Early History of the Jews of Georgia
The old quarter of Tbilisi, 1987 Courtesy: Ottar Koveliani, Georgia
The city of Tbilisi was founded 1,500 years ago. It is the capital of the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.
It is assumed that the first Jews arrived to Western Georgia in the 6th century, which at the time was ruled by the Byzantine Empire. Part moved to the Eastern Georgian regions, ruled by the Persians, where Jews were tolerated, as opposed to the suppression Jews suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Empire.
From the Middle Ages through the first half of the nineteenth century a feudal system existed in Georgia. In this system, Jews belonged to the serf class (persons having a master). In the 18th and 19th centuries, Georgia was the scene of many wars. The Jews were deprived from their property. Whereas initially they sought and received protection from the feudal lords, to which they turned to escape immediate danger, the Jews were oppressed by them in a later stage. Being serfs, they were not forced to convert to Christianity.
The Jews of Georgia spoke Georgian to which they added Hebrew words. Sometimes this is called Judeo-Georgian, although it is actually a dialect of Georgian.
In 1801, Georgia was annexed to the Russian Empire. While in the previous centuries the attitude of the Georgian people towards the Jews had been tolerant, it was during this time that the Jews of Georgia began experiencing anti-Semitism, induced by Tsarist officials and the Russian Orthodox Church. Blood libels took place between 1850 and 1884. Another result of the Russian annexation to Georgia was the development of ties between the native Georgian Jews and the Ashkenazi Russian Jews, who were settled in Georgia by the Russian administration in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Zionist activity was the first field of genuine cooperation between the Georgian and the Ashkenazi Jews. Its adherents were mainly Ashkenazi Jews, while the Georgian Jews continued the community’s more traditional way of life. The first Zionist organization in Georgia was founded in Tbilisi in 1897. An important landmark of Zionist development was the First Congress of Caucasus Zionists, held in Tbilisi on August 20, 1901. Rabbi David Baazov was one of the leading Zionists during the late 19th, early 20th century. He participated in the Zionist Congress in Basel in 1917. In 1918, the All-Jewish Congress, in which all Georgian Jewish and Ashkenazi communities of Georgia were represented, was held in Tbilisi.
The Jews of Georgia in the Twentieth Century
Alienation between the Ashkenazi Jews and Georgian rabbis took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. After the suppression of the revolution of 1905, the Russian authorities took a hard line with the Jews living in the Russian Empire. The Georgian Jews turned away from the Russian Jews and emphasized their loyalty to the monarchy.
The family of the merchant Josefashvili, Tbilisi, early 20th century. Courtesy: Mordecai Gani, Israel; Shoshana Miller, Israel
On May 26, 1918, the Georgian Republic declared its independence. The Jewish communities of Georgia underwent a radical change. The newly acquired freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom to organize led to a renewed involvement of the Jews in public events. It also sharpened the ties between the Zionists and their opponents. One of the Zionists’ successes was the founding of a Hebrew school with a Zionist orientation in Tbilisi in 1917.
The conquest of Georgia by the Red Army in 1921 delivered a heavy blow to the hopes of both the Zionists and their opponents. Initially, the new regime adhered to a policy with respect for local religious beliefs. Zionist activities were not impeded either. After an anti-Russian and anti-Soviet rebellion in Georgia was suppressed, the situation changed for the worse from 1924. Due to the hostile treatment of the Jews of Georgia, as well as a result of the deteriorating economic situation, the Zionist leadership started to direct its efforts at aliyah (immigration) to Eretz Israel. The Soviet authorities opposed these efforts.
Abraham and Luba Danielov on their wedding day in Tbilisi, 1939. Courtesy: Luba Danielov
During the 1930's, the economic and political situation worsened even more. Political and Zionist activity were suppressed by the Soviet authorities. Many activists were arrested or murdered.
During World War II, thousands of Georgian Jews fought the Nazis as soldiers in the Soviet Army and many of them lost their lives.
