General Information on Georgian Jewish Organizations
Many Jewish communities, including that of the entirely Jewish town of Kulashi, which still existed at the end of the 1980s, are now entirely extinct. A significant part of the Jews of Georgia emigrated to Russia in the 1990s, settling mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they established separate Georgian Jewish religious communities. The census of 2002 registered an unreliable figure of 300 people in Russia, while estimates suggest 5 thousand. The emigration of Georgian Jews in Soviet times was largely motivated by Zionist ideas, while in the post-Soviet period the main reason for emigration became the economical and political crisis, continuing in Georgia since 1991.
Virtually all the Jews of South Ossetia left or were evacuated by the Sochnut as early as 1991-1992, although later some returned to Tskhinvali. There are approximately 200 Jews living in the capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi: most of them Ashkenazi, Bukharian Jews, and Krymchaks. Emigration still continues, but at a lesser rate than in the 1990s. As a result of the “five-day war” in South Ossetia which broke out in August 2008, the Jewish quarter of Tskhinvali was destroyed for the second time, its citizens fleeing to Russia through North Ossetia; after the war, several families returned to Tskhinvali. At the same time, during the war, most of the Georgian-Jewish community of Gori left the city in fear of the approaching Russian troops and escaped to Tbilisi. From there, about 150 of them then emigrated to Israel, but later a major part returned to Gori.
The main umbrella organization for the Georgian Jews is the World Congress of Georgian Jews, established in January 2003, a collective member of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (acting president – EAJC Vice-President Gabriel Mirilashvili, chairman EAJC General Council member G. Batiashvili).
There is a Georgian Maccabi office (G. Paatashvili), and a Maccabi basketball club (J. Khukhashvili). In 1998, a discussion club called 26 Centuries was formed, organizing regular members’ meetings of the Jewish community of Georgia. A local office of the international student organization Hillel is functioning in Tbilisi; the charitable organization Chesed-Eliyahu (R. Shatashvili) has branches in Tbilisi, Rustavi, Gori, Batumi, Kutaisi, and Oni. The Joint also finances the republic’s Jewish Cultural and Educational Foundation (director E. Berkovitch). In the winter of 2006, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the FSU announced the creation of a special charitable foundation to aid elderly Georgian Jews. There are also: the Association of Jewish Women in Georgia Miriam (chairwoman Riva Krupnik), the women’s organization Leah, led by M. Solomonishvili, and the Association of Georgian-Jewish women (president Eva Babalashvili-Khukhashvili). In October 2009, the international Jewish women’s organization “Project Kesher” (represented in Georgia by Z. Shaptoshvili) and World ORT opened a ORT-Kesher-Net computer center each in Tbilisi and Gori.
There are two Or Avner Jewish schools and a kindergarten in the state, as well as the Shalom Sesame kindergarten with the Jewish Cultural and Educational Foundation. A National University of Jewish Culture has been work-ing in the state since the late 1990s. Summer camps are organized with the support of the Joint and the Sochnut.
Despite the fact that the Joint and the Sochnut have refused to fund Jewish press, the Georgian-language newspaper Menorah, edited by G. Batiashvili, is published regularly (since its founding in 1993); the Russian-language Shalom comes out on holidays (edited by L. Samovski, since 1992); and since 1998 there has been 26 Vekov (26 Centuries, edited by G. Namtalashvili). There has been a regular communal Jewish book festival in Tbilisi since 1996. There are religious communities in Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Gori, and Oni. Chief Rabbi of Georgia is Rabbi Ariel Levine.
A cooperation agreement was signed between the Jewish community of Georgia and the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2001, whereby the GOC accepted Judaism as one of Georgia’s traditional religions.
The notion of Georgia’s tolerance to Jews has become part of the state’s public image and is constantly emphasized by authorities at all levels. 1998 saw very pompous celebrations of the conditional 2,600th anniversary of Jewish presence in Georgia. Eduard Shevarnadze, who headed the state in 1992-2003, regularly proclaimed friendship between Georgians and Jews and attended various events organized by the Jewish community. The current president, Mikhail Saakashvili, adheres to the same tactic. In December 2006 and 2008, President M. Saakashvili lit a Chanukah candle in the Choral Synagogue of Tbilisi. Under G. Batiashvili’s initiative, the mayor’s office of Tbilisi decided to rename two streets in the historical part of the capital after the kings David and Solomon in July 2006.
On October 28, 2004, the President of Georgia saw an EAJC delegation led by EAJC President Alexander Mashkevich. The meeting was dedicated to activate the participation of the state in international inter-ethnic and interconfessional dialogue under the patronage of the President of Kazakhstan N. Nazarbayev. On February 13-17, 2008, a joint diplomatic mission of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, led by Alexander Mashkevich, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, led by Malcolm Hoenlein, visited Tbilisi. The EAJC delegation held meetings with President Mikhail Saakashvili.
In August and September 2008, the EAJC and the Federal Jewish National and Cultural Autonomy of Russia organized aid for refugees in the armed conflict area in the Caucasus. $70,000 was allocated for the aid. EAJC Secretary General Mikhail Chlenov and EAJC General Council Chairman Yosif Zissels were made responsible for coordinating the humanitarian aid. A Refugee Aid Committee was formed, which kept political neutrality, took no sides in the conflict, and only got involved in solving humanitarian tasks. Minister of refugees and accommodation Tamar Martiashvili on behalf of the Georgian government thanked EAJC President Alexander Mashkevich and his vice-presidents for the humanitarian aid provided for the refugees since the beginning of the war conflict. Over 250 refugees received help altogether. On September 8, 2008, the Georgian Cabinet decided to give the com munity custody of the Ashkenazi Jewish synagogue building in Tbilisi for 25 years. The EAJC supported the repairs and reconstruction of the premises, which were opened during a ceremony on September 14-15, 2009, and received the name of Beyt Rachel in memory of chief sponsor, EAJC President Alexander Mashkevich’s mother.
