By Gary (Yuri) Tabach and Ari Mittleman
Neis gadol hayah sham. A great miracle happened there.
This iconic phrase codifies the holiday of Chanukah and symbolizes the miracle of literal and metaphorical light conquering the darkness. Our ancestors — small in numbers and resources — defeated the mighty Seleucid empire millennia ago in Jerusalem. But this past month, we celebrated the modern miracle of the state of Israel.
In 2014, we lit Chanukah candles and celebrated both the ancient and modern miracles of Israel’s past and current rebirths with friends living in Azerbaijan. We were particularly reminded of that year’s “festival of light” as birthday candles were lit — 70 in Israel on May 14 and 100 in Azerbaijan on May 28.
With less than 10 million citizens, Azerbaijan is a Muslim majority country that broke free from the Soviet Union. Founded in 1918, the republic was the first secular democratic state in the Muslim world. In its capital, Baku — 100 years ago this month, when the dust of the Balfour Declaration was just settling several hundred miles away in Jerusalem — this new country became the first Muslim majority country to grant equal political rights to women.
As Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Jewish olim who were born in more peaceful times in the capitals of Europe are building new lives for their families free of the fear of brutal anti-Semitic attacks. Communities that can trace their roots since the time of the 11th-century French Jewish sage Rashi are evaluating their future in Europe. Azerbaijan, however, is the only place outside of Israel with a community that can trace its roots to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. It is in Azerbaijan that new synagogues have been built, community day schools thrive and Israeli flags can be flown.
As the insidious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel spreads from college campuses to corporate boardrooms across the world, Israel’s economy remains resilient. Azerbaijan is not just the only Muslim majority country expanding economic ties with Israel, but one of the few countries in the world that has multiplied its trade volume. Indeed, in April 2017, the two countries abolished double taxation. Sectors outside defense and energy totaled to upward of $260 million in 2016 bilateral trade. As tourists from across the world gathered in Israel to celebrate, chances were their rental cars and taxis were fueled from Azerbaijani oil.
As Israel celebrates remarkable diplomatic achievements of the last 70 years with Jordan and Egypt, it must always, unfortunately, be vigilant about its northern border. Too many Israeli mothers go to sleep praying about their children on the front lines.
Sandwiched between much larger neighbors — Iran and Russia — Azerbaijan actually is the incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement that comprises 120 countries committed to remaining independent and neutral. Despite this, Azerbaijani mothers must cope with the same fears of Israeli mothers as their children guard a western border subjected to Armenian aggression and terrorism.
V’al a haniflaos sheasisah l’avosenu bayamim hahem bizman hazeh. For the wonders which G-d brought for our ancestors in those days and today.
This is the prayer we said with our Azerbaijani friends after lighting the Chanukah candles. We said this in a synagogue that had recently received a new Torah scroll. The dedication was attended by Muslim, Russian Orthodox and Catholic leaders. As we reflect the modern state of Israel, we remain amazed by the wonders of the ever deepening alliance with Azerbaijan.
Our hope is that as each celebrates momentous birthdays, they have many more to come in a world filled with peace and vibrant economies free from bigotry and grounded in multiculturalism.
Capt. Gary (Yuri) Tabach was born in Moscow before immigrating to Philadelphia in 1976. He holds the distinction of being the first Soviet-born citizen to be commissioned an officer in the armed forces of the United States. Ari Mittleman, originally from Allentown, is the founder of Keystone Strategy + Advocacy, a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm.