MOSCOW, Sept. 13 (JTA) – Israeli flags and other Jewish symbols adorned the streets of Tbilisi last week as part of a festival highlighting 2,600 years of Jewish life in Georgia. An estimated 50,000 people attended the four-day event, mainly sponsored by the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze, which included concerts, theater performances and a Jewish film festival. The only event marring the festival in the Georgian capital was the inability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend the event. Netanyahu had to cancel because of flu. But among the dozens of foreign guests who attended festivities were Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Katsav and Israel’s chief Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis. Speaking at a Tbilisi synagogue during the festival, Shevardnadze called the settlement of Jews in the country a “landmark in our history.” Local tradition says the first Jews arrived in Georgia after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. Throughout most of its history, Georgia’s Jewish community has enjoyed relatively good relations with the Christian majority, and there have never been any pogroms or large-scale anti-Semitism in this country, which is located in the Caucasus Mountains. During the Soviet period, Georgian Jews enjoyed more religious and cultural freedom than in any other Soviet republic. About one-third of the synagogues that remained open in the Soviet Union were in Georgia. But Georgia’s once-thriving Jewish community, which at its peak totaled 100,000, has now dwindled to 14,000. Some 10,000 of these live in Tbilisi. Many Jews fled the country during the civil war and economic crisis that plagued Georgia from 1989 to 1995. A dispute over a historic synagogue mars this long-standing tradition of friendship between Georgia and its Jewish community. Last year, Georgia’s Supreme Arbitrage Court ruled that the synagogue in Tbilisi should be returned to the Jewish community, but the theater troupe, which is currently housed in the building, is refusing to leave.
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