You know it’s that time of year again when the government of a far-off, predominantly Muslim country throws a Hanukkah party in a Donald-Trump hotel in Washington, DC. Trump may have been less than inspiring for many Muslims and Jews alike, but leave it to energy-rich Azerbaijan, full of the holiday spirit, to sense an opportunity to bring everyone together, bar the skeptics.
Ever keen to put itself on the map as a diversity-embracing nation, Azerbaijan – or, rather, its US embassy – will cohost this December 14 Hanukkah reception with the 52-member Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Washington, DC’s newly opened Trump International Hotel is the venue of choice for the pair’s celebration of “freedom and diversity," according to news agency JTA.
Freedom is one thing for which Azerbaijan is not renowned, but the ex-Soviet republic indeed serves as a rare example of a Jewish-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation. For years, Israel and Azerbaijan have been trading guns, intelligence and professions of friendship.
But this latest in Azerbaijan’s international PR campaigns may lead to mixed results.
“This decision is tone deaf at best, naked sycophancy at worst,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reformed Judaism, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Jacobs questioned the decorum of selecting a Trump-owned property as the event’s venue, given the ethical quandaries posed by Trump combining his roles as businessman and US president-to-be.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations maintains that the Azerbaijani embassy chose the location only for its proximity to the White House, where Barack Obama, incidentally, will be hosting his last Hanukkah celebration as president. Jacobs, whose organization is a Conference member, countered that DC offers 3,000 alternative locations, free of both Trump and the debate over his ethics.
The Azerbaijani embassy, which is picking up the tab for the Hanukkah gathering, does not appear to have commented publicly on the criticism. Azerbaijani officials, though, are long accustomed to accusations about their own presidential family's alleged business interests.
Rather, the embassy's focus may be elsewhere. For Azerbaijan, which has long tried to drown out international criticism of its human rights record by hosting entertainment events and spending big on lobbying, this party offers an opportunity to raise its profile with both influential community-activists and with the US president-elect.
Whether or not that opportunity will also extend to two of the president-elect’s closest confidantes – his Orthodox Jewish, pro-Israel son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump – is not known.
Ivanka, at least, is a bit familiar with Azerbaijan. In 2014, she traveled to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to keep an eye on construction of a local Trump International Hotel & Tower. The project has since stalled.
Yet how closely such a venture could draw any country to the Oval Office's next occupant remains to be seen.
On December 15, the day after the Hanukkah party, President-Elect Trump plans a press-conference to reveal how he will leave his “great business in total” to get down to the business of governing.
But don’t expect Azerbaijan to raise any objections if his departure is not immediate.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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