Azerbaijani people have had a unique history

Sat 23 February 2013 05:03 GMT | 09:03 Local Time

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News.Az interviews Reuven Firestone, Rabbi, Ph.D., Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

There are some attempts introduce the Middle East problem as a conflict between Judaism and Islam. What do you think about that?

First of all, the Middle East is a very large area. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians should not define the meaning of “conflict” as it pertains to the Middle East as your question suggests. Deadly conflicts occur there between Arabs and Kurds, Kurds and Persians, Persians and Azeris, Azeris and Armenians, Turks and Kurds, Jordanians and Palestinians, Islamists and secularists, Sunnis and Shi`is, Christians and Muslims, and between many other internal political, ethnic and religious factions in every country. All of these conflicts have resulted in the unfortunate killing and displacement of thousands of innocent people. The conflict that you refer to in your question is only one of those conflicts and should not define violence in the Middle East as a whole.

Once that is acknowledged, we can begin to look at the very real conflict between Israel and Palestine, or between Israelis and Palestinians, in a calm and dispassionate manner. The conflict is, at its core and root, a conflict between two competing national communities that are defined in various ways. Sometimes they are defined as Israelis versus Palestinians, but there are also hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel who vote in Israeli national elections.

Sometimes the parties to the conflict are defined as Jews versus Arabs, though there are millions of ethnically Arab Jews living in Israel whose families have lived in Iraq or Syria or Egypt for hundreds or even thousands of years. Sometimes they are defined as Jews versus Muslims, though Palestinians include Christians. It is difficult even to define the parties to the conflict, even though the conflict is very real and is very deadly.

I consider the conflict to be one between two competing national communities, one of which defines itself as a nation of mostly Jewish Israelis, and the other which defines itself as a nation of mostly Muslim, mostly Arab Palestinians. These two national communities are relatively new in history. Jews did not define themselves as a modern national community until sometime in the 19th century, and Palestinians did not define themselves as a national community until sometime in the 20th century. Here are two important points.

Both national communities strongly believe that they have the right to be in control of the same basic portion of land in what is called Israel or Palestine. And neither national community really accepts the national identity of the other community. These are very significant problems. I see the conflict, therefore, at its core as a conflict between nations, each claiming the same land and each delegitimizing the other.

Neither national community succeeded in its national goals of establishing an independent state that is accepted in the world of nations. Also, neither succeeded in destroying the other, and neither succeeded in convincing the world that it is right and the other community is in the wrong. Frustration at failure on the part of both sides, plus a growing interest in religion and spiritual fulfillment in the wake of the failure of secular modernity to realize its self-made promise of solving the major problems of the world, have moved both sides toward religion – in each case its own majority religion.

Many but not all Israelis have turned toward Judaism as a way to resolve the problem, and many but not all Palestinians have turned toward Islam as a way to resolve the problem. Harnessing of the power of religion was thought by both sides to advance the nationalist cause. The result has been an increasing “religification” of the core political conflict. Unfortunately, this “religification” has resulted in a rise in zealotry and violence and a rise in static, uncompromising positions. If someone believes that God is on his side, there may seem to be little reason to compromise.

I believe that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is resolvable, but each side must acknowledge the real identity of the other as a national community, and each side must be willing to compromise and live on only part of the land that it believes is its right. Jews and Muslims and Jews and Arabs have lived together for many centuries in relative peace, but never with equal rights and responsibilities. For peace to occur, both must strive to respect the other and afford the other equal status as humans being, God’s creations, and a part of humanity with all the basic God-given rights that it itself demands.

Are you satisfied with the work of the Jewish community in Azerbaijan?

I am not very familiar with the Jewish community of Azerbaijan. I visited the two synagogues recently in Baki and I was impressed with the spirit of the people I met. I prayed with them and spoke with them. They are proud and loyal Azerbaijani citizens who feel good to be a part of this great nation. I would like to travel more in Azerbaijan and meet more of the Jews and other communities living in your country.

There is an opinion that Azerbaijan could become a bridge between Western and Eastern civilizations and a good example of the coexistence of various nations and religions. What is your opinion?

I do not see why this cannot occur. The Azerbaijani people have had a unique history, not only living in a part of the world that joins great civilizations, but also under a variety of political systems that may help the community to become a voice for dialogue, understanding and compromise.

Iran is not happy with secular regime of Azerbaijan, as well contacts between Baku and Israel. How serious is a threat of Islamic fundamentalism to Azerbaijan and what should be done to prevent that?

Unfortunately, I do not know many details about the internal religious, social and cultural movements and trends in Azerbaijan. As an academic and scholar, I have learned that knowledge is complex and wisdom is much more so. If I am not familiar with a topic, I do not hesitate to keep silent. It might be better in this world if more people would do the same.





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