BAKU - At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, one Muslim nation is getting attention for its friendship with Israel and the Jewish people. That country is Azerbaijan. Could it be a model for the rest of the Muslim world?
Azerbaijan sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Like Iran, its pre-Islamic days more than 800 years ago, were dominated by the religion of Zoroastrianism.
With a population of nearly 10 million it's the 90th largest country in the world.
It's strategically positioned with Iran on its southern border, Turkey to the west and Russia to the north.
Located on the Caspian Sea, this former Soviet republic is one of the world's major oil producers. The capital Baku is the country's economic center.
"Azerbaijan is a source for about anything between quarter to one-third of the oil import to Israel and this flow of high-quality oil is very important to the State of Israel," said Dan Stav, Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan.
Oil isn't the only thing flowing between the two countries. According to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has purchased nearly $5 billion worth of weapons systems from Israel.
"This is important for Azerbaijan to maintain its defense and existence in a very challenging strategic environment," Stav said.
In an interview in the Azeri capital, Baku, Stav told CBN News about his efforts to diversify the economic cooperation between the two countries.
"Israel can be of help, especially in development of the agricultural sector, which is a priority of the government and we have cooperation with medical institutes and medical domain in general, education, IT," he said.
And the relationship goes beyond economy and defense.
"To be an ambassador to Azerbaijan is a special privilege because the relations between the Azeri people preceded the relations with the Jewish state," Stav said.
"The Mountainous Jewish community, according to some historical accounts has preceded Islam, Christianity. The first Jews, according to some myth arrived to Azerbaijan after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 before Christ," he added.
The vast majority of the population here is Shiite Muslim but it's a secular country. For generations the Jewish community has felt at home here and since its independence, Azerbaijan has had good relations with Israel.
In a 2016 visit to Azerbaijan both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Aliyev attested to the deep ties between Jews and Azeris.
"For centuries Jews and Azerbaijanis, lived in peace, friendship, and continue to live here in Azerbaijan and Jewish community in Azerbaijan is a very active part of our society. They contribute a lot to the development of modern Azerbaijan," Aliyev said.
"The attitude that you've shown to Jewish people in Azerbaijan over the years, one that has fostered this very strong bond of sympathy and admiration for Azerbaijan -- first of all with the 70,000 Jews who live in Israel, who are from Azerbaijan. It's a human bridge but also something we can show the world," Netanyahu said.
"The world sees so much intolerance, so much darkness. Well here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere," Netanyahu added.
Many Azeri Jews from Israel go back regularly to visit their homeland.
"You don't do it if you come from an environment that (is) infested with anti-Semitism," Stav explained.
Israel and Azerbaijan have had diplomatic relations since 1992 – after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"We don't consider Muslims as such our enemies and Azerbaijan is itself a proof that this is not the case," said Stav.
In sharp contrast, Iran is the other Shi'ite Muslim majority country in the neighborhood.
"There's such a startling difference between the two countries. Azerbaijan showed that it's not a matter of Shia," Stav added.
Despite years of animosity, Stav said there's a growing understanding among Muslim states in the region.
"Israel is not an enemy and cooperation can be very beneficial," he said. "Azerbaijan serves as an alternative model to the model that we know more – whether it's a Salafi Islam or the political Shia Islam led by Iran and the Hezbollah."
The hope is that the Azeri-Israeli example of Muslim and Jew standing together will serve as an anchor of stability in the Middle East.