“I’m not Jewish or Armenian. I’m Jewish and Armenian,” Rachel said.
It’s a heavy weight to carry, with the scars of history on both sides. But these days, in the midst of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, being Jewish-Armenian is especially tough.
I don’t normally write about Jewish affairs; it’s outside of my coverage area and expertise. But when a Jewish friend came over my home in Yerevan, asking me to write up her voice, I had to say yes. She was in anguish. For all that’s been said about the commercial and military dimensions of this fight, she wanted to add the moral and personal ones.
Plus, it seemed so profoundly resonant of Jewish tradition and history: elevating a lone voice, a life caught up in the darkness of war.
It’s a mark of the moment that my friend was afraid to write this story herself. She promised her family she’d stay anonymous – not for fear of her safety in Yerevan, but for her relatives’ safety in Israel. Israel is the largest supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan, and those weapons, including missile-laden drones, are now being used on Armenian-majority civilian areas in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Those drones aren’t restricted to the "traditional" front lines but have brought the fighting deep into civilian territory, into the cities of Karabakh, contributing to an escalation that has now claimed civilian lives on both sides of the fight. The space occupied by the conflict is unprecedented, engulfing Azerbaijan’s second largest city of Ganja.
"It was the start of Yom Kippur when the war broke out," Rachel said. “I didn’t know if I could face going to synagogue, because I knew Israel was providing weapons to Azerbaijan and they were killing people. It was chaos inside of me,” she said.
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"On Monday I got a phone call from a friend who works at Ben-Gurion Airport, checking on me," she said. Her friend could see the air traffic reports for Israel’s southern airfield, Uvda. "He told me there were an unusual number of Azerbaijani cargo planes landing and taking off."
As reported by Yossi Melman in Haaretz, four Azeri Ilyushin-76 freight planes landed and took off from Uvda in the space of week just before and after fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out.
"I kept asking myself, how can Israel do this? How can they be selling the weapons for this to happen?"
After years of living in Tel Aviv, part of it facilitating and leading tours for Birthright Israel, Rachel felt the deep moral parallels between Jews and Armenians and a sensitivity to their historical connections. There has been a Jewish community in Armenia for 2000 years. According to national mythology, the Bagratuni dynasty, kings who founded the revered early medieval Armenian city of Ani, were of Jewish origin.
More recently, Jewish-Armenians like my friend live with the dual legacy of Holocaust and genocide; her great-grandparents narrowly survived the massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. She moved to Yerevan just over a year ago to live and breathe their cultural legacy.
One week after the war began Rachel called the local rabbi in Yerevan for support. "He told me to come to the sukkah [the temporary outside dwelling Jews build for the festival of Sukkot, or Tabernacles] to pray for peace. I sat there with my mask on to protect against COVID-19, next to a Lubavitcher rabbi, praying that Israeli bombs won’t fall on Armenian lives,” she said. "I thought, is this fiction or is it really happening?"
Living in Armenia, Rachel said, feels like living in Jerusalem. The depth of associations, the ubiquitous echoes of history.
"I feel Israel has a moral debt to pay, a principle of common memory. Israel has not yet recognized the Armenian genocide. Maybe we think that six million people lost in the Shoah outweigh 1.5 million Armenians lost in 1915. But the end was the same, the impact was the same: the near-annihilation of a people."
While acknowledging the strategic value of Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan and its backers in Turkey, she is inherently suspicious of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ambitions for regional dominance.
"Erdogan wants to finish off the Armenian people," Rachel said. When Erdogan gave a speech earlier this year vowing to "fulfill the mission our grandfathers have carried out for centuries," he invoked the Turkic conquests that stretched from Western China to the edge of the Mediterranean. In doing so, he triggered for Armenia and its diaspora a frisson of dread.
"The whole world is silent because it is afraid of Erdogan," said Rachel. "He feels that everything that is Armenian rightfully belongs to them. They’ll take Karabakh, they’ll take Armenia, they’ll try to take assets in Jerusalem. Then the Armenians will be forgotten," she lamented.
"What has shocked me most is the silence of the Jewish Diaspora. Jews around the world who should be speaking up, not only the Israelis. The Armenians are David, defending themselves from Goliath," she said.
Now that defense includes fending off Azerbaijan’s vast military and technological advantages. That arsenal, paid for by massive oil and gas wealth, is bearing fruit after decades of long-term investment by the Aliyev family.
Consecutively President Ilham Aliyev and his father have held political power in Azerbaijan almost continuously since 1964, when Haidar Aliyev became deputy chairman of the Azerbaijani KGB, consolidating his rule in 1969 when he became leader of Soviet Azerbaijan.
Armenians can feel like upstarts in comparison, using their wits to defend themselves and their place in the region.
What does she want from fellow Jews, and from Israelis? Respectively, "A little bit of solidarity and fewer arms sales," she said. Resources and strategic heft may buy more influence for the Azerbaijani side of the conflict. But that doesn’t diminish the need to see and protect the humanity of the other.
Rachel’s family members in Israel and Europe are telling her to leave Yerevan in case the fighting comes here. But she’s not interested in changing her place in this moment.
As she describes it she’d rather bear witness to what is an existential struggle, doing what she can to ensure might does not make right in the rocky hinterland of the Caucasus.
Lara Setrakian is the CEO of News Deeply, published in collaboration with The New Humanitarian. She spent five years as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East for ABC News and Bloomberg Television. Twitter: @lara