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Armenia’s Jews challenge unsubstantiated ‘antisemitism’ claims

Two journalists, a Russia-born Jewish Israeli living in Armenia and an American-Armenian, explore a recent attempted arson of Armenia’s only synagogue by foreign individuals that set an example for de-escalation.

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Yerevan synagogue
Armenia's only Jewish synagogue, Mordechai Navi Jewish Religious Center in the capital city, Yerevan.

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.

Jackie Abramian is committed to amplifying the work of women peace-builders, change makers and social entrepreneurs. She is a social enterprise advisor and the founder of Global Cadence consultancy.

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EU awards recognize citizen science initiatives

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EU awards recognize citizen science initiatives
CoAct for Mental Health won a €20,000 Digital Communities Prize

The winners of the EU 2024 Prize for Citizen Science have been announced this week. Citizen science – the general public engagement in scientific research activities – contributes to a vibrant civil society and is getting increasingly popular with Europeans.

Out of the 288 applications, three citizen science initiatives received the main prizes and 27 were recognised with honorary mentions. 

The winners are:

  • The ‘Grand Prize’, worth €60,000, goes to the EU-funded INCREASE  project for its outstanding achievements in advancing knowledge on seed preservation through the empowerment of civil society and citizens, in particular from rural areas.
  • The Digital Communities prize, worth€20,000, is given to the Horizon 2020 project CoAct for Mental Health for its use of digital technologies to develop a personalised approach and improve the quality of life for people facing mental health problems.
  • The Diversity & Collaboration prize, worth €20,000, is given to SeaPaCS_Participatory Citizen Science against Marine Pollution for producing transformative knowledge that filled the existing cognitive and emotional gap between society and the sea.

Iliana Ivanova, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said:

“I warmly congratulate the winners of this year’s EU Citizen Science Award, but would also like to commend all participants. Your initiatives address some of our most pressing challenges and showcase the transformative potential of citizen science. They improve the excellence and impact of our research, and also deepen the relationship and trust between science and our societies.”

The winners have been selected by an independent jury of five experts. Two of the three winners of the main prizes are projects funded by Horizon 2020, the EU’s previous research and innovation programme (2014-2020). The third winner involves both a former and a current Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellow.

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Young filmmakers get a boost from Netflix and Polish Producers’ Alliance

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Young filmmakers get a boost from Netflix and Polish Producers’ Alliance
Netflix funded scholarships enabling young filmmakers to participate in the annual Film Spring Open workshops  in Kraków | Photo: Samantha Borges

The film and television industry is not only an exciting creative journey, but can also be a fascinating choice as a professional career. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for young people that are about to enter the labor market to know how to embark on this career path.

In a recent survey conducted by the Polish Producers’ Alliance – KIPA, nearly 90% of young people indicated that lack of connections makes it difficult for them to start in the film industry. Another barrier can be the fact of living outside the main urban centers and the lack of specialized education in secondary schools. The lack of new cadres and employees entering into the Polish film industry is quickly becoming a growing challenge for those creating films and series – the number of productions in Poland is growing dynamically from year to year. According to the Olsberg SPI report prepared for KIPA, the Polish film industry already creates an equivalent of 21,000 full time jobs each year.

That’s why last year, Netflix and KIPA launched the “Film Your Future” project, addressed to young people from various regions of Poland who are thinking about a career in the film industry. During the 2-day summer workshops, 136 people aged 18-26 from seven voivodeships learned the secrets of working on a film set, what are the various professions in the industry, and also worked on their very own film production. For the most committed workshop participants, Netflix funded scholarships enabling them to participate in a week-long event – the annual Film Spring Open workshops  in Kraków.

“For me, the “Film Your Future” project was certainly an extraordinary event that changed my view of the film industry and the opportunities it offers by 180 degrees. (…) From a person who considered the film industry to be a kind of unattainable environment for me, I have reached the point where I know what doors to open and I am already taking the first steps towards it,” says Mikołaj, 20 years old, from Bochnia about his experience participating in the workshop.

The positive reception of the workshops, giving young people not only the opportunity, but also the knowledge and skills for a better start in the film industry, led Netflix to continue its partnership with the Polish Producers’ Alliance. 

This year, the streaming giant will be reopening the door to a professional career in the production of films and TV series thanks to the second edition of the “Film Your Future” program. This time, during the upcoming summer holidays, the workshops will be held in the following voivodeships: Podlaskie, Lubelskie, Podkarpackie, Świętokrzyskie, Opolskie, Lubuskie and Wielkopolskie. The program is held under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

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£125,000 in grants awarded to UK creatives to support careers in screen arts

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Emerging creative from low socio-economic backgrounds are amongst the talent receiving bursaries.

BAFTA announced over £125,000 in grants have been awarded to 69 talented creatives to support their career development in the screen arts.  

This year, grants of up to £2,000 each have been made available to 58 emerging creatives including production assistants, costumer designers, writers, game designers, and camera and sound trainees to help them progress in their respective crafts. The grants will go towards essential costs such as driving lessons, specialist equipment, training and relocation costs that might otherwise lock talented people out of a screen arts career.  

The Prince William BAFTA Bursary scheme is named in honour of BAFTA’s President. Kickstarted with the support of film director Paul Greengrass, it is now in its fourth year.

For the first time, BAFTA is also awarding grants to individuals who have been forcibly displaced in collaboration with the Refugee Journalism Project. £30,000 in funding has been awarded to 11 recipients including journalists, editors, directors and videographers.  

The Refugee Journalism Project builds on BAFTA’s recent work with Counterpoint Arts – highlighting the importance of authentic portrayals of refugees on-screen, including recent events with BAFTA award-winning filmmaker and activist Hassan Akkad, a masterclass with BAFTA award-winning director Waad al-Kateab, and ‘Introduction to Filmmaking’ workshops with Deadbeat Films. 

Supporting the next generation of talent is an essential part of our mission. The Prince William BAFTA Bursary Fund is a fantastically effective way to kick-start careers, particularly for those who face socio and economic inequality. The bursaries are transformative for career starters, enabling them to buy an essential piece of kit, secure training, or in some cases it’s as simple as getting driving lessons so they can get to set! There is no shortage of potential in our workforce. Unfortunately, the opportunity to act on that potential is all too often limited by financial barriers. So, I’m delighted to continue The Prince William BAFTA Bursary Fund, thanks to our incredibly generous network of donors and supporters,” says Jane Millichip, CEO of BAFTA.

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