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Origins

georgian jewsGeorgian-speaking Jewry is one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in the world. The Georgian Jews have approximately 2,600-year history in the region. The origin of Georgian Jews, also known as Gurjim or kartveli ebraelebi, is debated. The most popular view is that the first Jews made their way to southern Georgia after Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and exile in Babylon. This claim is supported by the medieval Georgian historical account by Leonti Mroveli, who claims:

“ Then King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. The Jews who fled thence come to kartli and requested from the mamasakhlisi [local ruler] of Mtskheta territory in return for tribute. He gave [a place] and settled them on the Aragvi, at spring which was called Zanavi, which was later renamed as Zanavi, the quarter of Jews."

Another version offered by Mroveli, was the settlement of the Jews in Georgia during the Roman period of Emperor Vespasian. However, he cast no doubt that Jews lived in Georgia long before 1 century AD. According to Mroveli:

“ During their [Bartom and Kartam's] reign, Vespasian, the emperor of the Romans, captured Jerusalem. From there refugee Jews come to Mtskheta and settled with the old Jews . ”
The ancient Georgian historic chronicle, The Conversion of Kartli is the oldest and only Georgian historiographical source concerning the history of Jewish community in Georgia. The Chronicle also describes similar version which was offered centuries later by Leonti Mroveli, but this time instead of Nebuchadnezzar, the period of Jewish migration into Georgia is ascribed to Alexander the Great:

“ ...the warlike seed, the Honni [Jews], exiled by the Chaldeans, [came to Kartli] and requested the land for tribute from the Lord of the Bun T'urks [suburb of Mtskheta]. And they [Jews] settled in Zanavi. And they possessed it... . ”

georgian jewsAncient Georgian capital Mtskheta, where Jews lived for thousands of years
Georgian sources also refer to the arrival of the first Jews in Western Georgia from Byzantine Empire during the 6th century C.E. Approximately 3,000 of these Jews then fled to Eastern Georgia, which by that time was controlled by the Persians, to escape severe persecution by the Byzantines. The existence of the Jews in these regions during this period is supported by the archaeological evidence which shows that Jews lived in Mtskheta, the ancient capital of the Eastern Georgian state of Iberia-Kartli.

According to the Georgian hagiography, Jewish communities existed in Georgia in the 1st century, because a Georgian Jew called Elias was in Jerusalem during the crucifixion and brought Jesus' robe back with him to Georgia, which he acquired from a Roman soldier at Golgotha.

The Jews spoke Georgian and later Jewish traders developed a dialect called Qivruli, or Judeo-Georgian, which included a number of Hebrew words.
In the second half of the 7th century, the Muslim Empire conquered extensive Georgian territory, which became an Arab caliph province. Arab emirs ruled in the Georgian capital Tbilisi and surrounding territory until 1122.

Middle Ages

georgian jewsThere in not much evidence about Georgian Jews under the Arab domination. In the late 9th century, Abu-Imran Musa al-Za'farani (later known as Abu-Imran al-Tiflisi) founded a Jewish Karai sect called the Tiflis Sect which lasted for more than 300 years. The sect deviated from halakhah in its marriage and kashrut customs. This sect did not represent the great majority of Georgian Jews who adhered to the traditional rabbinical Judaism while maintaining strong religious ties with Baghdad and other Jews of Iraq. However, in 1835 there were 1,363 Jews with 113 Karaites living in the town of *Kutais (Kutaisi) and its surroundings, 1,040 in Gori, 623 in Akhaltsikhe, and 61 in *Tiflis (Tbilisi). The total Jewish population of Georgia and the region beyond the Caucasus was 12,234.

The Mongols swept through Georgia in 1236 (see Mongol invasions of Georgia and Armenia), prompting many of the Jews of Eastern and Southern Georgia to move to the western region, which remained independent. There they formed small, poverty-stricken communities along the Black Sea, and eventually their destitution forced them into serfdom. For 500 years, beginning in the end of the 14th century, the Jews of Georgia belonged to the kamani, or serf class, under the Georgian elite.

Their situation worsened in the 15th and 16th centuries due to constant military conflicts and invasions by Timur, Ottoman Empire, and Muslim Persia. By the end of the 15th century, Georgia had fragmented into three separate kingdoms and five feudal territories. Jewish serfs were sold from master to master as a family or individuals as debt payments or gifts.[citation needed] The Jewish communities were torn apart and Jewish communal life was nearly impossible to maintain. Isolation and lack of a religious and spiritual center led to a decline of Jewish knowledge.

An endless string of wars and rebellions characterized the late 18th and early 19th centuries, leaving the region decimated. Jewish property was often confiscated and Jews were forced to seek the protection of the local feudal lords. Instead of finding security, many Jews became enslaved by these lords. The serfs, including Jewish ones, were divided into three categories according to Georgian law: the King's serfs, Feudal serfs, and the Church's serfs.
During this period, large migrations of Jews took place, either voluntary or forced. In the 15th and 16th centuries, a large number of Jews left for Crimea, and Jews in the region can still be traced to their Georgian origins to this day. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish Georgians were forcibly relocated to Persia by their islamic Persian invaders.

Contemporary Georgia

georgian jewsDuring World War II, thousands of Georgian Jews served in the Soviet Army. After the war, the authorities arrested Jews and closed or destroyed synagogues, and anti-Semitic acts of violence erupted. But despite their attempts, the Soviets could not completely annihilate the practice of Judaism and, even in the late 1960s and 70s, most Georgian Jews managed to observe their traditions. Throughout Soviet rule, Jews remained society's scapegoat. They made up the majority of Georgians convicted for economic crimes, and were punished more severely than the rest of the population. Blood libels continued with incidents in Tskhaltubo in 1963, Zestafoni in 1964, and Kutaisi in 1965.

After the Six Day War, huge numbers of Georgian Jews applied for exit visas to immigrate to Israel. In August 1969, eighteen families wrote to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations demanding permission to make aliyah. This was the first public insistence by Soviet Jews for immigration to Israel. As a result, the Israeli government and the Jewish world campaigned heavily on behalf of the plight of the Georgian Jews. In July 1971, a group of Georgian Jews went on a hunger strike outside a Moscow post office. The determination of the Jews of Georgia led the Soviets to lessen their harsh anti-Jewish policies. During the 1970s, about 30,000 Georgian Jews made aliyah and thousands of others left for other countries. Approximately 17 percent of the Soviet Jewish population emigrated at this time. In 1979, the Jewish population in Georgia was 28,300 and, by 1989, it had decreased to 24,800.

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