The term “Georgian Jews” designates Jewish people, also referred to as Gurjim or kartveli ebraelebi, who migrated to Georgia, located in the Caucasus. They comprise one of the oldest communities in the Georgian republic. Their history is one of both great strife and courageous survival, dating back to ancient times.
The origins and timelines of Jewish settlement in Georgia are debated by scholars. Some attribute the origin of Georgian Jews to descendants of the ten tributes who were exiled by the ruler Shalmaneser. Others believe that Jews fled to Georgia after King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city of Jerusalem. Another theory places the settlement of the Jews in Georgia during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. Regardless of their origins, most scholars believe that Jews resided in Georgia as early as 2,600 years ago.
Throughout their settlement in this region, Jews have been subject to frequent persecution and dislocation during numerous changes in control of the region. At various times, they have lived under the reign of the Byzantine Empire, the Muslim Empire, the Mongols, the Persians, the Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks, and the Soviets. During each period of occupation, Georgia Jews have faced such trials as serfdom, blood libels, secularization attempts, and overall religious persecution. The Georgian Jews’ loss of identity was often threatened by continued upheavals, and Jewish traditions were difficult to maintain at times.
This fragmentation began to change in the 1800s, however, with the abolition of serfdom by the Russian Tsar. By the mid-19th century, former Jewish serfs relocated to villages and towns and re-established a sense of community. Synagogues were built, and thriving Jewish quarters were established in numerous towns and cities. During this period, Ashkenazi Russian Jews were required to move to Georgia, and, after centuries of mutual distrust, the two groups were united through a common involvement in Zionism. By the early 20th century, the Zionist movement was robust in most parts of Georgia.
While the sense of Jewish identity grew, so did the scourge of anti-Semitism. Blood libels became more common in the mid- and late 19th century. However, with the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Georgian Republic gained independence, and economic prospects for Georgia Jews improved. After this brief taste of freedom and relative prosperity, the invasion of the Red Army changed the landscape once again. Many fled the country, and those who remained were subject to discrimination, including economic restrictions and forbidding of all Zionist activity. Farm collectives were established, then disbanded, leading to disruption of the Jewish community. Increased attempts at aliyah were largely opposed, and Zionists were often imprisoned or murdered.
By the middle of the last century, Jewish culture in Georgia appeared almost non-existent, with few remaining synagogues or other Jewish institutions. During World War II, Georgia Jews served honorably in the Soviet Army. But after the war ended, Jews were frequently arrested and synagogues destroyed. Blood libels continued into the 1960s.
With the Six Day War changing the Jewish landscape, large numbers of Georgian Jews sought exit visas in order to make aliyah in Israel. Facing government resistance, they turned to a public campaign of letter writing, hunger strikes, and other expressions of protest. Soviet anti-Jewish policies softened somewhat as a result, and over 30,000 Georgia Jews subsequently left the country for Israel and other nations, representing about 17% of the entire Soviet Jewish population.
Throughout their centuries of life in Georgia, Jewish people have demonstrated a tenacity and sense of community that has characterized their way of life around the world. Although their numbers are much smaller, a thriving Georgian Jewish community continues today, as testament to a people’s courage and strength.