Georgia on His Mind: Republic's Ambassador Demands Hebrew Name Change

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

Since assuming his new post about two months ago, Georgian Ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania has been waging an unusual campaign - to change his country's Hebrew name, Gruzia. In a letter he sent recently to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the ambassador asked that his country's name be changed to its correct name, Georgia. Zhvania's request was backed up by quotations from the Hebrew Encyclopedia that prove that until the 1970s, his country was indeed called Georgia in Hebrew.

Gruzia is Georgia's name in Russian only, and is used by only three countries - Russia, Japan and Israel. The rest of the world uses the name Georgia, as was common in Israel, too, until the 1970s. The name Gruzia was brought here by Georgian immigrants who came here in the 1970s, when Georgia was part of the former Soviet Union, and the name stuck. In the Georgian language, the country is still known by another name entirely - Sakartvelo.

Zhvania is conducting the first trial of the use of the old-new name with Orange, the cellular service provider, which is expected to stop using the name Gruzia this week.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Zhvania explained that he views the entrenchment of the name Gruzia as a historical error that has problematic implications, particularly in Israel.

"We are not asking to change our country's name, but rather to go back to the historic name commonly used in Hebrew, too," stresses Zhvania, who speaks fluent Hebrew himself. "The changing of the country's name in Israel in the 1970s artificially severs historical continuity, as if erasing the presence of Georgians in the Holy Land for thousands of years. Even people who know that between the 10th and 15th centuries the Georgians were the strongest community in the Holy Land do not necessarily make a connection between them and today's Georgians.

"Since the 4th century, there has been a prominent Georgian presence here; and in their heyday, the villages of Malha and Katamon (now Jerusalem neighborhoods), as well as 30 monasteries, belonged to Georgians. The use of the term Gruzinis instead of Georgians severs this continuity, which is very important to our people."

The most important of the Georgian monasteries was the one in the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem, where the legendary Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli, lived in the 11th century and wrote the national epic poem, "The Knight in the Panther's Skin." Today, that monastery belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, and recently the only portrait in the world of Rustaveli's likeness was vandalized.

The Franciscan Terra Sancta monastery in central Jerusalem also once belonged to the Georgians. Franciscan documents relate that when the monks asked the Georgians for possession of the monastery, they backed up their request with the statement that there were so many Georgian monasteries in the Holy Land that [transferring Terra Sancta to the Franciscans] would be no great loss [to the Georgians]. Now that the Georgians have lost all their property and their status in this region, the return of the country's proper name would at least be a measure of "returning the crown to its former glory."

"We really want to go back to using the name Georgia," said Zhvania, "because we have not disappeared; we are here."

As to the question of whether the desire to reinstate the original name has anything to do with the multiplicity of Gruzini jokes, Zhvania says that this image is an internal Israeli matter.

The Foreign Ministry responded that from the moment it receives an official request to cease using the name Gruzia and replace it with another, it will indeed be changed in all the records and will go into use. Zhvania plans to contact the Foreign Ministry as soon as he receives a professional response from the Academy.