In so many ways the world is a giant schoolyard playground. It possesses its bullies, jocks, popular cliques, and the nebbishes who hang around praying they will go unnoticed and avoid beatings by the bully contingency.
It is an unusual mix indeed. Deciding whom to befriend is one of the decisions one makes on that playground that will most greatly impact daily life — often, one’s entire future.
Many who possess weakness seek out the protection of the power brokers. This is also done regularly on the world stage. Rarely does one see the quiet kid show the guts to take on the biggest bullies.
I suppose this is why I have such enormous respect for the country of Azerbaijan, notably a secular and modern majority-Muslim nation.
New on the world playground, having gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, it has found itself in a location fraught with danger. Placed between Russia and Iran, it is wedged in like a mouse between two powerful cats.
Iran has made no secret it will actively attempt to take control of this young country through whatever means necessary. Its determination to infiltrate through radical Islamic mullahs has been thwarted thus far by the Azerbaijan government, but covert activities continue and will no doubt ramp up if and when it becomes possible.
Its position next to Russia is also a bit disconcerting. Russia is another longstanding bully, more stealth-like, but inherently dangerous.
One would think that by living in such a neighborhood, Azerbaijan would be careful about whom it invites to dinner.
Ah, but one would be mistaken. This gutsy little country has the sheer audacity to befriend the most hated country on the playground — Israel.
Relations between the two countries have grown stronger over the years and this friendship has put enormous pressure on Azerbaijan in the international community. Iran’s wrath is no secret and Russia’s duplicity is never as well hidden as it believes.
So why take on this enormous risk? What is the thinking that compels a government to place itself right in the middle of the hottest hotbed on the planet?
The decision to befriend Israel was not an accident. Although in life we may sometimes find ourselves judged through our own silence, Azerbaijan has not been silent about this alliance; in fact, it is quite the opposite. This decision to invite Israel into its inner circle was conscious and overt, which brings up another issue: the strength and determination of the country to stand on its own, decide its own destiny, and choose its own friends.
Had Azerbaijan remained quiet on the subject of Israel, staying neutral and failing to take sides would have been reason enough to respect it. It would also have been quite understandable. Opting out of such a volatile and dangerous situation as Israel’s relationship with the countries of the world may even prove wise.
After all, Israel is despised by not only Iran, but also by European nations like the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and the Netherlands. These countries have lined up against the Jewish state and wish to see her pushed into the sea.
Why should a young country like Azerbaijan, just setting out on the world stage, take such a risk?
During the Lebanon war in 2006, I stood in Los Angeles at dinner and watched Azerbaijani Consul General Elin Suleymanov tell the world press that Azerbaijan condemns terrorism in all of its forms and is a friend of Israel.
Aren’t all Muslims the enemy of Jews? Don’t all Muslims wish to see Israel destroyed?
Interestingly, a young Muslim nation has chosen not only to befriend the most controversial and hated member of the playground, but to blatantly and overtly stand next to it in full view.
It’s easy for me to list all the reasons Azerbaijan would benefit from a relationship with Israel: technology, medicine, science, and all of the advances Israel creates each day that improve mankind’s life and enhances the human condition. But Azerbaijan could have received those partnerships and gifts from Israel quietly and out of the eyesight of the bullies.
Why choose to shake the hand of the most despised country on earth? Who is this gutsy player and why has it taken such a risk to befriend the friendless?
The bond between Israel and Azerbaijan is more than a sign of friendship. It is a sign of hope. This candle lit by two nations in a world battling darkness may well be the light that restores the sight of mankind.