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Yerevan.   Source: Serouj Ourishian/wikimedia.org Yerevan. Source: Serouj Ourishian/wikimedia.org

Do the Jews of Armenia need to be rescued?

The Jewish front of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict

About a week ago, many news websites reprinted statements by a member of the board of the International association “Azerbaijan-Israel” Arye Gut about the danger faced by the Jewish community of Armenia. Azerbaijani, Israeli, and now international news agency have literally taken to pieces his article “Anti-Semitism in Armenia: a clear and present danger”, published on the Jewish News Service website.

The reason for the Internet popularity of the statements by an expert in the field of international relations, as Arye Gut describes the Jewish News Service website, is quite clear: the simple form and alarming content, increased by the efforts of translators and editors in each reprint. Each phrase is like a bell ringing, “The Holocaust memorial in Yerevan was desecrated several times”. “The Jewish community of Armenia has been oppressed and intimidated since the country gained independence”. “The end of Soviet rule removed restrictions, and the number of anti-Semitic attacks increased drastically”. “The dwindling Jewish community has complained about these attacks, but these feelings are shared by a significant section of Armenian society”. The government does not oppose this “dangerous tendency” in any way. According to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League, “the level of anti-Semitism in Armenia is the third-highest in Europe” (in many secondary publications, this is worded more strongly: “Armenia has one of the highest levels of anti-Semitism in the world”.) Finally, “the Jewish community of Armenia has never forgotten the involvement of the 20,000-strong Armenian legion in the Wehrmacht in the Second World War.”

People outside the regional information context have difficulty assessing such statements adequately. Why are there still any foolish Jews left in this mad country, the reader wants to exclaim, and can anything be done to save them?

Calm down, people. A few basic facts and some critical thinking will help us to regard the situation in a rather different light. Even with an attentive look at the experts’ arguments in the sphere of Azerbaijani-Armenian friendship, the chain of tightly packed syllogisms will swiftly fall apart, and if you also know something about the region… But let’s examine things in order.

The Holocaust memorial in Yerevan really has been desecrated – the last time, if my memory does not deceive me, in 2010. In other words, along with the claim by the author quoted above, it would be just as fair to say “In the last four years, not a single act of anti-Semitic vandalism has been recorded in Armenia.” It would be interesting to find out whether vandals would attack the Holocaust memorial in Baku? Unfortunately, this is impossible to ascertain, as there is no such memorial in the Azerbaijani capital. The claim of a growth in attacks after the collapse of the USSR is simply meaningless – on the one hand, the Soviet regime carefully kept its own monopoly on anti-Semitism (in the republics of Transcaucasia, as it happens, it was practically non-existent), and on the other, there are no statistics available about real hate crimes. A criminal case on inciting inter-ethnic hatred was first opened in 1990, in connection with the so-called “pogrom” at the Moscow Central House of Writers.

Data about emigration, of course, cannot be considered serious evidence of the reality of the threat hanging over the community. Over the last 25 years, Jews, along with members of other ethnic groups, have mainly left for socio-economic reasons. There is also a percentage of ideologically motivated Zionists among those who leave for Israel, but this has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. The economic situation in Armenia, of course, is much worse than in Azerbaijan with its rich energy resources. And initially the Armenian community was much smaller than in the neighboring countries of the South Caucasus, where traditionally autochthonous sub-ethnic communities of highland and Georgian Jews were formed. But rumors that there are no Jews left at all in Armenia are heavily exaggerated. The fact of a living and active community does exist, and this is indisputable. There is a rabbi in Yerevan, a Chesed center, and the head of the community Rimma Varzhapteyan represents Armenian Jews in international structures. Of course, there are 20 times more Jews in Azerbaijan today than there in Armenia. But ten times as many Jews also left Azerbaijan, so I am not sure that an expert who says in all seriousness that this is the most tolerant country in the world should have mentioned the emigration factor as evidence of anti-Semitism…

The same can be said about the Armenian legion. If you even believe that the fact of the existence of pro-German armed divisions in the Second World War has any relationship whatsoever to the present situation of anti-Semitism, then it would also be dishonest to keep silent about the Azerbaijani legion, in which up to 70,000 people served. Furthermore, it is well-known that Hitler (unlike Rosenberg) did not trust the Georgians and Armenians, preferring Islamic divisions. But, I repeat, I do not consider these historical issues to be of any relevance to understanding present-day realities.

As for the survey held worldwide by the Anti-Defamation Leagues (ADL), this is probably the only argument in the article that is worthy of attention. Indeed, sociological studies have shown that anti-Jewish stereotypes are widespread in public consciousness to a much greater degree than in Azerbaijan. The percentage of anti-Semites in societies, which ADL experts were bold enough to calculate, is 58% and 37% respectively in these countries. For comparison, in Russia this index is 30% , and in Ukraine 38%.

