Ruth Eglash in Georgia

Stalin survived. Can Gori’s Jews?

By Ruth Eglash, December 23, 2008

During this summer’s conflict between Georgia and Russia, the mayor of the Georgian town of Gori pointed out the irony that Russian air strikes had failed to destroy the statue that dominates the town: its greatest export, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

“He said he wished the Russians had bombed the statue of Stalin to pieces,” explains Alexander Jinjikhashvili, from the American Jewish-Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “But the statue sits right outside the mayor’s office window. Surely he has the power to remove it himself and doesn’t have to wait for the Russians to bomb it?”

This attitude, says Mr Jinjikhashvili, who heads the JDC’s Jewish Renewal project, sums up the identity conflict faced by Georgians. While they strive for their own identity, their history is so linked to Russia that it is almost impossible for them to let go.

While there is architectural evidence of earlier links to Turkey, Persia and Armenia, the giant concrete buildings and bronze statues serve as a constant reminder of a more recent Soviet past.

Strategically placed between Asia and Europe, Georgia sat on the ancient Silk Route and was constantly under threat of attack from both the south and the north. Georgians traditionally aligned themselves with Russia and were one of the first states to join the Soviet Union in 1921.

For the Jewish population, Sephardi in origin, there is ambivalence in their identity. They have a long, rich history in this region dating back to the 6th century, when they arrived here from the Byzantine kingdom to settle under the more tolerant Persian regime.

During the Soviet era, they did not suffer the same level of antisemitism as in other parts of the FSU and were mostly left alone. In Gori, a 75-year-old shul, mikveh and kosher bakery are testament to this. But Georgian Jews were also great Zionists and many made aliyah in the early 1990s. For the 15,000-strong community who remain, their attachment to their country of birth runs too deep to leave.

Mr Jinjikhashvili, who has close family in Israel, says: “For many people here they have heard how difficult it is in Israel to build a life and they would rather stay here where at least they can speak the language.”

Students at Tbilisi’s Hillel House agree. “We love Israel and know it will always be there for us but this is our homeland and we want to stay. We want to help rebuild our country and our Jewish community,” says one.

Last updated: 3:35pm, September 23 2009