On the eve of the synagogue opening ceremony the EAJC leaders with Alexander Mashkevich and guests of honor met with Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church. On December 28, 2009, Josef Zissels paid a business visit to Tbilisi, during which he met with T. Iakobashvili. A seminar called “Tolerance and dialogue between different ethnicities and religions” took place on July 1-5,2010 in Bakuriani, co-organized by the EAJC and the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine (CNCU). Educators and youth workers of different ethnicities from Armenia and Georgia took part in the seminar.
Despite the overall favorable Georgian-Jewish relations, anti-Semitism does manifest itself in different shapes. Thus, during the 2007 presidential campaign, the Jewish descent of one of M. Saakashvili’s rivals, entrepreneur A. (B.) Patarkatzishvili (1955-2008), was repeatedly alleged by the government, while his supporters became the objects of anti-Semitic propaganda. In April-early May 2008, the Jewish cemetery in Batumi was desecrated twice. The popular newspaper Asaval-Dasavali kept publishing anti-Semitic materials (by Count A. Cherep-Spiridovich and G. Klimov). These publications were put a stop to once writer and EAJC General Council member G. Batiashvili publicly interfered.
Diplomatic relations between Israel and Georgia were established in 1992. Itzkhak Gerberg has been the Ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Georgia since 2008. Over the 1990s E. Shevarnadze paid several visits to Israel. Mikhail Saakashvili visited Israel in 2004, 2006, and 2008. President of Israel Moshe Katzav paid an official visit to Georgia in 2000. The same year saw the official revocation for Georgia of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. There is an inter-parliamentary group of Georgian-Israeli friendship (chairman Georgian parliament member, vice-president of the Georgian Acad- emy of Sciences Fridon Todua; in Israel Knesset member Avraam Mikhaeli).
There is also a Society of Georgian-Israeli Friendship (president academician R. Metreveli, vice-president G. Batiashvili), whose branch in western Georgia (Prof. A. Nikoleishvili) publishes a magazine.
A Georgian-Israeli Chamber of Commerce exists, presided over by Itzik Moshe. There are Israeli companies working in Georgia.
By early 2010, Israeli investment in Georgia had reached approximately half a billion U.S. dollars. In March 2010, a double taxation treaty was signed between Georgia and Israel, expected to stimulate an influx of Israeli investment to Georgia.
In 2010, after the relations between Turkey and Israel cooled, part of the Israeli tourist flow was reoriented from Turkey to Georgia, and, to a much lesser extent, to Abkhazia.
A cooperation agreement was reached between the Georgian branch of the Red Cross and the Israeli Red Star of David (Magen David Adom) in December 2006. Part of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations in Tbilisi in May 2008 included a Week of Israel, featuring the business forum Building Together, building a Georgian-Israeli Friendship Lane, a festive night at Tbilisi’s main synagogue, and a presentation of an Israel Corner at the Iv. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.
In 2006-2008, Georgia has been an active purchaser of Israeli weaponry (such contacts possibly simplified by the fact that Minister of Defense since 2006 D. Kezerashvili had made aliyah in the early 1990s and lived for several years in Israel). However, in the summer of 2008 Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs froze all such interactions in order to prevent deterioration of relations with Russia.
After the war in 2009, the Sochnut organized camps in Israel for Georgian children from families hurt by the war.
In August 2010, Georgian Minister of Infrastructure Ramaz Nikolayshvili paid a visit to Israel and met with Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau and Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman.
In December 2005, M. Saakashvili declared willingness to reinstate Georgian citizenship to Jews of Georgian descent living in Israel, the number of which is estimated by the Israeli Georgian-Jewish community up to 80,000 (previously, citizenship had been reinstated to approximately 200 Georgian Jews via special presidential decrees). Earlier, entry visas were waived for Israeli citizens.
June 1, 2010, saw the opening ceremony of the renovated Beit-Moshe Synagogue in Tel Aviv, the restoration of which was funded by G. Mirilashvili. EAJC General Council Chairman Josef Zissels and EAJC Vice-President Merab Yelashvili took part in the opening ceremony.
Even in Soviet times Tbilisi State University was a central institution for Jewish studies. A Center for Jewish Education was established at the University in 2000, led by Professor G. Lordkipanidze. There is also a Jewish Studies office at the History of Culture Department of the TSU. Hebrew is taught at the Oriental Studies branch of the Philology Department of the Teachers’ Training Institute.
The film “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem!” came out in 2006; it was dedicated to the struggle of the Georgian Jews for repatriation to Israel (screenplay by Guram Batiashvili, directed by Merab Kokochashvili). Man from Babylon, a novel by Guram Batiashvili, dedicated to the life of Jews in Georgia in the 12th century, was published in 2008. On January 14, 2010, Guram Batiashvili was awarded the Kote Marjanishvili Prize (named after the great theatre director) for significant input into the development of dramatic arts in Georgia.
In July 2010, the Tbilisi Amiranashvili Museum of Arts hosted an exhibition called “Georgian Jews – their history and culture”.
In order to preserve and restore monuments of Jewish culture, an Association to Protect Synagogues, Jewish Cemeteries, and Cultural Monuments was established in 2003 with the support of the Georgian government.