Georgia’s new Jewish envoy symbolizes bid for deeper ties

By David Horovitz July 15, 2005

‘My mother is Jewish. I know the halacha!’ says Zhvania

Lasha Zhvania, the new Georgian ambassador who delighted President Moshe Katsav last month by presenting his credentials in Hebrew and singing Hatikva, is urging Israeli tourists to visit his country – with his own life story constituting the best evidence of the potential affinity between the two nations.

Zhvania, who perfected his Hebrew during a 1999-2001 stint here as his country’s consul, has been reported to be ‘of Jewish descent.’ In fact, he said simply in an interview this week, ‘I am Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I know the halacha!’

Ironically, while most of his mother’s family have long since moved to Israel, she is still living in Georgia – ‘She loves the country,’ he said.

His parents met at the entrance exams for medical school. His mother went on to study medicine and is a pharmacist. His late father was a biologist. For Georgia’s very traditional Jewish community, which he estimated now numbers some 8,000, his mother’s marrying out was unusual and frowned upon. Only after his father died, he said, did the family resume communications with her.

A former deputy foreign minister, the ambassador first visited Israel – along with his mother – in 1988. He learned Hebrew initially in a Jewish Agency school at home, and improved it on his earlier posting here.

‘I enrolled to study Greek at Tel Aviv University,’ he said. ‘And, obviously, they were teaching the Greek in Hebrew. I didn’t learn that much Greek, but my Hebrew improved a lot.’

Asked his age, Zhvania said he was 31, adding lightly ‘which is pretty old. The president [Mikheil Saakashvili] is only 37.’

Zhvania highlighted historic connections between his country and the holy land, and more modern ties and identifications, too.

He cited a widely held tradition in the Georgian church that has a Rabbi Elios of Mtskheta, which is situated not far from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, being present in the holy land at the time of Jesus’s death, and bringing Jesus’s clothes home to his sister and mother. The sister, Sidonia, died of grief at the sight of Jesus’s clothes, and a church was later built at the reputed spot – today a venerated cathedral.

‘Every Georgian child knows this tradition,’ said Zhvania, adding that it was at the root of Georgian affection for Jews.

When Christianity came to Georgia in the fourth century, he added, it was spread by the niece of the patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Nina, and the consequent reciprocal influences saw a large Georgian community here, notably in Jerusalem’s Malcha and Katamon neighborhoods, and the arrival of place names in Georgia like Zion, Tavor and Bethlehem.

More recently, Zhvania asserted, the first Jews to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union were 18 families from Tbilisi who sought permission to emigrate in 1968. He said about 100,000 Jews of Georgian origin live in Israel today, with most of the community having left in the early 1970s.

Zhvania added that in the so-called Rose Revolution, which saw Eduard Shevardnadze ousted as president amid public protests over attempted manipulation of legislative elections, some Georgians brandished Israeli flags as a sign of the democratic freedoms to which they aspired.

‘There are many similarities between our two countries,’ he said, noting Georgia’s near five-million population and relative proximity to Israel. He said Georgia was deep into a process of economic, legal and other reforms. In its efforts to encourage Israeli tourism, he said, Georgia last month canceled visa requirements for Israelis.

Asked how Georgia has voted at the United Nations on resolutions relating to Israel, the ambassador said it only recently regained voting rights at that body. It had owed the UN $12 million in contributions, and had now paid the first third.

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