KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 6, Article 19 , 23 June 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

Friday 23 June 2000
TBILISI JEWS' FIVE YEAR BATTLE FOR RETURN OF SYNAGOGUE

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Five years after a court first ruled that a synagogue in the centre of the
Georgian capital Tbilisi confiscated in the early years of the Soviet period must
be returned to the Jewish community, the synagogue remains in the hands of a
theatre group that has refused to give it up. A further hearing has been set for
27 June in Tbilisi district court in a challenge brought by the theatre against a
ruling last year in favour of the Jewish community. Presiding over the hearing
will be judge BENEDI BENIDZE. The director of the theatre currently using
the building maintains that the Jewish community is mistaken in maintaining
that it was once a synagogue, telling Keston News Service that a building
twenty metres away which now houses the Museum of Jewish Culture was the
site of the synagogue, which had been built on the site of an earlier synagogue.
The director vowed to continue the fight to retain use of the building. However,
Georgia's chief rabbi ARIEL LEVIN told Keston that the director's claims have
repeatedly been rejected by the courts.

Rabbi Levin has spearheaded years of so far unsuccessful appeals to the
Georgian president EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE and other senior officials
for the return of what the Jewish community maintains is the former
synagogue. The Ashkenazi synagogue on Abesadze street - built in the
nineteenth century - was confiscated from the Jewish community by the Soviet
government in 1923. In the 1930s, the building was turned into the Beria Club
and later into the Metekhi Theatre. After the Metekhi Theatre moved out, the
private Institute of Economy rented the building with the Theatre of the King's
Region (Samepo Ubnis Teatri). Since 1992, the troupe has used the building
for theatrical performances. The Tbilisi mayor's office ordered the building to
be returned to the Jewish community in 1994. The following year, Georgia's
Supreme Arbitration Court ordered the troupe to vacate the building and return
it to the Jewish community, but still the theatre refused to leave.

In 1997 the then Tbilisi mayor BADRI SHOSHITAISHVILI cancelled the
1994 decision of the mayor's office, claiming in a television broadcast of 8 July
1997 that `the employees ... of the department did not show due care for this
matter' and `this matter was prepared negligently'. In spite of two previous
decisions in favour of the Jewish community, as well as recognition that it was
Jewish property by the Cabinet of Ministers and the Mayor's Office, the
Supreme Arbitration Court ruled on 14 November 1997 that the community
had no right to the building.

In the wake of the November 1997 ruling, Georgian Jewish activists told the
US-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews that while several religious
buildings had been returned to Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine, they
were still awaiting the return of even one synagogue in Georgia. In December
1997, President Shevardnadze promised Jewish leaders that the synagogue
would be returned before the September 1998 celebrations to mark 2,600 years
of a Jewish presence in the country. However, the President's promise was not
fulfilled.

The dispute over the synagogue has provoked verbal attacks against the Jewish
community. On 23 June 1997 the television programme Alioni claimed that the
Jews were backed by criminal elements. In another television broadcast, DATO
TUROSHVILI, one of the leaders of the Georgian Youth Movement, described
the struggle for the building as a fight between good and evil forces. The July
1997 broadcast that cited Mayor Shoshitaishvili also contained anti-Semitic
remarks.

However, the Jewish community again appeared to have been successful on 25
February 1999, when the court of the Mtatsminda region of Tbilisi ruled in
favour of the community. It is this decision that the theatre has challenged. In
the wake of the February 1999 ruling, representatives of the theatre group
called the court's decision `a national tragedy'. Reports sympathising with the
theatre group, some of which were anti-Semitic, again started to appear on
television and in the press. The Jewish community argues that the authorities'
inaction in the face of this anti-Semitic propaganda encouraged the theatre
company to continue to disobey the court decision and increased anti-Jewish
sentiment.

The Tbilisi-based journalist GIORGI TOPOURIA, who visited the building on
14 June, told Keston that the doorkeeper denied to him that a synagogue had
ever been located there, claiming that the building was originally a caravanserai
(an inn with room for caravans) and that the director of the Theatre of the
King's Region, NIKO TAVADZE, had documents to prove this. Tavadze
himself confirmed this in a telephone interview with Keston from Tbilisi on 21
June. `We looked on old Russian maps of the nineteenth century. There is only
one synagogue marked on the street and that is the one twenty metres away
from our theatre,' he declared. `That was the Ashkenazi synagogue built in the
reign of Tsar Nicholas II. We also have a document signed by 14 leading
Georgian academicians that there never was a synagogue on this site.' He also
told Keston that the `greatest specialists' on old Tbilisi and on church and
general architecture had studied the building and concluded that no Christian,
Muslim or Jewish place of worship had ever had such extensive cellars as were
found underneath his theatre. The specialists believed that the building had
been a caravanserai.

Tavadze maintained that it was only after his theatre had taken over the use of
the building in 1993 - amid the chaos of Georgia's civil war - and completely
renovated the near-derelict building that any claims emerged that the building
had ever been a synagogue. `The building was destroyed and full of rubbish.
Even some of the walls and the roof had gone. We began to restore and rebuild
it and then - three years later - the Jews came knocking saying it was their
synagogue. That's why we started looking in the archives. If we hadn't had
confirmation that the building wasn't the former synagogue, we wouldn't have
fought for it for the last five years.'

Asked why he believed the Jewish community was claiming the building,
Tavadze declared that the community had found documents referring to a first
and a second synagogue, but had not realised that the second synagogue had
been built on the site of the first after the first had been destroyed. `The Jews
have made a great mistake.'

Rabbi Levin categorically rejected Tavadze's claims. `There have been several
court hearings and each time the court has accepted our argument,' he told
Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 22 June. `All the hearings have been in
our favour.' Asked why he believed the theatre was resisting moving out he
declared: `They don't want to leave. They like it there.' But he insisted it was a
question of historical justice that the building be returned. `It is generally
accepted that all religious buildings - including churches and synagogues -
should be given back.' He declared that on its return, the building would be
turned back into a synagogue. Rabbi Levin told Keston that some 9,000 Jews
now live in Tbilisi. He reported that 70 men attend daily prayers in the city's
two synagogues, with attendance reaching 250 people on the Sabbath and up to
2,000 people on holidays.

Asked whether he was optimistic that the court would again rule that the
building should be returned to the community, Levin replied simply `Yes'.
(END)


Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.