JEWISH EMIGRATION FROM GEORGIA TO ISRAEL

Eteri KVIRIKASHVILI


Eteri Kvirikashvili, Lecturer, Department of Social, Economic and Political Geography, Tbilisi State University (Tbilisi, Georgia)


Jews have been living in Georgia since antiquity. There are several opinions about the date of their arrival there. According to one of them they left their homeland when the first temple in Palestine had been ruined in the 6th century B.C. According to another opinion they arrived in the A.D. 160s (precisely in 169) and founded the first colony in Mtskheta.1 There is ample archeological evidence (early burial stones with Aramaic inscriptions in square Hebrew and later burial stones with Jewish inscriptions) to confirm the latter opinion.

Since that time Jews have been living in a community that differed from its ethnic environment in a very specific way of life and ethnic self-identity. At the same time, it belonged to the country it lived in and could not be separated from the ethnic majorityhence its ethnonym Georgian Jews.

Having lived in Georgia for many centuries the Jews found their place in Georgian society and Georgian culture.

They do not speak any of the Jewish dialects; Georgian is their mother tongue, they have Georgian names while their family names acquired Georgian endings. In addition, their way of life never differed from that of their Georgian neighbors: they followed the same traditions, wore similar clothes, used similar furniture, and married their children in a similar way. The use of Hebrew is limited to several religious or ritual songs. They celebrate the New Year and even Christmas2 and follow traditions of their own: the circumcision ceremony, Bar Mitzvah, weddings and burials. In preparation for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony the boys are expected to study Hebrew yet part of the Torah is read in Georgian.

Just like their Georgian neighbors the Jews are very devoted to the family: children live either together with parents or close nearby; it is for the parents to select the future spouse and to pass a decision on emigration.

Integration, however, should not be taken for assimilation with Georgians.

Migration Causes

We all know that anti-Semitic sentiments are the main cause behind Jewish emigration. In Georgia, however, anti-Semitism was much less pronounced than in any of the post-Soviet countries. Georgia is a country that knows no ghettos, pogroms and discrimination. There the Jews have been always living amid goodwill and warmth.3

It was not because of poverty that Jews left Georgia. Under Soviet power the standard of living in the republic was one of the highest across the country. This poses the question: Why did Georgian Jews left the republic in great numbers as soon as an opportunity presented itself in June 1969?

In 1971-1974, about 30,000 emigrated to Israelmore than half of the republics Jewish population (by that time the Jewish, non-Ashkenazi, population of Georgia comprised about 50,000). According to the 1959 population census there were 51.6 thou Jews living in Georgia (1.3 percent of the republics population). In 1970, there were 55.4 thou, or 1.4 percent.4

Two political events were responsible for the Jewish outflow: one of them took place in Israel in 1967, another in Georgia in 1972. The victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 produced a great impression on the Georgian Jewish community. Nearly each of the emigrants of that period said that he was very proud to be a Jew. In the Soviet Union, however, official propaganda tried to mobilize public opinion against the country with which all ties had been severed after the war. The response in Georgia was inadequate: distrustful of Soviet politics the local people found Israel very attractive.

The developments of 1972 in Georgia spurred on Jewish emigration. On 29 September First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia V. Mzhavanadze was removed from his post. During his 19 years at the helm corruption in Georgia had reached unbelievable proportions. To remedy the situation Minister of the Interior Eduard Shevardnadze, a man who enjoyed a reputation of a straightforward and implacable person, was appointed first secretary. He started with political purges: hundreds were dismissed, shadow businessmen arrested. The situation looked grave or even threatening. Court trials sowed fear among the Jews many of whom were actively involved in shadow economy.

In other words, while the 1972 events in Georgia drove the Jews away from the country the 1967 victory attracted them to Israel. Yet this was not that simple: emigration from Georgia and from the Soviet Union, for that matter, cannot be fully understood outside international developments.

Emigration in the 1970s

The Six-Day War strengthened Jewish self-awareness to an extent that Soviet Jews demanded the right to emigrate. On 6 August, 1969, 18 Georgian Jewish families wrote a letter to the Soviet government and the U.N. Human Rights Council with an intention to arouse an interest in the West in the emigration issue. A copy was sent to the Dutch embassy that represented Israel in the Soviet Union. The authors instructed the embassy to send the letter to the then Premier of Israel Golda Meir. The letters never traveled along official routesthey were delivered by foreign journalists, businessmen, and diplomats. This particular letter reached the Israeli cabinet soon yet neither the public not the press were informed about it for several reasons. At first immigration to Israel was legal yet the number of immigrants from the Soviet Union was limited and strictly controlled by the head of the Israel state.

This explains why having received the letter Golda Meir at first tried non-public diplomacy: on 7 October the Dutch embassy asked the U.S.S.R. Foreign Ministry to allow Georgian Jews to emigrate; on 16 October the embassy received a negative answer. Golda Meir decided to act openly: on 19 November she submitted the letter to the Knesset and requested the Israeli representatives at the U.N. to make it known to all U.N. members.

