ANTISEMITISM IN GEORGIA, AZERBAIJAN AND ARMENIA
Economic hardship, political instability, ethnic conflicts, a significant rise in nationalistic fervor since the fall of the Soviet Union, and regional and international politics put Jews in the Trans-Caucasus in a vulnerable position. As this report shows, Jews in these countries continue to face a significant degree of antisemitism despite the fact that levels of societal antisemitism in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia appear to be lower than in many other nations of the former Soviet Union, and the governments of all three countries have made declarations of tolerance in regard to their Jewish citizens.
In the aftermath of the USSR's collapse, antisemitic feeling in Georgia has risen amidst a background of extreme political instability, xenophobic sentiment against various minority groups, including Jews, and economic disaster. Therefore, despite the generally positive treatment of Jews by the Georgian national government, serious incidents of antisemitism continue to occur in Georgia and local officials tend not to be as responsive to the Jewish community's concerns. Local police have made little effort to stop the regular desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Tbilisi, the conflict surrounding the refusal of a popular theater group to vacate the building of a former synagogue has led to an explosion of antisemitic propaganda in the media, and in a disturbing return to the lawless days of 1992-93, Jews are again being targeted by kidnappers.
In Baku, Azerbaijan, where the government's close relationship with Israel seems to have had some positive effect on its treatment of the Jewish community, two synagogues were desecrated. One of these desecrations was reportedly carried out by pro-Iranian militants, who were arrested soon after the crime was discovered.
Finally, in Armenia some antisemitic sentiment has been provoked by Israel's growing alliance with Azerbaijan and Turkey and a feeling on the part of some Armenians that the Holocaust has diverted too much of the world's attention away from the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in 1915.
As the antisemitic incidents documented in this report show, Jews in all three countries face a complex situation in which they are confronted with societal antisemitism and, at least in Georgia, some degree of local governmental indifference to their concerns.
The sections on Georgia and Azerbaijan were written by Igor Klebanski, deputy director of UCSJ's Caucasus-American Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law. The Caucasus Bureau is a non-governmental Jewish human rights organization based in Tbilisi, Georgia. It monitors human rights, ethnic conflicts, fascism, antisemitism, and other forms of xenophobia in the Caucasus. Artak Varzhapetyan, Vice President of the Youth Center of the Jewish Community of Armenia, wrote the section on antisemitism in Armenia. The report was edited and compiled by UCSJ Research and Advocacy Coordinator, Nickolai Butkevich in direct consultation with UCSJ International Bureau Director, Dr. Leonid Stonov.
Desecration of Jewish Cemeteries
The Jewish cemetery on Gakhokidze Street, Tbilisi was desecrated in the early hours of December 2, 1998. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze strongly condemned this act of vandalism and added: "...the history of Georgia knows no incidents of Jewish pogroms or pogroms in Jewish cemeteries..." (25 Saati December 5-7 1998 and Tbilisis Siakhneli December 4-7, 1998)
However, there are three Jewish cemeteries in Tbilisi and acts of vandalism have been committed in all of them over the past several years. More than 100 graves and tombstones were destroyed in the Jewish cemeteries of Tbilisi between 1991 and 1994 (the official version gives the figure 99 as a result of two acts of vandalism, but some individual cases of grave desecrations were not counted). After one such desecration in the Jewish cemetery in the Ortachala district in Tbilisi in 1994, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze issued an order (No. 72 b, 5.02.95) requiring the restoration of the destroyed tombs and the maintenance of the monuments of Jewish culture by the Tbilisi Mayor's Office. Unfortunately, the tombs have not been restored.
On December 3, 1998 President Shevardnadze ordered the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor's Office to take measures to apprehend those responsible for the December 1998 attack on the Gakhokidze Street cemetery. The District Prosecutor's office opened a criminal case under Article 237 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, which requires a one year prison sentence, and was later replaced by Article 100 of the Criminal Code of Georgia the premeditated destruction of property, requiring imprisonment from 8 to 15 years. However, the investigation has been slow and ineffective. Considering that this is not the first sloppy investigation of vandalism in the Jewish cemeteries of Tbilisi, it appears that the District Prosecutor's office shows little interest in resolving the matter and is unable or unwilling to carry through the investigation.
Immediately following the cemetery desecration, the media gave different figures of between 60 to 70 destroyed graves. According to Police Colonel R. Shvelidze, the head of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Samgori district of Tbilisi, 46 graves were destroyed as a result of the most recent act of vandalism. Samgori district prosecutor V.
Abakelia said that the number of destroyed graves was 42. Therefore, the number of destroyed tombs is evidently understated by law enforcement officials.
