Backgrounder: Georgian Jewry, South Ossetia Crisis

The Jews of Georgia are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, though most of the region's Jewish population left for Israel and other Western nations in the past three decades. There are approximately 10,000-12,000 Jews remaining in Georgia, mostly in and around the capital city of Tbilisi. There are Jewish populations in Gori and other Georgian cities near the Russia-supported breakaway region of South Ossetia, where the current conflict began, and South Ossetia has an at-risk Jewish population as well. (For additional details on Georgian Jewry, click here for the entry in the Jewish Virtual LIbrary, click here for the Wikipedia entry.)

The current conflict, as described by JTA here:

On Aug. 8, Russian tanks and soldiers poured into South Ossetia, a breakaway republic that fought a war for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia said it was protecting its citizens and peacekeepers from a Georgian attempt to secure the capital, Tskhinvali.

Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had made the reunification of Georgia with its breakaway republics a central plank of his campaigns as he cultivated close ties with the West, sending soldiers to U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as seeking entry to the NATO alliance.

Saakashvili’s distance from Russia chafed at then-President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Moscow holds little love for the poster child of democracy in the former Soviet sphere.

Jews are caught on both sides of the conflict.

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Israel has a longstanding defense relationship with Georgia and over the years has sold rockets, night vision and aerial drones to the former Soviet republic. A drone that was shot down by Russian forces in the breakway republic of Abkhazia earlier this year came from Israel.

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Soldiers and citizens in the midst of the fighting in northern Georgia have expressed a sense that the United States betrayed them by not providing more support as the conflict unfolded.

They see Russia’s actions as heavy-handed, a return to the Soviet mentality in which neighbors are either puppets or enemies.

“Russia is in the middle of an act of aggression against Georgia,” said Gregory Brodsky, the Jewish Agency’s emissary to Tbilisi. “The attempt to take Abkhazia and Ossetia is obvious to the whole world as an attempt to create anew the Russian empire.”

Russian planes bombed targets across Georgia on Monday, including bridges, roadways and military facilities on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Brodsky said.