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Mirza Khazar: There Was No Anti-Semitism In Azerbaijan

Mirza Khazar 23 Sep 2006

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Mountain Jews: There Was No Anti-Semitism In AzerbaijanBaku sina
Mirza Khazar
Commentary
More than 100 community activists representing Mountain Jews gathered
recently in Baku to consider ways to keep alive the culture of the
Mountain Jews, whose numbers are estimated at around 100,000
worldwide, according to "The Jerusalem Post." Until the collapse of
the Soviet Union, most Mountain Jews outside of Israel lived in
Caucasus. The fall of communism has prompted so many renaissances in
Jewish life across Eastern Europe that the phrase almost has become a
cliche. But post-Soviet turmoil has jeopardized the existence of
"Mountain Jews," as Jews from the Caucasus region are known, writes
Lev Gorodetsky in "The Jerusalem Post." Increased ethnic tension -
including numerous kidnappings by Chechen separatists - and an
economic crisis have caused an exodus of Mountain Jews to Russia and
Israel, and the fear that the community's distinctive identity will be
lost. Who are the Mountain Jews? "The Jerusalem Post" writes: "The
distinct identity of Mountain Jews is believed to have crystallized by
the eighth century, when waves of Jewish immigrants began migrating to
the Caucasus from Persia. Members of the community spoke Dzhuhuri - a
kind of 'Persian Yiddish' - a Farsi dialect with a heavy mixture of
Hebrew." It should be added that some Mountain Jews consider the
Azerbaijani language, and some the Russian language as their native
tongue, but the majority keep alive their own dialect.

The Red Book On People of The Russian Empire has this to say about the
language and origins of the Mountain Jews: "The Mountain Jews belong
to the Iranian division of the Indo-European languages. They speak
Tat, a dialect of New-Persian. The same language is spoken by the Tats
of Azerbaijan and Dagestan to whom the Mountain Jews have sometimes
been considered to belong.

In terms of ethnic origin, it is assumed that the Mountain Jews and
Tats have inhabited Caucasia for a long time. Their distant
forefathers once lived in southern Azerbaijan, the north-western part
of present-day Iran. It was there that they adopted the Tat language
but retained Judaism as their faith (the Tats are Islamic). Having
become largely assimilated, the predecessors of the Mountain Jews
settled on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in the 5th--6th century
and from that time on their history has been related to the mountains
and the people of Dagestan and Azerbaijan. They resettled from the
mountains to the coastal lowlands in the 18th-19th century but brought
the ethnonym Mountain Jews with them." This is the view of The Red
Book of the people of the Russian Empire. (see web site: The Mountain
Jews).

"The Jerusalem Post" presents other views on the roots of Mountain
Jews: "Some scholars say Mountain Jews may have mixed with the
remnants of the Judaic population of the mysterious Khazar empire.
Situated between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, the (Turkic)
Khazars converted to Judaism en masse and made it their state religion
in the seventh century. Three hundred years later, they fell under
attacks from the Byzantine Empire and the precursors of today's
Slavs," the paper writes.

The Mountain Jews have never been subjected by their Muslim neighbors
to anti-Semitism, according to "The Jerusalem Post." But the paper
fails to mention that most of the Mountain Jews living in Guba,
Azerbaijan are the descendents of Mountain Jews who fled in 18th
century from pogroms in Daghestan, and the Khan of Guba allowed them
to take refuge in Azerbaijan and thus saved their lives (see The
Hebrew Enccyclopedia).

According to "The Jerusalem Post," "living in enclaves surrounded by
Muslims and Christians, Mountain Jews managed to maintain their
identity and keep stable relations with their neighbors. The
predominantly Muslim region rarely saw anti-Semitism, at least of the
virulent European form."

Under the Russian czars, the Mountain Jews were left alone and free of
pogroms - except during wars, when they were attacked by all sides.

After the Communist revolution of 1917, the Soviet state tried to
"absorb" the Mountain Jews into a local ethnic group known as the
Tats. Still, they preserved both their distinct role operating
open-air markets and their traditional religious practices, which mix
Sephardic and Askenazic customs.

"The Jerusalem Post" continue: "All that has changed in recent years
as 90 percent of the community emigrated. The community is now evenly
split, with some 50,000 members across the former Soviet Union and
similar numbers here. Some who left for Israel have returned because
of economic difficulties.

In addition, many emigrants moved to large Russian cities, especially
Moscow, where the number of Mountain Jews has reached 20,000,
according to some estimates. The Moscow Choral Synagogue recently
opened a special prayer hall for the Mountain community."

However, Mountain Jews from the Caucasus, especially from Azerbaijan
have emigrated not only to Israel, but also to Germany and the United
States in recent years. Small communities of Mountain Jews exist now
in Berlin and Munich, as well as in New York City. The Mountain Jews
are united in their unique culture, language, traditions, but some
distinction been made between them too. For example there are several
regional distinctions between Guba Jews, living in the ity of Guba,
Azerbaijan, Shirwan Jews, until mass emigration located in Shamakhy,
Ismayilli, Goychai in Azerbaijan, Derbent Jews, previously located in
Derbend, Daghestan, and Nalchik Jews, mainly located in Chechnya
before mass exodus. Today all these groups are disseminated throughout
several different countries: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Israel,
Germany, and the United States.

"The Jerusalem Post" presents different views on the chances for
Mountain Jews to survive as a community. Some observers are skeptical
that this community can survive outside of its traditional boundaries.
But others see events such as the recent Baku conference - and the
group's long history - as signs of optimism.

"Thirteen centuries of our survival is a proof that our community and
its culture will live on," Baku conference participant Munashir
Adilyaguev said.

"There was no anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan. But when everything closed
down, I lost my job and we had to move to Moscow," says Rafail
Shefundiyaev, 42. "Like lots of other Mountain Jews, we have been
thrown out of the normal social and communal structure and brought to
Moscow without money and social connections." Their role in the
economic life of the Moscow Jewish community is also growing,
especially in trade.

But, according to "The Jerusalem Post," Mountain Jews also face
discrimination, both within the Jewish community and the larger
society. Relations between the Mountain Jews and other Jews are
problematic, as Ashkenazi Jews often treat them with contempt and prejudice. It is true not only in diaspora, but also in Israel. Will Mountain Jews be able to survive and keep their identity? Some believe they will, others don't.

Mirza Khazar, RFE/RL

Azerbaijan Report
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
15 August 2001

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