The cemetery desecration coincided with the three-day official visit by Georgian parliamentary Chairman Z. Zhvania to Israel. According to the Parliamentary press service, Chairman Zhvania condemned the act of vandalism and shared the opinion of those officials and some media outlets which said that the timing of the desecration of the Jewish cemetery with the visit of the Georgian parliamentary delegation to Israel was suspicious. Some television programs gave distorted assessments of the incident on December 3-4. In particular, the information program "Vestnik" of Channel 1 and the news program of Channel 2 of Georgian television reported that the desecration was a political act, not an act of antisemitism.
The Caucasus Bureau believes that the motivation of the criminals for committing this act of vandalism cannot be determined until a full investigation is conducted and the culprits are arrested. In any event, even if the investigation establishes political motivations for the desecration of the Jewish cemetery, there is no doubt that the act was one of antisemitic vandalism since acts of vandalism in a Jewish cemetery are manifestations of antisemitism, regardless of political motivations. It is also possible that this act was aimed at creating tension between the Georgian and Jewish peoples.
Another antisemitic act of vandalism was committed in the summer of 1996 and also went unpunished. A large stained-glass window depicting a six-pointed Star of David in the back part of the building of the old synagogue on Abesadze Street in Tbilisi was completely shattered. Due to police indifference, this crime was not officially recorded and, consequently, the authorities and law enforcement agencies did not react.
In mid-March of 1999, the Caucasus Bureau learned that fences around graves were disappearing from the Jewish cemetery in the Navtlug district of Tbilisi. It turns out that four places where people can buy non-ferrous metals recently opened near the cemetery. Unidentified thieves had stolen the metal fences, desecrated the graves, and sold the metal. In this way, 35 graves were desecrated. One such incident was reported to the District Prosecutor's office, the City Council, and the Mayor's Office, but no response has been received from them yet. The metal sellers continue to operate. The Caucasus Bureau intends to appeal to the Prosecutor's Office for the suspension of the sellers' operation and for an investigation to be conducted into the legality of their operation.
In response to these attacks on Jewish cemeteries, the Caucasus Bureau arranged a meeting with the leaders of the main non-governmental human rights organizations of Tbilisi on December 14, 1998. The result of the meeting was a joint statement expressing indignation over the acts of vandalism in Jewish cemeteries over the past several years, and a demand that the government take all necessary measures to arrest and punish those who committed the latest act of vandalism and fulfill President Shevardnadze's orders and instructions to find and prosecute the culprits, restore vandalized tombs, and care for Jewish cultural monuments.
The Dispute in Tbilisi over the Abesadze Street Synagogue
On February 25, 1999, the court of the Mtapmidinsky region of Tbilisi ruled that the synagogue building on Abesadze Street must be returned to the Jewish community.
Representatives of the "Samepo Ubnis Teatri" theater group, which currently occupies the building, called the court's decision "a national tragedy." Media reports sympathizing with the theater group, some of which were antisemitic, immediately started to appear on TV and in the press. In all of these reports, the synagogue building was characterized as a theater building where, allegedly, a synagogue used to be located some time ago. The authorities' inaction in the face of this antisemitic propaganda encourages the theater company to continue to disobey the court decision and increases anti-Jewish sentiment. Despite several court orders, the "Samepo Ubnis Teatri" theater group has not been forced to leave the premises.
The dispute over the synagogue has a long history. It was taken from the Jewish community in 1923 by the Soviet government. By the decision of the mayor's office in 1994, the building of the old synagogue was ordered returned to the Jewish community. However, in 1997 this decision was
canceled by Tbilisi mayor B. Shoshitaishvili, who explained that "... the employees ... of the Department did not show due care for this matter" and "this matter was prepared negligently" (quotation from the television program "Cult of the Unreal" on July 8, 1997, one of several television programs which covered this issue with an antisemitic bias).
Municipality Premier G. Sharadze met with representatives of the Tbilisi Jewish community in the Tbilisi Mayor's Office on December 4, 1998. The representatives of the Jewish community asked the Mayor's Office to pay more attention to the problems of the Jewish community, including acts of vandalism repeatedly committed in Jewish cemeteries, and especially the refusal to return the old synagogue building located on Abesadze Street to the Jewish community.
At the meeting in the Mayor's Office, the Jewish community leaders stated that the attitude of the judicial bodies toward the Jewish community and the fact that the Mayor's Office was doing nothing to return the synagogue was possibly giving a free hand to antisemites. After the representatives of the Jewish community had expressed their opinion on this matter, slanderous and mocking articles defaming the Jews of Georgia, some leaders of Georgia's Jewish community, and the whole Jewish people immediately appeared in the press. (Tvalati December 17-23, 1998 and December 23-31 1998, Akhali Taoba December 8, 1998, Alia December 8, 1998, Akhali Shvidi Dge December 18, 1998, Shvidi Dge). These articles called Jews "profit-seekers" and "envious people" and called their efforts to win back control over the synagogue building "a cheap adventure." The title of one of the articles published by the newspaper Tvalati says: "Theater to Georgians, Friendship to Jews." This is the formula which has been used in Georgia for the past four years to "solve" the artificially created problem of the return of the synagogue building.
In the view of Jewish community leaders, the numerous court hearings concerning the return of the synagogue building to the Jewish community were too long, biased, and degrading to human dignity. During the court sessions, elderly people were mocked and the judges failed to stop the opposing party from using antisemitic rhetoric. Different courts refused to recognize the validity of a 19th century map of Tbilisi which clearly showed that a synagogue used to exist on the site of the disputed property. Although courts in Georgia are considered independent bodies, and despite reforms of the judicial system, the international and local human rights organizations monitoring democratic reforms in Georgia have concluded that the judicial system does not meet international standards because of corruption and the low level of professionalism among its personnel.
Despite all of these problems, on February 25, 1999, the court of the Mtatsminda district of Tbilisi yet again mandated the return of the synagogue building on Abesadze Street to the Jewish community. At the same time, the court ordered the Mayor's Office to provide alternate premises for the theater group currently functioning in the building and to compensate the theater for money spent by the theater group on the building's renovation. However, the Mayor's Office is in no hurry to take any steps to grant the Jewish community the possibility of using the synagogue building, and the theater company is not preparing to leave.
In addition, the authorities and law enforcement agencies have done nothing to stop the false accusations against the Jewish community in media accounts in which the Jews are represented as people taking the building from the theater to "sell it later to businessmen" or "open a restaurant" there, instead of using it as a synagogue. These accusations were repeated through loudspeakers mounted on a car driving around the streets adjoining Abesadze Street throughout the Fall of 1998. In addi
tion, the director of the theater, Merab Tavadze, said during a press conference on February 26, 1999 that, "The events surrounding the theater are a microcosm of what is going on in the country ... Georgia is losing not only territory, but also the city [Tbilisi]..." This phrase was broadcast by TV stations along with the words of professors studying the case who said that "...there are not any documents or maps that would confirm that this building used to be a synagogue..."
Nationalist Sentiment Rising
Nationalist sentiment is rising in Georgia on the eve of the Fall 1999 elections. One major issue that has inflamed interethnic tension is the debate over the necessity of reintroducing the nationality category on identity cards of Georgian citizens. In 1996, by a decision of the Parliament, this Soviet era category was removed from identity cards.
Nationalist-minded political and public leaders speak on state television Channel 1 about lost land, too many ethnic minorities, the danger of increasing the number of schools which teach in the languages of ethnic minorities, etc. They say that the non-indigenous nationalities should always remember their origins and behave as guests in Georgia. When touching on the issue of ethnicity, the Armenians and Azeris, who live in ethnically concentrated clusters in some regions of Georgia, are often spoken about in an outrageous and degrading way. In an ethnically diverse country like Georgia, when one ethnic minority is made to feel uncomfortable, other ethnic minorities cannot feel secure either.
Jews were singled out in this debate as well. Republican Party representative Nodar Natadze said at a recent press conference that "there is a physiological disease to which only Jews are exposed to, so the `nationality' section [in the identity card] needs to be [re]introduced in order to find out who is who and thus avoid problems in the future..."
Kidnapping of Jews Continues
In the same way that antisemitic articles after the desecration of the Jewish cemetery on Gakhokidze Street, Tbilisi (December 2, 1998) did not attract notice, and the people who destroyed a big display with a picture of the Star of David in the building of the old synagogue in the Summer of 1996 remained unpunished, almost no one noticed that in the second half of 1998 there were four kidnappings of Jews. The Caucasus Bureau was informed of this by Sochnut (the Jewish Agency for Israel) representatives in Georgia. Three of those kidnapped were later released and "urgently" sent by Sochnut to Israel.
Details and names of the victims are still unknown to the Caucasus Bureau because their families are still in Georgia and in order to protect them, as was explained to us by Sochnut, for now it is impossible to talk openly about what happened.
Against the backdrop of democratic reforms that are carried out by the Georgian government, these latest kidnappings prove that the kidnapping of Jewish children and their parents which took place in Georgia at the beginning of 1990's happened for other reasons in addition to general lawlessness or greed. Unfortunately, the popular misperception that Jews have more money than most Georgians singles them out as targets.