In the years after the war, persecution of the Jews of Georgia by the Soviet authorities continued in full force. Many Jews were arrested, synagogues were closed and destroyed and several outbreaks of hostility took place.
The only Jewish cultural institution that continued to exist was the History and Ethnographic Museum, opened in Tbilisi in 1933. About 60 pictures by Shalom Koboshivili, representing daily Jewish Georgian life and the history of the Jews of Georgia, were exhibited. The museum was closed, however, in 1951, several years after its director, Aharon Krikheli, was arrested in 1948. Part of the exposed objects was transferred to the Historical and Ethnographic Museum of Georgia at 3-5 Rusetavili Street and to other museums' collections and some pictures by Koboshivili's disappeared.
The Georgian Jews' identification with the State of Israel reached its peak after the 1967 Six-Day War. Initially, the Soviet authorities turned down requests of Jews to immigrate to Israel. In August 1969, seventeen Jewish families from Georgia sent a letter to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, demanding emigration to Israel. The letter was the first public demand by Soviet Jews for emigration to Israel. It caused an intensive campaign on the part of the government of Israel and the Jewish world to allow the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel. A second letter was sent in November 1969, to U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations, through Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel. In July 1971, a group of Georgian Jews held a hunger strike in front of the central post office in Moscow. The struggle of the Georgian Jews led to a historic change in the attitude of the Soviet authorities.
Georgian Jews waiting to emigrate to Israel, Tbilisi, 1978. Courtesy: Dr. Morris Plust, USA
During the 1970's, mass emigration took place. About 30,000 Georgian Jews left for Israel, and some to other countries, approximately 17% of the Soviet Jewish emigrants during that period.
The number of Jews in Georgia decreased from 28,300 in 1979 to 24,800 in 1989.
In 1991, Georgia declared its independence. Several thousands of Georgian Jews have immigrated to Israel since then.
In 1993, the number of Jews in Georgia was estimated at 14,500.
The Jewish Community of Tbilisi
Tbilisi has a Jewish population of about 10,000 out of a general population of 1.5 million. In 1990, the Rachamim Society was founded. The Rachamim Society provides financial and medical support to needy Jews in Tbilisi, for example by supplying fuel to keep the apartments warm and by providing hot kosher meals. The Society also functions as a Jewish burial society.
Girl with 'Halloth', Tbilisi, 1990. Courtesy: Yale Kanter, USA
In 1991, Ariel Levine was ordained rabbi by the Israeli rabbinate. Rabbi Levine became Chief Rabbi and director of all Tbilisi Jewish institutions in 1993.
In 1998, an Academy for Jewish Studies was established. Other educational institutions are the Jewish Day School, a high school established in 1990, and a Beth Midrash for adults.
Other activities organized by the Jewish community of Tbilisi include the celebration of holidays, concerts and lectures. The Jews of Tbilisi can pray at the Georgian Synagogue or at either of the two Ashkenazy synagogues at Kozeveny Street. Tbilisi also has a mikvah (ritual bath), shechita (kosher butcher), matzoth bakery and a kosher food shop.
Shohet in Tbilisi, 1978. Courtesy: Dr. Morris Plust, USA
Since 1997, a dispute has been going on over the ownership of a synagogue building. The building, taken from the Jewish community by the Soviet authorities in 1923, was returned to the Jewish community in 1994. In 1997, however, Tbilisi mayor B.Shoshitaishvili canceled this decision. Apart from being a dispute over the ownership of the building, the issue has also sparked off anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Georgian media, especially after a court decision which ruled in favor of the Jewish community.
On January 31, 2001, an agreement was signed between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Jewish Community of Georgia. The agreement is aimed at mutual respect and support and a vow to work together in advancing democratization, peace and stability in the region.
Beth Hatefutsoth wishes to thank Prof. Konstantine Lerner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his kind assistance.