The Soviet radio dismissed the letter as a fake. Even though its authors and some other Georgian Jews had been allowed to emigrate in April 1971 Tel Aviv decided to ask the world community to influence the Soviet leaders. It was a new initiativebefore that Israel had never dared to do this out of fear that this might negatively affect the Soviet Jews.

The public in the West and the Jewish communities in the U.S. and other countries responded with resolute statements that, in the final analysis, affected the Western governments stand on the Jewish issue.

The Soviet leaders realized that emigration was the key to lesser tension in their relationships with the West: the public in Western countries and the Western states could be instrumental in alleviating economic difficulties that country was struggling with. In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev, the then head of the Soviet state, announced that those who wanted to leave the country were free to do this. As a result, in 1956-1957 large numbers of Jews emigrated to Israel through Poland; the 1965 figure was 1,444.5

I have already written that emigration was banned in the wake of the Six-Day War. The number of emigrants started climbing up in 1968; in 1971 it noticeably increased. The years before that were filled with discussions at international meetings (President Nixon mentioned the issue in 1969). The relations between the Soviet Union and the United States somewhat improved at that period due to, as is commonly believed, certain progress in the emigration issue.

The early 1970s are considered to be the first peak of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and Georgia in particular (see Table 1).

Table 1

Dynamics of Jewish Emigration from Georgia in the 1970s

Years

1969

1970

1971

1972

1973

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

1979

1980

Total

Number

400

-

4300

10900

7450

2670

870

496

436

930

1139

818

30409

Source: Z. Gitelman, Becoming Israelis, New York, 1982.

Emigration reached its peak in 1971-1973; I have already discussed the reasons behind this. It should be added that the republican government was positive about emigration and allowed the emigrants to take away their personal property, something that was never allowed in other republics. On 28 September, 1971 The Times of London carried information about a unique experiment permitted by the Georgian government: the Jews had been allowed to set up a Public Committee to issue recommendations to the potentially emigrant families.

In 1974, the number of emigrants dropped. One can say that this was one of the results of the Soviet policies in the Arab world; it seems that after the 1973 war the Soviet government wanted to demonstrate its solidarity with the Arab countries.

The second peak of emigration arrived in 1978-1979. It is hard to say what was behind it since in 1976-1979 the relations with the U.S. were going from bad to worse. There is an opinion that the Soviet government deemed it necessary to get rid of troublemakers (dissidents and refusniks). As a result in 1979 Jewish emigration reached its peak (Georgia lost 1,139) and began to subside.

In December 1979 when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan the relationships with the West worsened: the Soviet leaders exploited this to deal with the opposition as they saw it fit.

The Stagnation Years and Perestroika

The first half of the 1980s are called the black years for Jewish emigration: fewer people were allowed to emigrate even though the Soviet government denied its responsibility. On 21 April, 1983 there appeared an Anti-Zionist Committee made up mainly of Jews. At the first press conference its leaders announced that reunification of families had been mainly completed and that there were no other reasons for emigration. This was rooted in the fact that the U.S.S.R. had failed to persuade the U.S. to ratify the SALT-2 treaty and lift (or, at least, reduce) the limitations imposed by the Jackson-Vanick amendment. Political and economic stagnation set in in the Soviet Union. This negatively affected Jewish emigration. This situation never changed until the 1990s.

In March 1985, a plenary meeting of the C.C. C.P.S.U. elected Mikhail Gorbachev General Secretary of the C.P.S.U. He opted for a new political courseopenness and perestroika. In 1985-1986, society did not become more democratic while Jewish emigration remained limited. Even before the Soviet Union embraced new thinking in international relations human rights, the right of Jews to emigrate, and the dissidents were discussed at an international level. In 1982, U.S. State Secretary Schultz touched upon the subjects when talking to the Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko; the latter dismissed the issue as unimportant. In 1987, however, the newly appointed Foreign Minister Shevardnadze promised his American colleague Schultz to let all potential emigrants leave the country. This was done two months before President Gorbachev described potential emigration of Jews with higher education as brain drain. John Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, had the following to say on this score: Shevardnadze rightly guessed, even before Gorbachev did, that an agreement on reduction of armaments could not ease the tension in the relationships with the West. The Soviet Union had to change its stand on the human rights issue. In September 1987 in New York Shevardnadze accepted a list of refusniks and political prisoners from Schultz and promised to help them.6 Soon after that emigration increased and reached its peak in 1990.

Emigration in the 1990s

The early 1990s were far from simple in Georgia: the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia imposed on the country and the civil war ruined Georgian economy; the majority of the population was living in poverty; people were leaving the republic in great numbers.

A new wave of Jewish emigration began (see Table 2). The 1989 population census registered 24.8 thou Jews in the republic; 14.3 thou of them were Georgian Jews.

Table 2

Dynamics of Jewish Emigration from Georgia in the 1990s

Years

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

Total

Number

1346

1407

2595

3750

3295

2275

1493

1107

944

18212

Source: Immigration to Israel 1998. Central Bureau of Statistics. Publication No. 1132, Jerusalem, June 2000.

