On February 21-22, Pico Shul, our newly established spiritual community in Los Angeles, organized a “Solidarity and Commemoration Weekend” with local Azerbaijanis and the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan. These are some of my reflections.
On the world stage, Jews and Muslims are viewed as mortal enemies. This weekend in our synagogue we demonstrated that not only do Jews and Muslims have the capacity to be at peace — they can even be friends.
For millennia, Jews have enjoyed unparalleled security, peace and friendship with the people of Azerbaijani. Jews who were persecuted in other areas found refuge and safety within this predominantly Muslim nation. With Azerbaijan’s rebirth as an independent nation after the fall of Soviet Union, that friendship remains, and in many ways has even grown.
But we did not gather to discuss geopolitics, or the latest advances in trade and relations between Israel and Azerbaijan. We gathered because, in the words of my friend Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, friends are there for one another when things are going well and when things are down.
Twenty-three years ago, in February 1992, Armenian militants and soldiers in the town of Khojaly murdered six hundred and thirteen innocent Azerbaijani men, women, and children during the Nagorno-Karabakh War and injured hundreds more. Thousands of residents of the town were made homeless. Supporters of Armenia dispute the number of dead, the identity of the perpetrators, and many issues surrounding the event. However, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers back the Azerbaijan account.
We listened to Anar Usubov as he told his painful story of survival. He lost 27 members of his immediate and extended family in the massacre. When he showed a Google map aerial view of his old home – now in ruins – we all felt his deep, permanent sense of loss.
But when we watched the video testimony of Durdane Aghayeva, who gave a detailed account of the massacre, her torture and captivity — that is when we cried. Durdane was a 20 year old girl when she was caught by militants fleeing the massacre. She was assaulted and tortured over eight days. She was placed naked in a tub of ice-water for hours at a time. She was tied to a chair, and had cigarettes extinguished on her knees because she refused to speak. They beat her so often and so mercilessly that she couldn’t walk.
But through sharing those stories, bearing witness to tragedy, and mourning together – we are planting seeds of hope. For here, in this Jewish house of worship, we had Muslims and Jews demonstrating solidarity, not strife.
When I recited Yizkor, the most solemn Jewish prayer of remembrance, I did not feel we were two antagonistic groups. Rather, we all felt a powerful unity of faith and humility as all children of the same God.
Jews are grateful for the friendship of the people of Azerbaijan
May God comfort the mourners of Khojaly, may we see peace soon in Nagorno-Karabakh, and let Muslims, Christians, and Jews search for pathways of reconciliation to overcome darkness with light.