The accuracy of the ADL survey has frequently been subject to serious criticism from specialists (see for example eajc.org), and furthermore, the methodology of conducting the study differed in different countries. For example, in some countries there were only definitive answers to the test questions, and in others the questionnaire contained the option “not sure/can’t answer”. These differences could have significantly distorted the result.

It is amusing that elsewhere Arye Gut himself expressed his dissatisfaction with the ADL survey in a very emotional manner. In his opinion, the report is of a provocative nature and undermines the strong friendship and mutual respect between the Azerbaijani and Jewish peoples.

What do we have here in the end? That the panic that Arye Gut stirred up in his article is simply not founded on anything. Despite the excitement that arose, the article itself would have not deserved attention, just like any other hysterical cry of “get out before it’s too late!”, which from time to time has been addressed to Jewish communities in almost every country around the world. But the problem is that it is not an isolated case.

Mutual accusations of an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism are heard from Azerbaijani and Armenian experts, journalists, political figures and heads of Jewish community with an alarming regularity. They have long become a habitual part of the information and propaganda conflict that these countries have been waging with each other for 20 years now. The supposedly frozen conflict of the early 1990s in fact escalates from time to time, and continues to claim live. In this situation, for both sides of the conflict the battle for the sympathies of the international community. This is not a purely theoretical question – it involves volumes of quite specific military aid from the USA, for example, or military and technical cooperation with Israel. The people killed in the Sumgait pogrom cry to the heavens just as plaintively as the victims of the Khojaly massacre, but the politicians in Congress and the Knesset are unlikely to be familiar with these geographical names and the realities of recent history. But anti-Semitism – the most unacceptable form of xenophobia for the modern world – is an excellent tool for discrediting an opponent. I think that Ukrainian readers who are following the coverage of the “Jewish question” and the topic of anti-Semitism in the Russian media do not need to be told how this works in such cases.

But does this mean that there is in fact no anti-Semitism at all in Armenia or Azerbaijan? Of course not. Anti-Semitism exists everywhere, and we know this already without any surveys by the ADL. Furthermore, both countries have their own specific problems connected with anti-Semitism. But as is often the case, the real situation and the way it is reported in the media exist on separate planes.

The biggest problem in Armenian-Jewish relations is Israel’s attitude to genocide. According to standard logic, which identifies the state with the diaspora, one often hears the bitter accusation that “you Jews deny the Armenian genocide”. What’s more, in some of the most elaborate conspiracy theories, the main responsibility for the Armenian slaughter lies with the Dönmeh, (members of the Jewish sect of followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, who formally adopted Islam, but retained elements of Judaism and a separate identity), who were indeed disproportionately numerous among activists of the Young Turk revolution, with saw a drastic worsening in Turko-Armenian relations that ended in genocide. In Turkey there is a whole genre of anti-Semitic literature, reminiscent of the endless Russian books about “Yid Bolsheviks”. I have also seen similar brochures about the “Jewish revolution of the Dönmeh” in a book shop in Yerevan. Finally, Armenia, which is surrounded by hostile countries, has close economic ties with Iran. This naturally adds tension to Armenian-Israeli relations. But because of changes in the foreign policy situation in the region (in particular, the worsening in relations between Israel and Turkey), as far as I am capable of judging the situation, in recent years anti-Semitic statements in Armenia have been recorded increasingly rarely.

It is with the influence of Iran, which Baku tries to oppose with all its might, that the main Azerbaijani problems in the sphere of anti-Semitism are linked. Azerbaijanis, like Iranians, are Shi’ites, and the mullahs’ regime makes colossal efforts to spread the foreign policy influence of Tehran on religious channels. Additionally, there are far more ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan itself. Family and economic ties make this South Caucasian country vulnerable for the expansion of Islamist ideology and “anti-Zionist” rhetoric, especially during an escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Five years ago, a major terrorist attack was planned on the Israeli embassy in Baku, and a number of other buildings. The Azerbaijani group that was arrested was led by two Lebanese citizens connected with “Hezbollah”, who were living in the country under fake Iranian passports. The criminals were given lengthy prison sentences, but the Lebanese men were soon released as part of a deal between Baku and Tehran – in return, Iran released an Azerbaijani scientist from prison. This case, unfortunately, was not the only one. Later the special forces reported arresting anti-Semites planning terrorist attacks who also came from Iran.

Thus in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, there are real problems with anti-Semitism, but they have little in common with the media reports that both sides initiate from time to time for propaganda purposes. But members of the Jewish communities of both countries assured me in answer to my question that they did not feel any anti-Semitism, and did not believe that this problem was significant in any way.

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