The table shows that the peak was reached in 1992-1994; in 1995 the number of emigrants began to subside. Gachechiladze explains this by the fact that during the period of restoration of its independence Georgia had been a country of active emigration caused by the deep economic and political crisis of 1987-1988.7 Ethnic minorities (Jews among them) were leaving the republic since new Georgia promised no future for them and their children. Emigration was further spurred on by the economic crisis, unemployment and crime (in 1992-1994 it was the greatest social sore of the republic). Starting with 1995 an outflow subsided because, first, political and economic situation has stabilized and, second, those who wanted to leave had already left.

The sociological poll we conducted together with the Tbilisi and Tel Aviv State universities in Israel in November 2001 explained why people had left Georgia. The respondents were Georgian Jews who had emigrated in the 1970s and 1990s (the samples were 100-strong). Their answers are shown in Table 3.

Table 3

Distribution of Answers to the Question about the Causes of Emigration to Israel

Causes of Emigration

Answers (%)

1970s

1990s

1. High Living Standards in Israel

2.3

4.8

2. Better Professional Prospects

1.8

3.1

3. Better Education for Children

6.5

14.3

4. Reunification with Family or Close Relatives

20.0

13.5

5. Shared Opinion in the Family about Alia

29.7

13.5

6. Religious Considerations

22.0

11.9

7. Zionist Ideals

6.5

10.3

8. Georgias Economic Difficulties

6.0

12.7

9. Crime Wave in Georgia

4.8

7.1

10. Anti-Semitism in Georgia

0.0

0.0

The table confirms that different causes came to the fore in different periods: the emigrants of the 1970s emphasized their common positive opinion of the Alia, religious considerations, reunification with the family and close relatives (29.9; 22.0, and 20.0 percent, respectively).

The figures provide a true picture: close ties among the family members; decisions passed by the parents; desire to live in the Promised Land, and reunification of families were most important.

The Zionist ideals; better education for children; economic problems and high level of crime in Georgia (6.5; 6.5; 6.0, and 4.8 percent, respectively) were of secondary importance. One can say that better education for children was not all-important: in the Soviet Union education was free and accessible to all; the Jews obviously found its quality adequate. None of the respondents concentrated on economic difficulties: I have already written that the living standard among the Jews was high enough. Anti-Semitism was unknown in Georgia.

As for the emigrants of the 1990s, none of the causes was prominent yet priorities changed. Better education for children came to the fore (14.3 percent of the polled against 6.5 percent in the 1970s). It seems that in the 1990s educational level was no longer adequate. Reunification of families (13.5 percent) and shared opinion of Alia (13.5 percent) became more important.

Family relations remained close and most important during both periods of emigration; reunification of families remained one of the main emigration causes. I would like to point out that these factors stand aside from all other causes.

Religious considerations account for 11.9 percent; in the 1970s, the share was 22.0 percent. One cannot say that religion is losing its importance among the Georgian Jews yet other reasons are coming to the fore. The share of confirmed Zionists has increased (10.3 percent). The Zionist ideals strengthened in the post-Soviet period: in the 1990s, they became one of the attraction factors.

Early in the 1990s, Georgia experienced a crime wave: it driven away 7.1 percent of Georgian Jews. Despite economic hardships only 4.8 percent left Georgia in search of more affluent life; in the 1970s, material reasons were unimportant either2.3 percent. Georgia has never known anti-Semitism: none of the polled left the republic because of it.

By way of conclusion one can say that the emigrants of both periods were guided by what the family thought about Alia and by the desire to unite with the family and close relatives in Israel. Religion remained one of the factors behind emigration though less important than before. Political and economic hardships negatively affected educational level in Georgia, therefore many parents who went to Israel in the 1990s did this in search of a better future for their children. In fact, the political and economic situation in the country of exodus is as important as the desire to live in the Promised Land.

This shows that Jewish outflow from Georgia may either increase or decrease depending on the political and economic context.


1 See: E. Mamistvalishvili, History of the Georgian Jews, Tbilisi, 1995 (in Georgian).
2 See: Y. Altman, A Reconstruction, Using Anthropological Methods, of the Second Economy of Soviet Georgia. Thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Middlesex Polytechnic, June 1983.
3A. Tsitsiashvili, Evreystvo i Gruzia, Svobodnaia Gruzia, 6 September, 1998.
4 See V. Dzhaoshvili, Population of Georgia, Tbilisi, 1996 (in Georgian).
5 See: Th. Friedgut, The Welcome Home: Absorption of Soviet Jews in Israel, in: Soviet Jewry in the Decisive Decade 1971-1980, ed. by R.O. Freefman, North Carolina, 1984.
6 See: Shevardnadze. Vospominania znamenitykh v mire liudey, Tbilisi, 1998.
7 See: R. Gachechiladze, Migration in Georgia and its Political Repercussions, Tbilisi, 1997 (in Georgian).

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