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Georgian Jews Battle Theater for Return of Former Synagogue

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A 100-year-old building that once housed a synagogue in Tbilisi is at the center of a dispute between the local Jewish community and a popular theater group in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

The theater group last month went on a hunger strike to protest a court decision to return the building to the Jewish community.

The troupe charges that the Jewish claim is baseless and is refusing to vacate the premises.

The building was erected in the late 19th century as an Ashkenazi synagogue. In the 1930s, it was transformed by Soviet authorities into a workers club and later into a movie theater.

Located in Tbilisi’s historic quarter, the building is popularly known as the Beria Club, a reference to Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief and a Georgian native.

A few years ago, the Jewish community initiated legal steps to reclaim the former house of worship.

After months of archival research, Jewish activists found an old city map indicating that the building was originally constructed by the Jewish community.

The group, the Theater of the King’s Region, rejected the community’s claim, saying that the building never housed a synagogue.

The troupe moved into the building five years ago and has spent thousands of dollars on renovations.

Earlier this year, Georgia’s Supreme Arbitrage Court ordered the theater to vacate the building and return it to the Jewish community, which wants to make it a community center.

But the theater’s director and his troupe are so opposed to relinquishing the premises that they have promised to stage a marathon play as part of their protest.

“This is not a conflict between Georgians and Jews, but a conflict between a group of actors and the authorities,” said Mikhail Pichkhadze, a Jewish journalist in Tbilisi.

According to Pichkhadze, the actors wanted to harm the image of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who has been supportive of the Jewish community.

A legal consultant for the Jewish community downplayed the conflict.

“It’s all just play-acting,” Shalva Chikvashvili was quoted as saying.

Georgia’s chief rabbi Ariel Levin said it was “artificially induced hysteria over a building that some Georgian actors refuse to return.”

The conflict nonetheless is sending rare ripples in the traditionally good relations between Georgians and Jews.

Georgian media reports have created an impression that the community has no valid claim on the building, said one Jewish community member.

One activist who spoke on condition of anonymity said the much talked-about conflict has created anti-Semitic tensions.

Last month, Georgian state television reported that in this conflict Jews were backed by some “corrupted circles.”

Historically, Georgia has seen a relatively low level of anti-Semitism. There were never any pogroms or large-scale anti-Semitism in this country located in the Caucasus mountains.

Even during the Soviet Union, Georgian Jews enjoyed more religious and cultural freedom than in any other Soviet republic.

For example, Georgian Jews were able to practice their religion, said Menahem Elazar, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Tbilisi. About one-third of the synagogues that remained open in the Soviet Union were located in Georgia.

But Georgia’s once thriving Jewish community, which at its peak totalled 100,000, has now dwindled to 15,000.

Many Jews fled the country during the civil war and severe economic crisis that shrouded Georgia from 1989 to 1995.

In 1998, Georgia will celebrate 26 centuries of its Jewish community. Local tradition says the first Jews arrived in Georgia after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE.

The government has made a commitment to sponsor a large-scale event.

Georgian authorities have not yet responded to the conflict over the former synagogue, but Jewish leaders believe the government will take steps to implement the court’s decision in advance of next year’s celebration.

“The synagogue will be returned,” said Igor Klebansky of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus-American Bureau on Human Rights.

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