Once, there were as many as 40,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, said Suleymanov. Today, there are between 8,000 and 25,000, an estimate that varies widely in part because many of them live in
Israel or Russia but still retain Azeri passports. Suleymanov said that many of the people made aliyah to Israel, made money, but still return or buy
vacation homes in the area.
What’s striking is that all of this takes place in a country where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, something Suleymanov celebrates, but that also makes him uncomfortable. He was clear that he does not consider Azerbaijan part of the “Muslim world,” as most people in the States understand it.
“What is the Muslim world? Do people refer to a Christian world?” the ambassador asked. “You could have someone in Azerbaijan who is Muslim but comes from a completely different world and worldview [than Mideast Muslims]. I think we have to be careful. The Muslim world is much more diverse than people think.”
Still, he thinks that the notion that his country, with a majority Muslim population, can enjoy close ties with Jews — and with Israelis — is “actually very important.”
“It shows that Israel’s relationship with a country of mostly Muslims can go far beyond a technical peace,” he said, noting Israel and Azerbaijan’s close ties since each country’s founding; Haifa and Baku are sister cities.
Last spring, Azerbaijan sent its foreign minister, Elmar Mamadyarov, on a public and political visit to Israel. The timing, said Suleymanov, was intentional and meant to show support. On that trip, Mamadyarov announced plans to build an Azerbaijan embassy in Israel.
He said the government and the people of Azerbaijan respect both the Israelis and the Palestinians.