One imagines that a fun and festive “Hanukkah party celebrating religious freedom and diversity” cohosted by an American Jewish organization and a Muslim country held at a lavish hotel near the White House would be a high-profile holiday happening, not a hush-hush affair.
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But neither the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations nor the Embassy of Azerbaijan seem interested in shining a spotlight on the event to take place Wednesday at the Trump International Hotel. Not only is the celebration closed to the press, neither of its hosts is interested in talking about it – numerous calls and emails from Haaretz to both of the party sponsors asking about the story behind the event went unanswered.
The party, it should be noted, was kept quiet from the beginning. The event was never actually formally announced. It made headlines when one of the groups belonging to the Conference of Presidents leaked a copy of the invitation to the press.
That’s when the trouble began. Some of the group’s affiliate organizations were unhappy that they were not consulted on the plan – particularly when it came to the venue. As word got out, so did the public criticism. Numerous members of the Conference of Presidents said they would not be attending the party because it was located in a Trump hotel, and two groups said they didn’t want to be part of throwing a party jointly with an Azeri regime “that sanctions the violent suppression of any opposition.”
The grassroots coalition group IfNotNow, whose stated goal is to end support for the Israeli occupation and promote more progressive values in the American Jewish community, has said it plans to hold a protest rally outside the hotel during the party.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told Haaretz that the initiative for the party came from the Azeris. “It was their idea, they asked the Jewish organizations to cosponsor it, and of course it was the right thing to do,” said Klein. “Azerbaijan got in touch with the Jewish community world. They wanted to celebrate Hanukkah with us, and of course we said yes. This is a friendly Muslim country, friendly to Israel. What could be better than bringing a friendly Muslim country even closer to Israel?”
While he admitted it was unconventional, and as far as he could remember, unprecedented for an American Jewish organization to cohost such an event with a foreign country, he applauded the idea. If they offered, he said, there was no reason to refuse.
“I don’t remember it ever happening. They are the ones that got in touch. If five other countries got in touch, I’m sure we would say yes to all of them,” Klein said.
The party is set to take place Wednesday, on the same evening as the White House Hanukkah candle-lighting celebration, and scheduled so Jewish leaders can attend both events.
The timing was ideal for those who wished to celebrate ties between Azeris, Jews and the State of Israel. The party was scheduled to take place the day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a six-hour state visit to Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. During the visit, the Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said out loud for the first time what experts, journalists and observers have known for a long time: that over the past several years there had been billions – Aliyev specified $4.85 billion – in sales of weapons and other security equipment from Israel to his country.
The arms sales, which have grown steadily over the years, are just one aspect of the long-standing friendship and close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel – a relationship that is remarkable considering Azerbaijan is 95 percent Shi’ite Muslim and borders one of Israel’s most determined enemies: Iran, which looks askance at the Israeli-Azeri ties.
According to a report Tuesday in on the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs website, Iranian suspicions “are focused on the reports that from time to time emerge in the media” that reveal “the Mossad is using Azerbaijan as a forward base for collecting intelligence about Iran and in particular about its nuclear program.”
In 2012, a detailed story, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground” in Foreign Policy described how, through a series of “understandings” Israel had access to four abandoned Soviet air bases located in Azerbaijan on the Iranian border in case it decided to attack.
The Baku stop on Tuesday marked the second time Netanyahu – the only Israeli prime minister ever to visit Azerbaijan – has been there. His first visit took place in 1996 during his first term as premier, five years after Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijani independence in 1991.
The warm relationship began with the centuries-old Jewish community in Azerbaijan, which still exists and is thriving – it remains on the good side of the authoritarian rulers who are known for being ruthless toward their opposition. The community suffers remarkably little anti-Semitism, despite its tiny number of 20,000 in a country of 10 million Muslims. President Aliyev has visited Jewish community centers, given money for a Torah and helped finance the rebuilding of a synagogue.
But the ties goes far beyond Muslim-Jewish relationships. Binding the two countries together on a practical level are the massive sales of Israeli-made weapons and defense systems that Aliyev alluded to, crucial to his country’s ongoing border conflict with Armenia (which has been criticized by the Israeli left). For its part, in addition to benefitting from the sales, Israel is heavily dependent on the Azeris in the field of energy. Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s largest suppliers of oil and gas.
A 2009 United States government cable revealed by Wikileaks famously quotes Aliyev as saying the Azeri-Israeli relationship is “like an iceberg” because “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”
The cable notes that “each country finds it easy to identify with the other’s geopolitical difficulties and both rank Iran as an existential security threat. Israel’s world-class defense industry with its relaxed attitude about its customer base is a perfect match for Azerbaijan’s substantial defense needs that are largely left unmet by the United States, Europe and Russia for various reasons tied to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Some commentators say that the Azeri relationship with the U.S. government is where the motivation to host the Trump Hotel event stemmed from.
Azerbaijan spends millions each year lobbying the American government – but every little bit helps and a friendly Hanukkah party in the Trump International Hotel certainly can’t hurt. (Conference of Presidents chair Malcolm Hoenlein told the New York Times that the Azeris chose the venue.)
It is an unspoken, but commonly acknowledged reality that many countries nurture their relationship to Israel in hopes of finding favor with influential American Jewish organizations who will in turn speak well of them to the U.S. government. The Conference of Presidents visited Baku last March and met with Aliyev.
Although the Azerbaijan Embassy in the U.S. was keeping quiet about the party on Tuesday, it was enthusiastically spotlighting the Netanyahu visit to their country and its friendship with Israel on the Internet.
There were no fewer than eight posts following the Israeli prime minister’s every move in Baku on the embassy’s Facebook page on Tuesday. The embassy’s home page resembled that of a Jewish organization, not only reporting on Netanyahu’s visit but featuring an article by an Israeli rabbi expressing gratitude for the assistance Azerbaijan recently sent to help with the recent spate of fires in Israel, as well as a tribute to late President Shimon Peres written by the leader of the Azeri Jewish community.