hands of certain political and financial leaders."
The Jewish leaders concluded their statement by expressing their outrage at Rabbi Bruk's comments and declared that his words would provoke more hostility between nations. They expressed the hope that Rabbi Bruk's statement "would receive an adequate assessment and condemnation."
There is an important difference between the declarations of the Rabbis of Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the Rabbi of Baku seems to be ingratiating himself to Azerbaijan's oligarchic regime, the Jewish leaders in Yerevan are under no pressure to take orders from the Armenian authorities. The fact that Rabbi Burshtein and fellow Jewish leaders issued their statement within four days of Rabbi Bruk's words appearing in the Azeri newspaper shows that Armenian officials had neither the time nor the inclination to orchestrate such a statement.
As this column was going to print, I received a phone call from Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (former Soviet Republics) who is currently visiting New York from his Moscow headquarters. When Rabbi Berkowitz became aware of the subject matter of this column, he made the following statement:
- "These are very sensitive issues and I appreciate your bringing them to my attention. I am aware of the situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan. I will speak to the Rabbis in both countries and see what I can do to make sure that there is no divisiveness between them. The Rabbis should focus on their own countries' Jewish community needs. There should be peace between Rabbis and peace between nations. Last month, along with several Jewish officials from Israel and many other countries, I met with Pres. Aliyev in Baku. He did not ask for our help in doing anything against Armenia. Jews and Armenians have a lot in common. Just as Jews were persecuted, so were the Armenians. It would be wrong to say that Jews left Armenia due to intolerance. We have excellent relations with Armenian officials, just as we do with officials in Azerbaijan."