by: Percy S. Gourgey, MBE
There were widespread celebrations in Tbilisi, the capital, and other cities in Georgia to celebrate 2600 years of harmonious Jewish settlement in the country. Streets were festooned with flags of Georgia and Israel, and banners proclaiming the celebrations were on public buildings and squares in Georgian and English, from 7 - 11 September 1998.
A large delegation from Israel attended including representatives from the World Sephardi Federation from Israel, the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland and Britain. The WSF delegation was led by its President, Mr Nessim Gaon, who was invited by the President of Georgia, Mr Eduard Shevardnardze to attend with a delegation. I joined from Britain at the invitation of Mr Sami Shamoon who was unable to attend because of a leg injury. (My surname originates from that country but more of that later!). The Israel delegation was led by its Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister, Mr Moshe Katzav, in the absence of the Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu who was ill. There were many businessmen in the delegations and billions of dollars on various projects were discussed.
The celebrations were held under the personal sponsorship of President Shevardnardze. who was the former Soviet Foreign Minister under the then Soviet president, Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom in the 1980's introduced the significant era of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika', i.e., 'openness' and 'restructuring' which radically changed the Soviet Union. The opening ceremony was indeed spectacular with a personal speech of welcome by the President of Georgia and, later on TV, speeches from President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert. An interesting and novel item were Georgian folk-songs which were sung ex-tempore. Georgian artists also welcomed us with singing 'haveinu shalom aleichem' enthusiastically.
We visited the Parliament and were warmly received by the Speaker, Mr Zurab Zhvania. Among the speakers were Chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Lau, WSF President Gaon, its Vice-President, Lilliane Shalom from New York, and myself from London. References were made to Georgia's splendid relations with the Jewish and other communities. Various views were expressed as to the origin of the Jewish community in Georgia, such as, at the time of King Solomon, or the defeat of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, but the main view, also supported by the Speaker, Zhavania, was the first settlers found their way to Georgia after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, who carried the Jews captive to Babylon. Reinforcing this view is that in the synagogues the Minhag Bavel is adopted with the same pronunciation in Hebrew, and the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing), recited daily in synagogues, both in Israel and the Diaspora, as is the Babylonian-Baghdadian custom.
The programme of events included (1) Opening of an Art Exhibition '26 Centuries Together' in the National Art Gallery; (2) Departure to various regions of Georgia to see their historical and cultural monuments as well as Synagogues, Jewish homes; (3) the film 'SchindlerÕs List' at the Tbilisi Cinema House; (4) a Basketball Match between 'Maccabi' of Georgia and 'Hapoel' of Israel; (5) Opening of the Scientific Conference 'Tbilisi-Jerusalem' at the Academy of Science of Georgia; (6) Meeting of Georgian and Israel businessmen at the Krtsanisi Government Residence of President Shevardnardze; (7) Auction of 'Judaica' art at the State Museum of Art, named after Shalva Amiranashvili; (8) An evening on the 5th anniversary of the Georgian Jewish newspaper 'Menora'; (9) The play 'Fiddler on the Roof' at the State Musical Theatre; and (10) A fashion show of Abraham Babel at the luxurious hotel where we stayed, Metechi Sheraton Palace Hotel, 20 Tel-Aviv Street, Tbilisi, considered one of the best in the former Soviet Union.
We visited a welfare centre, 'Hesed Eliyahu', sponsored by the 'Joint', the famous American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which was a popular social club for the Tbilisi Jewish Community, youth and elderly Jews. Its varied activities were explained to us by the 'Joint' - Director in Tel Aviv, Mr Stanly Abramovitz. There was a visit to the Jewish School, 'Tiferet Zvi' and also adult education institutions sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel. At the splendid closing dinner at the 'Aragvi' Restaurant, we were addressed by President Shevardnardze, WSF President Gaon and the Executive President of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organisations, Mr Malcolm Hoenlein. In his address, the Georgian President referred with pride to a great Georgian King in the 11th century called 'David the Builder' who united the people against foreign invaders.
During a lull in the proceedings, I took the opportunity of speaking to the Georgian President, saying how much he was admired in western democracies, and describing the origin of my surname, as Georgia was called by its Muslim invaders in the Middle Ages as 'Gourgestan,' because of the beauty of its women - hence 'Gourgey.' The President indicated he was aware of this, and thanked me for my remarks. It was altogether an unforgettable occasion and foreign visit.
Perhaps the reason for the goodwill and co-operation between Georgians and Jews are: (1) They are small peoples - Georgian Jews today number about 10,000 as most of the former 100,000 emigrated to Israel; (2) They both strive for peace, progress and economic growth, and; (3) They both cherish their ancient traditions and values, combining them with modern developments. In 1969, 18 Georgian Jewish families were the first Jews in the former Soviet Union to apply openly for visas to settle in Israel, stating they had no complaint against the Soviet or Georgian governments, and they simply wished to join their brethren in their ancient homeland. This action started the successful public campaign for Soviet Jewish Aliya.