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Across the Former Soviet Union After Meeting with Jewish Leaders, Azerbaijan to Legalize Jewish Scho

April 7, 2003
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After months of apparent official opposition to the idea, the first Jewish day school in Azerbaijan will be allowed to operate legally.

In a meeting with Jewish leaders who flew to this former Soviet republic from Israel and Russia to express their concern over the matter, the nation’s president, Heydar Aliyev, promised last week that the school will be granted the license that it sought to obtain for the last half-year.

Gennady Zelmanovich, chairman of the Jewish Ashkenazi Religious Community of Azerbaijan, said the decision marked a “big day” for many Jewish families in Baku, the country’s capital where the school is located.

“Today was the first day when the school operated normally,” Zelmanovich said on April 3 in a telephone interview from Baku.

The Or Avner Jewish Day School opened last September with an enrollment of about 100 kids but no official license. Jewish officials had hoped the license — a joint responsibility of the country’s Ministries of Justice and Education — would be just a technical detail, as was the case with some other educational institutions opened in this country during the past few years.

But the licensing process was effectively blocked by both government agencies without any explanation.

“We rented a space, hired full staff, the classes were already on; so this was creating a tense atmosphere,” Zelmanovich said.

The Baku school is part of the Or Avner network of Jewish day schools operating in most former republics of the Soviet Union. Israeli philanthropist Lev Levayev, who arranged a meeting with Aliev, sponsors the network.

One of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S., and Me’er Brook, a local rabbi, also attended the meeting.

Sources within the federation, an umbrella group that also lists Levayev as its prime donor, had indicated earlier that the official opposition to the school opening stemmed from Azerbaijan’s desire not to irritate Iran — or perhaps even due to Iranian pressure on Baku.

Azerbaijan’s policies are often said to reflect split loyalties between the West and Iran.

Like its southern neighbor, Azerbaijan, home to an estimated 20,000 Jews among its 8 million people, is overwhelmingly Shi’ite Muslim.

Despite a complicated history of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations that involve some territorial disputes, Azerbaijan has consistently showed its reluctance to anger Iran.

One sign of such a policy is an issue that mars Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel.

Soon after gaining its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan formally established full-fledged diplomatic relations with the Jewish state but never opened an embassy in Israel, a fact attributed by most experts to Azerbaijan’s hesitance to aggravate Iran.

In the meeting with Jewish leaders this week, Aliyev repeated his earlier promise to open the embassy in Israel, saying it was now only a “matter of budget.”

The Israeli Embassy in Baku has been in operation for nearly a decade now.

But Zelmanovich said the stalemate over the permission for the new Jewish school to operate was, paradoxically enough, rooted in Azerbaijan’s fear of radical Islam.

Because of this fear, the country’s officials have refused to allow various religious and minority groups to open educational institutions in Azerbaijan, which largely follows the Turkish model of secular democracy.

Whatever the reason behind the opposition to the Jewish school, Jewish leaders praised Aliyev’s move.

“It is important that in the current international situation, the leader of a Muslim country can stand up to protect the rights of its minority,” said Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the federation.

Aliyev has promised to attend the official opening for the Jewish school, which is scheduled for Sept. 1.

Zelmanovich said Aliyev’s attendance could add to the prestige of the school and the Jewish community in general.

Now that the school is likely to receive official recognition soon, Jewish officials in Baku expect the enrollment to rise to 300 by the next school year.

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