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Judaism

 

Georgian tradition holds that the first Jews began to arrive to Iberia in the seventh century BCE when the Assyrians expanded their sphere of influence into the Kingdom of Israel. Around 586 BCE, the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzarís attack on Jerusalem led to the emigration of a large number of Jews to Iberia, where they settled around Mtskheta. Over the next centuries, there were several more migrations, especially following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the first century. By the fourth century CE, the Jewish community had grown in size and prosperity in Mtskheta. According to the Christian tradition, two members of this community, Elioz and the Karenian Longinus, traveled to Jerusalem and were present at Christís crucifixion. By the Middle Ages, the Jews, together with the Armenians, held a monopoly on trade and greatly contributed to the development of the Georgian states. Tbilisi eventually became the center of the largest concentration of Jews, but smaller communities could be found in Gori, Kutaisi, Samtredia, Batumi and Akhaltsikhe. Ashkenazi Jews, comprising 20 percent of the community, began to arrive after the Russian annexation of Georgia in 1801, especially during World War II. Each Jewish community had a gabbai who served as a rabbi, shohet, mohel and heder, and directed religious and communal affairs. In general surveys they are usually seen as a local group of Jews, however their position in the Georgian community has been so peculiar (similarly to Mountain Jews in Daghestan) that they have been considered to be a separate people. 

While in the previous centuries the attitude of the Georgians towards the Jews had been very tolerant, the establishment of the Russian administration seems to have induced anti-Semitism in western Georgia. Several blood libel cases took place between 1852-1884. In 1897, the first Zionist organization was established in Tbilisi and, four years later, the First Congress of Caucasian Zionists was held. Rabbi David Baazov emerged as one of the leading Zionists and he participated in the Zionist Congress in Basel. Following the Georgian independence in May 1918, Jews were granted full civil and political rights, which led to an increased involvement of the Jews in public events. In 1918, the All-Jewish Congress was held in Tbilisi. In the 1920s, situation changed drastically. After the failed August Uprising of 1924, the Bolshevik authorities suppressed all Zionist activities and imposed economic restrictions on the Jewish community. In the 1930s through the 1950s, conditions barely changed for the Jews and many activists were arrested. 

Things changed after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967. Two years later 17 Georgian Jewish families wrote letters to the United Nations demanding permission to emigrate to Israel. This was the first public demand by Soviet Jews for emigration and the Israeli government used it widely to campaign against the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union. In July 1971, a group of Georgian Jews went on a hunger strike in Moscow. As the Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration lessened, thousands of Georgian Jews made aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1970s. The pace of emigration increased in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of civil turmoil in Georgia. While there were 24,720 Jews in Georgia in 1989, only 14,000 of them remained by the late 1990s and 3,772 by 2002. In September 1998, the Georgian government sponsored a major celebration commemorating 2,600 years of Jewish life in Georgia. Several Jewish institutions and schools continued to operate in Tbilisi and three Jewish newspapers (Menora, Shalom, and 26 Century) are published.