Meet the Ambassador: A born diplomat

‘I feel every stone, corner and person,’ says Lasha Zhvania, Georgia’s ambassador to Israel

Lasha Zhvania (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lasha Zhvania
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s not uncommon to meet an ambassador to Israel who previously served here in a lower rank. There have been quite a few ambassadors from different countries who served in Israel in different diplomatic capacities. Current ambassadors of Germany and the UK are but two examples. The immediate past ambassador of France is another. But there have been many more.
Georgian Ambassador Lasha Zhvania, who is about to celebrate his 46th birthday on October 14, is currently on his third stint in Israel and his second as ambassador. Technically he is on his fourth stint, because when he came for the first time in 1998 as First Secretary, he was promoted after two years to Consul Counselor, in which position he served for two additional years before returning to Georgia to serve as Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Finance.
From 2004 to 2005, he was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in 2005, he was back in Israel as his country’s ambassador.
Last month, he once again presented his credentials as ambassador, starting his conversation with President Reuven Rivlin in Hebrew before switching to English. In addition to his native Georgian, Zhvania is fluent in Hebrew, English and Russian.
A very young diplomat the first time he was sent abroad, the young Lasha as a boy had not entertained career ambitions to be a fireman, a cowboy or a policeman. He always wanted to be a diplomat, and although he has had several careers, there’s been an element of diplomacy in every one of them.
In addition to twice representing his country as ambassador to Israel, he has been a researcher in international human rights and refugee law at Tbilisi State University; Deputy Minister of Finance; and member of the Anti-Corruption Council of Georgia; Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs; member of Parliament and chairman of its foreign relations committee; Minister of Economic Development; founder of the Global Unity Group consultancy company; head and general manager of the International Foundation for Science, Culture and Spirituality of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, His Holiness Ilia II; and head of the administration of the fifth and current president of Georgia, Salome Zourabichvili.
Zhvania loves Israel, so much so that when aiming to be a diplomat, it wasn’t the career alone that attracted him. “I wanted to be a diplomat in Israel,” he tells The Jerusalem Post in the course of an interview, during which he receives a phone call and converses with the caller in fluent Hebrew.
In an era in which the pervasive scourge of antisemitism is again spreading throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world, Georgia is one of the few places in which there is no antisemitism, Zhvania asserts.
Is there an explanation for this?

While there are several different versions for how and when the Jews first came to Georgia, the most common legend, says Zhvania, is that they came in the aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple. They were accepted as equals and permitted to practice their own religion and customs. They built synagogues and established a sanhedrin.
The Georgian Jewish community, he says proudly, is among the oldest Jewish Diaspora communities in the world.
Coming fast forward to illustrate how well the Jews integrated into mainstream Georgian society, Zhvania recalls a recent luncheon with a Georgian expatriate living in Israel and a visitor from Georgia, who happened to have been a classmate of the expat.
Georgia is divided into 10 regions. The visiting classmate who had sat next to the expat in school from grade one onward, and had been a close friend, said that he had never known until the ninth grade, that Jew was the name given to certain people who practiced a different religion to his. He always thought that it was the name of a region.
Zhvania tells the story to illustrate how Georgian the Jews of his country are. They do not suffer discrimination, he insists, and in fact, Patriarch Ilia II, who has been in office for 41 years, is so well disposed to Jews, that in his sermons he tells people that if they have been blessed by a Jew, it is like being blessed by God.
Christianity came to Georgia in the fourth century of the first millennium. But long before that, word reached the people of Georgia, that a wondrous child had been born near Jerusalem.
A pious Jew called Elioz was sent to Jerusalem to find out what was so special about this baby. Elioz remained in Jerusalem for many years and witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
A Roman soldier at Golgotha took the robe that Christ was wearing and sold it to Elioz, who returned to Georgia with the robe and with the teachings of Christ. When Elioz met his sister, Sidonia, she took the robe from him, and promptly died. She was buried together with the robe in the grounds of the synagogue and a cypress tree that grew over her grave had several medicinal properties, and its bark and leaves were used to cure many diseases.
Many years after Christianity came to Georgia, Sidonia was canonized and a cathedral was built over her grave.
Although Elioz returned to Georgia from Jerusalem, there has been a Georgian presence in the city for more than a thousand years. The most famous of these Georgians was Shota Rustaveli, a Georgian prince and Georgia’s national poet, who arrived at the Monastery of the Cross in the late 12th century, and while resident there, wrote his famous masterpiece, “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.”