The People's Patriotic Union
On August 6, 1999, Evgeny Dzugashvili suffered a setback in his bid to run for the Georgian parliament when the Central Electoral Commission ruled that he could not run because he is a Russian citizen. Dzugashvili is the grandson of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and head of the People's Patriotic Union, (Tbilisi Prime News, August 6, 1999) Dzhugashvili, a well-known antisemite, has described Jews as "ravagers" of Russia and a "fifth column." (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 17, 1999; Interfax, July 18, 1999)
Two Synagogues Desecrated in Baku, Azerbaijan
According to Alexander Rusetsky, the director of the Georgia Helsinki Group who went to Baku in February, two Baku synagogues were desecrated in the Fall of 1998.
As the chairman of the synagogue of European Jews, Mikhail Bekker, told the Caucasus Bureau on the phone, the synagogue of European Jews was desecrated on October 17th in Baku, one day before the inauguration of President Aliev. The walls and doors of the synagogue were covered with feces. Rabbi Bekker believes that this was done in retaliation for the Jewish community's open and active support for President Aliev in the presidential elections
Approximately one month later, a synagogue of the Mountain Jews in Baku was also smeared with feces. This time, the scale of what was done was much larger than in the first case. This attack happened on a Friday night so people who came to the synagogue for Saturday morning prayer found a depressing picture. This second synagogue desecration is likely a consequence of the fact that on November 16th, during a meeting with President Aliev, the chairman of the synagogue of the Mountain Jews reported that during anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, the Jewish community hid Armenians.
The people guilty of this crime were arrested. They were members of a pro-Iranian group who do not approve of President Aliev's ties with Israel. Since then, whenever matzo is baked in the matzo bakery attached to the synagogue, a police team stands guard in front of the building.
Additionally, you can still read on the walls of buildings in various parts of the city the inscriptions, "Mossad scum - leave Baku" and "All of the circumcised are soldiers of the army of Israel." The person who wrote these inscriptions was arrested, and turned out to be a psychiatric patient, but the antisemitic slogans remain on the walls.
The Jewish community in Armenia consists of around 500 families, or roughly 1,500 people, most of whom live in Yerevan. Most Armenians respect Jews and feel that their two cultures have a lot in common. This generally positive attitude is reflected in the Armenian government's policies towards the Jewish community. Attacks on Jews and Jewish property are rare.
Israel's alignment with Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which are Armenia's traditional enemies, and efforts by some Jewish groups in the U.S. to repeal Section 907 of U.S. foreign assistance legislation that prohibits most U.S. aid to Azerbaijan, has led some nationalistic Armenians to blame local Jews, whom they see as representatives of Israel. Tension with Azerbaijan is still very high and many experts believe that the war could easily start again. Indeed, as recently as mid-June 1999, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces fought a brief but intense series of skirmishes in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabagh. A long antisemitic article on this theme, written by Igor Muradyan, appeared in the Communist opposition newspaper Golos Armenii (Voice of Armenia) in April. In it, Mr. Muradyan claims that Armenian-Jewish relations have historically been filled with conflict between "Aryan" Armenians and "Semitic" Jews, and blames Jews for inciting ethnic conflicts, including the dispute over Nagorno-Karabagh. The main theme of this article is the threat to Armenia posed by the close ties between Turkey, whose founding fathers the "Young Turks" are characterized as "Masonic," and Israel.
Another related issue, which leads to negative feelings towards Jews on the part of some Armenians, is the allegation that Israel refuses to recognize the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in 1915 as genocide. So as to avoid oversimplifying this complex issue, it should be kept in mind that few nations officially recognize the atrocities of 1915 as a genocide and that in fact, many Jews have historically been sympathetic to Armenian grievances. For example, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. recognizes the massacres of 1915 as a genocide. Nevertheless, some Armenians allege that Jews want all the attention of victim status for themselves and some Armenian extremists have even asserted that the founder of modern Turkey Kemal Ataturk's mother was Jewish and that this is proof that Jews were complicit in the Armenian genocide.
Finally, although not directly related to problems of antisemitism, "Jews for Jesus" type missionaries in Yerevan present a serious threat to the revival of Jewish communal life. These missionaries came to Armenia several years ago and successfully sought to fool community leaders into thinking that they were Jewish. Instead, they were trying to convert local Jews to Christianity by offering them food and money in what is still one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union. The head of the local missionary society has a prison record for fraud and local Jewish community leaders have tried to publicize this fact in their warnings to local Jews not to be fooled. Despite the fact that Armenia has a very strict religion law that prohibits missionary activity, this group has not been banned and has been moderately successful in converting Armenian Jews to Christianity.