Azerbaijan, Baku, United States

An Open Letter To the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations Regarding the Trump DC Hotel Hanukah party co-hosted with the Embassy of Azerbaijan

To the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations:

At a time when internment camps and mass deportations are being discussed in public and political life in our nation and the state is forcefully closing in on civil liberties and the executive threatens our free press and union leaders, the notion of co-hosting a Hanukah party with one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes at a hotel that bears Trump’s name is beyond inappropriate, it is a scandalous threat to the future of all American Jews in this nation. The Jewish community’s true leaders are not looking for a tribal advantage inside the incoming regime in this country but rather to protect at all times their friends, family, neighbors and colleagues from the brutality a state can unleash on its citizens.

Many of us are in this country because we fled persecution at two key historical moments. The first is around the Second World War as Hitler and Stalin closed in on the Pale regions of Eastern Europe, threatening Jewish life there. Half of my family belongs to this generation and we came to this country at a time of genuine American leadership on the world stage, when rather than shun refugees, we lead the world in drafting the United Nations Convention on Refugees. The second period was in the 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union, which presented another threat to what remained of Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain. How ironic and utterly ahistorical that now at a time when a demagogue seeks to divide our own nation, the so-called leaders of the Jewish community see fit to curry favors with him as he speaks of menacing others who are not us. Well, I am sorry but they are us, as we are not simply Jewish people but American citizens who must stand up for and protect the rights of all our people, especially when they don’t look like us or pray like us. We cannot expect greater humanity and compassion than we ourselves are willing to show.

As for Azerbaijan’s role, I would like to speak to that as someone with experience working, reporting and living in that country first as a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee in 2010 and later as a Fulbright grant recipient in 2011-2012. Azerbaijan is an Orwellian universe of the sort the incoming administration seeks to bring here. My friends in civil society for the most part live in exile, for if they chose to live in Azerbaijan they sit now either in jail, with their passports confiscated or looking down in silence. When I lived in Azerbaijan, my colleague, investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was secretly recorded in an act of intimacy in her bedroom, the footage of which was later used to blackmail her and broadcast on the internet and later television. She spent time in jail for the absurd offense of inciting a man to suicide, who lived, naturally, and later recanted. She has since been freed thanks to the work of civil society internationally and organizations like PEN America.

Beyond my colleagues though, to court Azerbaijan and to do so under the moniker of a hotel that bears the name of the president elect is to embrace a disaster in the form of a civil liberties nightmare that will backfire so badly not just on your organizations, but on Jewish life in America. I photographed and interviewed personally people who had their land expropriated by the state one day when they were merely removed from their homes, arrested and returned to a pile of rubble. I spent nine months with the family of a writer, Rafiq Tagi, who was murdered after writing Islam and democracy are incompatible – an act the Azerbaijani government blamed him for while not investigating claiming publicly that he brought it on himself. But perhaps most damning is when I protested my colleague Khadija’s detention outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington. They reacted by calling the police, expecting we might be summarily hauled away and brutalized by the police as happens in Azerbaijan. When the DC police showed up at our modest protest, I watched as Embassy employees moved away from the window and closed the curtain as I shook the police officer’s hand and politely answered his inquiries concerning the reasons for our protest.

I understand Israel has very few friends in the world and I will not deny that Jewish life in Azerbaijan is more comfortable than elsewhere and that the Azerbaijani government has shown great willingness to cooperate with the Israeli government on defense and energy – two critical sectors for any national economy and security. However, the cost of this partnership need not be carried by American Jews who will bear the brunt of the symbolic appearance of this event in their daily lives as such events sow the seeds of doubt, conspiracy and ultimately terror. Jared Kushner’s paper The New York Observer is now on record accusing political opposition as being akin to political terrorism and has urged the FBI to go after its enemies. This sounds more like Azerbaijan than America to me and this is simply not what I want for the future of my own nation.

In conclusion, I ask that this event be cancelled even though I expect no such thing and that rather than come together around a holiday that celebrates victory over those who sought to place pigs in our temples, we work to keep the pigs out of other’s sacred spaces, that we join them in these spaces for prayer and reflection. To host such an event at a Trump-branded hotel with a country that is counted by Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and a host of other organizations as among the most restrictive in the world is not a gesture of humanity in the face of oppression rather the opposite. You call yourselves leaders but this is not the behavior of leadership. Lastly, Jared and Ivanka will not erase the swastikas which have only grown in number by the way, that task falls on us, American citizens.

Sincerely,

Amanda Rivkin, photographer + writer
National Geographic Young Explorer to Azerbaijan 2010
Fulbright grantee to Azerbaijan, 2011

UPDATES:
Jewish Women International, Women of Reform Judaism and Americans for Peace Now have informed me by email that they declined to attend the Hanukah party and in a Huffington Post article, Workmen’s Circle, has questioned the merit of the event and disavowed it and the National Council of Jewish Women and Union of Reform Judaism said they would not be attending the event for the same reasons. Thank you.