At a groundbreaking event for the renovation of a traditional Jewish home in the Red Village, Quba, Azerbaijan, was celebrated by the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Lee Litzenberger (far right) and Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek (foreground; second from left), alongside community leaders, May 23, 2022. Photo by Michael Miller
By Steve Gale
The United States is committed to strengthening democracy and promoting economic diversification in Azerbaijan. This partnership, which began in 1992, has steadily grown as both countries work together to promote European energy security, expand bilateral trade and investment, and combat terrorism and transnational threats. The U.S. strongly supports efforts to pursue a lasting and sustainable political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict. Azerbaijan’s geography and history uniquely factor into its role in today’s complex geopolitical landscape, and provide a fascinating (but mostly untold) story about how Embassy Baku embarked on a pioneering effort to help restore a set of homes for the “Mountain Jews” in the Quba District of Azerbaijan, commonly referred to as the Red Village. The village is believed to be the world’s only town outside of Israel whose citizens are predominantly Jews.
Azerbaijan is chock full of interesting contrasts, from modern Baku with its wealth, world-class amenities, and busy urban professionals dashing about in sharp contrast to rural areas where farmers struggle to grow hazelnuts with limited water for irrigation. Azerbaijan is situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea in the Southern Caucasus, sandwiched between Russia and Iran. This small nation has a 97.3% Muslim majority—predominantly Shia—and has a strong secular tradition. Azerbaijan has a relatively young population; 36% of its 10.5 million citizens are under the age of 24. From 1918 to 1920, Azerbaijan was briefly independent following the collapse of the Russian Empire but was soon forcibly assimilated into the Soviet Union where it languished for seven decades until its independence in 1991. Azerbaijan borders Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, and Turkey through its western Nakhchivan exclave. It remains in a protracted conflict with Armenia over NK, a western region that the Soviets assigned in 1923 to be part of the Azerbaijani Bolshevik-run republic. The NK conflict is the longest-running armed conflict in post-Soviet Eurasia, with more than a million people forced to leave their homes with Azerbaijanis fleeing Armenia and Armenians leaving their homes in Azerbaijan. Despite fruitful collaboration with the West over many years on security and energy issues, Azerbaijan officials maintain tight control of most media outlets and have established significant barriers to NGO activities. These constraints have made diplomacy a challenge and complicated the provision of aid from the American government to targeted needy populations. Yet, the overall 30-year cooperation between the U.S. and Azerbaijan remains strong thanks to the tireless efforts of American diplomats.
At the diplomatic level, a pragmatic relationship exists between Shia Muslim-majority Azerbaijan and Jewish-majority Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 and established diplomatic relations shortly thereafter by establishing an embassy in Baku in 1993, a year after the U.S. established diplomatic relations when President George H.W. Bush announced the decision in a national address regarding the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Today, Azerbaijan and Israel both enjoy extensive strategic cooperation in trade and security matters along with cultural and educational exchange programs. Israeli tour groups in Baku’s Old City are a common sight. Israel and Azerbaijan’s close relationship is derived in part, from the common threats posed by Iran.
While on assignment from USAID to Azerbaijan, Steve Gale received an invitation from the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Lee Litzenberger to attend a ribbon-cutting event in the Red Village located near the Russian border, more than one hundred miles away, and a two-hour drive from Baku. This event marked the start of a U.S. sponsored project to support cultural tourism in the historic center of the Mountain Jew community by restoring and equipping a traditional Jewish home to serve as both a museum and café. The idea behind the U.S. inspired restoration project was to boost nationwide and international tourism to this unique location and help preserve its historical significance for generations to come. The U.S. contribution to the project is being provided by USAID in Azerbaijan.
On the drive to the Red Village from the capital, one senses just how large Baku really is, as it takes approximately 30 minutes to escape all the urban development before finally transitioning into the countryside. The Mountain Jews that Gale was soon to meet were of very distant Persian origin. Some historians trace the village back to the 18th century when the local Khan permitted Jews to set up a community free of persecution across the Qudiyalçay River from the larger town of Quba. Some early records show more than 200,000 Jews were registered in over thirty settlements across all of the Caucasus. However, since the 19th century, the majority of the population around the Red Village consists mainly of the Mountain Jews. The migration from different locations to the Red Village had yielded a wide diversity of trades including farming, grain and fabric merchants, horse traders, and artisans weaving rugs with the Star of David clearly visible. Mountain Jews speak a distinct dialect of the Tat language called Juhuri or Judæo-Tac, a dialect of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew. The majority of Mountain Jews speak more than one language, while the second and/or third language most often is Azerbaijani or Russian. And according to scholars of religious tolerance, the Red Village has never experienced any recorded bouts of anti-Semitism.
In the audience of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, high-ranking representatives of the United States, Israel, and Azerbaijan, all partnered to help restore this ancient Jewish Community. Gale found this striking. “This event was a powerful visual reminder of the mix of history, culture, and responsible individuals of many faiths, uniting for a worthy cause inspired by the restoration brainchild of the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Steve Gale is a career USAID professional who serves as co-chair of (and U.S. representative to) the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee.