The ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Hamas has given rise to global tensions of Islamophobia and antisemitism. A Netherlands-based watchdog reported an eightfold rise in antisemitic incidents between October 7 and November 9. Similarly, independent NGOs, and police across Europe, North America, and elsewhere have reported rising incidents.

A six-year-old Palestinian boy in Chicago was stabbed 26 times on October 16. A 69-year-old Jewish man in California was fatally injured during a violent argument with pro-Palestine demonstrators. And, in Vermont, three Palestinian-American college students survived a gunman who shot all three as they were walking down a street–one remains paralyzed from the waist down. An individual shouting “I am Hamas” made death threats to Jews standing by a Kosher restaurant in Los Angeles while in New York City, a man punched a woman, reasoning “You are Jewish.” 

Is the ongoing war in Israel the main reason for increased antisemitic and Islamophobic acts across the globe? This may be true for some countries, but the small Republic of Armenia’s Jewish community disagrees and recently set an example of de-escalation. 

Foreign Provoked Arson in Yerevan Synagogue

On the morning of Wednesday, November 15, the Republic of Armenia’s only Jewish synagogue, Mordechai Navi Jewish Religious Center in the capital city, Yerevan, was doused with petrol and set on fire. The fire, which was quickly put out, resulted in no serious damage to the building. 

Multiple news outlets from around the world, however, rushed to falsely portray the attempted arson as successful. A video showing flames rising from the synagogue door was uploaded to social media sites shortly after. Visegrád 24 bankrolled by the far-right Polish government and often posting fake or biased news, wrote that the Yerevan synagogue was “burned down” and credited the Azerbaijani ambassador to Germany, Nasimi Aghayev, as the source of a video showing flames rising from the synagogue door. 

Many members of Armenia’s Jewish community consider this Azerbaijani connection to be no coincidence given the flaring conflicts between the two countries, especially over the last few years. 

According to blogger Alexander Lapshin, Azerbaijani news outlets were the first to report on the attack – they somehow knew about it before anyone in Armenia did. Lapshin was in Yerevan at the time of the incident. He visited the synagogue on the evening of the attempted arson and posted a video showing that the building was not damaged. 

“I know for sure that Azerbaijani social media groups knew about the attack before Armenian groups did. This makes it obvious whose order it was. Azerbaijan is trying to taint Armenia’s reputation and falsely portray it as a dangerous destination full of racism and antisemitism. We need to fight this. If they really wanted to burn down the synagogue, I think they’d break the window and throw a Molotov cocktail inside the building. They didn’t do this, so I think their goal was to make it seem like Armenia is bad but not make the attack so critical that a huge investigation would reveal the perpetrators’ identity,” Lapshin said in his video. 

The Israeli press reported that an Armenian pro-Palestine group calling itself “ASALA Young” took responsibility for the attack. ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) is a long-defunct organization that struggled for the recognition of the Armenian genocide and an independent Armenian state, often resorting to violent methods. No one had heard of “ASALA Young” before the recent synagogue attack. The only reference to the group is a social media page, created in October 2023, with 109 followers. 

Many foreign commentators didn’t question the authenticity of these claims by a suspiciously small and unknown group. Instead, they rushed to connect the attempted arson to Armenian nationalism and used the occasion to call out Armenia for alleged antisemitism.

Exemplary Local Response in Armenia

The response from the Jews living in Yerevan and those who frequent the city’s only synagogue was remarkably different. Head of Armenia’s Jewish community, Rima Varzhapetyan, told AFP “There are some forces that work not against us Jews, but against Armenia.”

“We didn’t know what had happened yet, and Azerbaijani channels were already circulating photos of the building,” Varzhapetyan added, confirming what Lapshin said a day earlier.

In his recent interview with the Armenian news portal CivilNet, Rabbi Gershon Burstein of the Yerevan synagogue expressed a similar point of view. He claimed a coordinated campaign was seeking to tarnish Armenia’s reputation, and mentioned how an Azerbaijan-based rabbi was involved in spreading anti-Armenian propaganda. 

“The head of Azerbaijan’s Georgian Jewish community has been spreading false and provocative information about Armenia being antisemitic and urged Armenian Jews to relocate to his country. I’m more than sure this was inspired by pressure from the Azerbaijani authorities,” Rabbi Burstein said. 

Attribution to the recent synagogue attack on a foreign power seems to be almost universally accepted by Armenia’s Jewish community. Not just the locals who hold Armenian citizenship, but also thousands of new Jewish immigrants from Russia who moved to Armenia following the Ukraine war, share this opinion.

“It is evident that there are foreign powers interested in portraying Armenia as a dangerous country for Jewish people. There isn’t enough information to make bold accusations for now, but I think both Azerbaijan and Russia may benefit from provocations that destabilize Armenia’s young and tolerant civil society,” said Moscow-native, now Yerevan-based Jewish journalist and activist Nathaniel Trubkin. 

Trubkin, like most Jews he knows, says he feels very safe living in Armenia. “We don’t face antisemitism or any other sort of prejudice from the Armenian society. We may stumble upon bigoted comments on social media from time to time, but we don’t know if they were actually written by the Armenians. In real life, people here are very welcoming and tolerant,” he concluded.

The community’s response is in line with public statements by Armenia’s Investigative Committee which has reported that the arson perpetrator was a non-resident foreigner who flew into Armenia shortly before the attempted arson and left a few hours afterward. 

Geopolitical Tensions Over Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh)

The attempted synagogue attack in Armenia is related to a decades-long dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For over 30 years, the two countries have been tangled in a conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh, as Armenians call it), which has, for millennia, been populated by indigenous Christian Armenians. In 1920, Stalin carved the predominantly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast into the newly created Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. The oblast always maintained its independent government and parliament. The conflict sparked when the oblast’s government first petitioned Moscow to separate from Azerbaijan–legally allowed under the constitution. 

Azerbaijan refutes the Armenian population of Artsakh’s legal right to self-determination which, as American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Michael Rubin explains, “began prior to the fall of the Soviet Union when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast’s government first petitioned Moscow to separate from Azerbaijan. This was their right under the Constitution, and their residents chose independence in a free and fair referendum.” 

The dispute led to pogroms in Baku and Sumgait and the First Nagorno-Karabakh War from  1992 to 1994 with heavy losses for Azerbaijan. In the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, in September 2020, Azerbaijan, with NATO member Turkey’s backing, unleashed an unprovoked 44-day war and brought hired Syrian mercenaries into Artsakh which committed countless war crimes alongside the Azerbaijani military. With Azerbaijan carpet bombing Artsakh, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response experts “identified Israeli-made M095 DPICM cluster munitions” used by Azerbaijan.

Over 5,000 Armenians died, and thousands were displaced by the time the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia signed a Russian-brokered tripartite ceasefire agreement on November 9, 2020. The war ended in favor of Azerbaijan, leading Russia to install 1,960 peacekeeping forces in Artsakh, which subsequently failed to secure the Armenian population’s safety through the Azerbaijani-imposed 10-month-long blockade of Artsakh. Azerbaijan’s final offensive, under the guise of “anti-terrorist activities” on September 19 of this year, brought further bombing to the besieged civilians across Artsakh and the consequent forcible displacement of over 100,000 Armenians fleeing into neighboring Armenia where they remain in temporary shelters. 

Azerbaijan’s Efforts In Tarnishing Armenia’s Reputation

Despite Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leadership and well-documented human rights violations, Israel views it as a strategic ally because of its proximity to Iran. In turn, Azerbaijan attempts to portray itself as a “Jew-friendly” country – while deliberately and falsely painting Armenia as antisemitic.

Jews and Armenians have co-existed for millennia. While medieval sources claim there were Jewish settlements in the Armenian Highlands as early as the 1st century BC, the majority of modern-day Armenian Jews are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, who had to flee Eastern Europe and were welcomed in Armenia during and after World War II.

The recent Russo-Ukrainian war brought an exodus of over 50,000 Russians and Ukrainians to Armenia–among them are many Jewish people. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Jews are now  living in Armenia–most reside in Yerevan and Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city. The medieval Jewish cemetery in the southeast village of Yeghegis remains a pilgrimage site for many Jewish visitors. Yerevan’s Mordechai Navi Synagogue holds regular services and Hebrew classes for young people. The Jewish community also runs several organizations and the “Magen David” newspaper which covers news on Armenia, Israel, and the Jewish world.

While Israel has not recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during which 1.5 million Armenians were massacred, a Holocaust memorial at Poplavok Park in Yerevan honors both Holocaust and Armenian Genocide victims in two pillars with Armenian and Hebrew inscriptions that read: “To Live and Not Forget: To the Memory of the Victims of the Genocides of the Armenian and Jewish Peoples”.

The Thirty Year GenocideTurkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Harvard University Press 2019), co-authored by Israeli historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, sets the record straight. Morris, professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, is a key member of the group of Israeli historians known as the “New Historians”.

Over the past three years, Israeli cities of Haifa and Petah Tikva, have recognized the Armenian Genocide on the municipal level. Some Israeli human rights activists claim that a nationwide recognition is only a matter of time, especially now that Israel’s relations with Turkey have worsened because of its reaction to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Seeking to portray itself as a friend of Israel and a defender of Jews in the region, Azerbaijan initiated a widespread campaign in 2020 to paint Armenia as an “antisemitic” country with a series of articles published in Israeli press by Azerbaijanis living in Israel and Jewish residents of Azerbaijan.

The response of Armenia’s Jewish community to the recent false narrative is a great example of how antisemitic incidents could be de-escalated. Rather than jumping to conclusions and blaming their compatriots, Armenian Jewish leaders carefully examined the situation to reveal foreign provocation––which the world media failed to investigate, or perhaps never meant to. Locally, the incident has failed to disturb the peaceful co-existence of Armenia’s Christian majority and its small, vibrant Jewish community which has long been part of the country.

The abundance of local opinions as well as official and semi-official statements pointing at a foreign provocation remains largely ignored outside of Armenia. If it was indeed a provocation against Armenia, it was an unfortunately successful one: it certainly reawakened the past provocations leading many people around the world to believe Armenia to be an antisemitic country, even when resident Jews confirm otherwise.

Islamophobia or antisemitism incidents analyzed separately, and carefully, can ensure that no rogue actors are involved. In a polarized world, dialogue and trust serve to de-escalate rather than intensify mutual distrust. 

Dor Shabashewitz, co-authored the article. He is a Russia-born Jewish Israeli journalist and political analyst with a social anthropology background who has been living in Armenia, with his Armenian wife, since summer 2021 and has covered ethnic minority rights, migration, and politics in Russia and Central Asia as a contributor to RFE/RL, New Eastern Europe, and The Forward.