Georgian Jews Airlifted To Israel

by Justin Cohen - Thursday 14th August 2008

An Israeli woman embraces a relative from Georgia at Ben Gurion airport

Scores of Georgian Jews left their homes in the war-ravaged country to start a new life in Israel this week as part of an emergency airlift orchestrated by the Jewish state.

Around 34 members of the local community of all ages, some having less than a day to prepare and many carrying only essentials, were among those to join specially-arranged flights which also brought hundreds of Israeli tourists and businesspeople to safety in Israel.

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In addition to one regular scheduled flight, a total of three planes were laid on to meet the high demand on Tuesday – two from El Al and another leased by the Jewish state from an Georgian airline.

“There were families, teenagers, people of all ages making aliyah. Their faces expressed shock,” said Alex Selsky, the Jewish Agency’s spokesman for Russian-speaking media. He told TJ that one family from Gori, the area which suffered some of the heaviest bombing from Russia, reported being stuck in their basement for three days after their house collapsed. “They didn’t have time to prepare, they just grabbed their documents. There were people with just two bags of food,” he added.

But for others fleeing the city, where eyewitnesses reported looting, there were even more pressing concerns. According to the Lubavitch website, one refugee fleeing the country with her children did not even know if her husband was still alive. Rabbi Meir Kozlovski, Chabad representative in Georgia, said: “He refused to leave Gori, wanting to protect his home, and now we have no way of knowing what his situation is.”

Thousands have died or been injured in the conflict which began last Thursday. They include Yediot Ahronoth reporter Tzadock Yehezkeli, who was seriously injured when a mortar shell hit Gori where he was working. Many civilians including a Dutch journalist were killed in the attack. Yehezkeli was yesterday said to be in a serious but stable condition at Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital after ZAKA intervened to help bring him home.

Even before helping to arrange the aliyah of community members this week, the Jewish Agency evacuated around 200 Jews living around Gori, the majority of the community living in the area, to the capital Tbilisi. But after Tuesday’s ceasefire, tensions remained high and Selsky predicted that the remainder of the 140 Georgian Jews who applied to make aliyah will do so in the coming days and weeks. They will then be helped to integrate into Israeli society. “We understand that people who experienced this situation will be interested to check options in Israel and to join families they have here,” said Selsky.

Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski added: “This is an expression of the basic role of the people of Israel and the State of Israel, as the Jewish home, to help Jews around the world.”

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in a conversation with her Georgian opposite number, thanked the government for its help in locating stranded Israeli citizens and offered to supply humanitarian aid to the country. In England, meanwhile, World Jewish Relief, which has worked with partners on the ground in supporting elderly community members since 2006, is monitoring the ongoing situation.

Chief Executive Paul Anticoni, speaking before Georgia confirmed its acceptance of a ceasefire plan on Tuesday, said: “I’ve had ongoing contact with a range of people in the Jewish community in Georgia. Everyone is understandably terrified and so uncertain as to the future. Georgian/Russian animosity is high and as always at times of conflict, rumour and counter-rumour fuels further fear and uncertainty. The Jewish community there is very integrated into Georgian society and is no more at risk than other groups. Of course, we worry for their safety and hear their personal cries of anguish.”

He added: “Given the fluidity of the situation on the ground, it remains difficult to ascertain where humanitarian needs are greatest. Only once WJR has a better understanding of need and how we can best alleviate it, would we consider launching an emergency appeal.”

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