ANOTHER EXAMPLE of the Georgian attitude to Jews took place in Auschwitz, where prisoners included Georgian Archimandrite Grigor Peradze, who had been living in Poland for many years, and was a member of Poland’s intellectual elite. Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, he, like many other priests, was arrested and sent from one concentration camp to another. In the camps, he helped the Jews, which was something that the Nazis could not condone. The final straw was when a Jew who was a father six children was accused of stealing. The children were still alive at the time, and Peradze, aware of how much they needed their father, stepped forward, saying that he was the thief, not the Jew. He met his death in Auschwitz on December 6, 1942. No one knows what happened to the father and his six children. It is presumed that they were eventually sent to the gas chambers.
Until it gained its independence, Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, but according to Zhvania, although the Communists forced anti-religious policies on Georgia, they could not break the bond between Georgians and its citizens of the Jewish faith.
Relating to his work for Ilia II, Zhvania is asked whether he believes that Jesus was a Jew. “What’s to believe?” he replies. “It’s history.”
For as long as he can remember, it was Zhvania’s dream to come to Jerusalem, which he sees as the crossroads of the world in terms of religion, culture and politics.
He firmly believed that if he was successful as a diplomat in Israel, he would be successful everywhere. Given his curriculum vitae, that belief was not misplaced.
Asked what he missed about Israel on the occasions that he left, he notes that it takes only two hours to fly from Georgia to Israel. “Whenever I missed Israel, I came to visit.”
One of the things he loves to do is to sit on a balcony looking out at the old city of Jerusalem.
Israel’s capital, he says is also where he’s eaten the best ever Georgian food. A culture club started by the late David Ciskarishvili in Nahalat Shiva, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods outside of the old city, developed into a restaurant called Kangaroo, which has a different geographical connotation, but which is definitely Georgian.
Ciskarishvili, who was not Jewish, was married to a Jewish woman with whom he had a daughter. He was fiercely pro-Israel, but when he died, he was buried in his native Georgia. His wife and daughter continue to run the restaurant where Zhvania likes to eat.
At a farewell when he was consul, Ciskarishvili told him that a few years would pass and he would return. That prediction came true. At his second farewell after his previous stint as ambassador, Ciskarishvili made the same prophetic remark, to which Zhvania had replied that he expected him to be at the airport to meet him.
The prescient Ciskarishvili had retorted, “No, I will no longer be alive. My daughter will be there to meet you.” And that’s exactly what transpired.
Zhvania sees it as his mission to bring the already close relations between Israel and Georgia even closer, especially in the field of hi-tech. But there are other mutual interests, he says, “and I want to merge those interests which will be beneficial to both.”
Despite the fact that Israel has very close relations with Russia, Israel came to Georgia’s aid politically, in Georgia’s war with Russia during August 2008. This, despite the fact that Georgia, with its 4.5 million population, has far less influence in the world than Russia. It is something that Georgians do not forget.
Zhvania does a lot of traveling between Israel and Georgia, because his wife, Tea Kiknavelidze, and younger daughter, Helen, remained there so that Helen could finish her schooling. His older daughter, Anna, is completing her university degree in Barcelona, and his son, Sulkhan-Irineos, lives with him in Israel.
When Zhvania first came to Israel, there was one flight a week, which was always half empty. Now there are 40 flights a week, and they are all full. All Israeli airline companies fly to Georgia, he says, and two Georgian companies fly to Israel.
Now that Israelis have discovered the tourist attractions of Georgia, he is hopeful that they will also discover that it is worthwhile to do business with and in Georgia.
Outside of Tbilisi, his favorite place in the world is Jerusalem.
“I feel every stone, corner and person,” he says.
Asked if under the circumstances Georgia will move its embassy to Jerusalem, he smiles, and says “in time.”
Asked how much time, he declines to be specific and repeats: “in time.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 21 in Jerusalem.