A Historic Meeting at State Committee on Work with Diaspora

To kick off our tour, we were invited to the offices of the State Committee on Work with Diaspora, which both hosted and organized our weeklong journey to Azerbaijan.
This was a historic meeting—the first time the State Committee on Work with Diaspora hosted a group of Bukharian Jews, even though the Bukharian Jews had recently hosted their annual World Congress in Baku in February 2024.
Separated by the Caspian Sea, and along the Silk Road, there is a lot of affinity between the Bukharian Jews and Azerbaijanis: similar cuisine, culture, music, and even language (particularly for the Bukharian Jews who speak Uzbek).
On the Bukharian side, the meeting was attended by me; Bukharian Times Editor-in-Chief Rafael Nektalov; filmmaker Ariel Roubinoff; businessman and Bukharian Jewish Community Center Director Leon Nektalov; and businessman Beni Benjamini. Unfortunately, Boris Kandov, President of the Congress of Bukharian Jews of the U.S. and Canada, could not make it for health reasons. His presence was missed. (We sincerely hope he is feeling better now.)
Joined by our Diaspora Committee guide, Zaur Salmanov, we met with Elshad Aliyev, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee on Work with Diaspora, and Salhat Abbasova, Head of the Department of the Americas, Great Britain and Israel for the State Committee on Work with Diaspora.
The Diaspora Committee, not to be confused with the Foreign Ministry, formed in 2002 and works with more than 70 countries and oversees 300 projects per year. It was founded as a way to both stay connected with Azerbaijanis abroad and foster relations with new friends and groups of people with interest in Azerbaijan. Additionally, and perhaps this is the primary mission, the Diaspora Committee seeks to shift the opinion around the world on the conflict between Armenia that was known as Nagorno-Karabakh, a 30-year conflict over a contested territory that belonged to Azerbaijan but was occupied by Armenia, which recently came to an end. «The mission is to show the world that it is our territory, and that the Armenians occupied it,» said Aliyev.

For Azerbaijan, this has been a struggle as, according to them, the Armenian Lobby is very influential in the US and Europe, which is why the Committee focuses so much on the US. «We work not only with Azerbaijani communities in the US, but also Jewish communities, and organizations like the AJC,» said Deputy Chairman Elshad Aliyev. «We call them ‘friends of Azerbaijan.’»
(The next delegation to visit from the US was a group of lawmakers from the State of Maine.)
«The world thinks this was a war between Muslims and Christians, but it’s about territory,» said Aliyev.
They, and every Azerbaijani I met on this trip, made it a point to say that they have Armenians living in Baku, and that there’s even an Armenian Church.
«In Azerbaijan, everyone is free—free to practice their religion,» said Aliyev.
Rafael Nektalov provided his own testament confirming this. Wearing a kipa on each visit, he’s never had a problem being Jewish in Azerbaijan—particularly after October 7th. «No one has a problem with Jews here. You can be Jewish, you can be Armenian, you can do what you want. It’s a great country,» said Nektalov.

He then added, «Five years ago, when I visited, I spoke about how we could really work together with your committee. And here we are today. I truly appreciate this exciting opportunity.»
During this meeting, the Committee briefed us on the conflict and lamented how the Armenians left Karabakh: «During the occupation, the Armenians destroyed everything, not only houses but also cultural heritage sites, cultural objects, religious sites,» said Aliyev. This includes almost all mosques in Shusha, and even a church.
They also destroyed all electricity and gas. And buried approximately 1.5 million land mines.
«If you occupy this territory, you should live in this territory, not destroy it,» said Aliyev. «They always wanted to destroy this region because in the 30 years they [occupied it], they built nothing.»
But in the short time since liberation, Azerbaijan has reconstructed a lot. They’ve built an entirely new city in Fizuli, a new airport in just 8 months, and new school (thanks to the Republic of Uzbekistan). They’ve also begun reconstruction in Lachin and Shusha, with Shusha even sporting a brand-new 5-star hotel. (These places, specifically, were mentioned as they were on our itinerary.)
Before the occupation, these places were home to a thriving 170,000 Azerbaijanis across 1000 villages. The government hopes to attract some of these people from Karabakh to move back, by offering them free homes. And the government hopes to build them in a green way.
Of course, as Jews, it’s easy to see the similarities between Israel and Gaza and Azerbaijan and Karabakh (or Armenia). And perhaps that’s why there is such affinity between these groups of people and their countries.
Leon Nektalov suggested asking Israel for help with building and bringing hospitals to Karabakh, a proposal that was well received.
«We have very good relations with Israel. Last year we opened an embassy in Israel,» said Salhat.
Aliyev reiterated this sentiment, adding: «It is a great pleasure for us to organize this trip for you. Please come to Azerbaijan anytime you want. Our doors are open.»

After Hours

Our meeting continued at Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant, which Rafael was adamant about showing us. He’s been seven times!
We were served an elaborate feast and celebrated our new friendship by listening to fantastic folk music performed live at our table and making toasts. We were also joined by Fuad Huseynzade, founder of
Rafael gave a wonderful speech, thanking Azerbaijan for generously hosting us, and explaining how Baku is like a second home to him. (Even his son is married to a Mountain Jew from Baku!)
Then it was Salhat’s turn.
«It is difficult to speak after Rafael. I’m happy that I’ve had this opportunity to meet him and other members of the Bukharian Jewish community. I had never met them before, but I heard about them because the Azerbaijani community in New York always told me, ‘We have very good friends here and you must know them.’»
«Last year I met Mr. Rafael, and I was very happy with his approach—not just because he loves Azerbaijan, but because of who he is as a person. He has a genuine love for people, knows how to approach them, communicate with them, and introduce other community members to us.
«I really enjoy being in communication with him and it wasn’t so long before we had the opportunity to meet in Azerbaijan during the World Bukharian Congress. I was invited to attend, and I saw firsthand how closely our nations are through their culture and behavior, with their aim foster friendships between our peoples. It’s truly fascinating.
«I’m happy that we have this opportunity to meet again, and I believe there will be more opportunities in the future. I’m sure this friendship will continue and I’m very happy that I have contributed, in a small way, to these continuous relations.
«Thank you for coming. I know these are difficult times for people to come together and visit. Thank you for your decision to visit Azerbaijan. We cherish our friendships, and may ours continue for all time.» L’chaim!

By Erin Levi