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Bulgaria's Jews Still Reeling

July 26, 2012 By:
Cnaan Liphshiz and Svetlana Guineva Jewish Telegraphic Agency
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Members of the Israeli ZAKA emergency rescue team examine the remains of the bus at the scene of the terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, on July 19. Flash 90 Photo

SOFIA, Bulgaria

Until last week, leaders of Bulgaria's small, placid Jewish community said they felt untouched by hate crimes or terrorism.

But after last week's apparent suicide bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in the Black Sea city of Borgas, Jews in the country are speaking of a basic change in their sense of security.

"We used to convene without a shred of fear in the Jewish community's buildings," said Kamen Petrov, vice president of Maccabi Bulgaria. "I guess we had been unprepared. Things will have to change from now on. We thought something like this could not happen in Bulgaria."

Last Wednesday's explosion outside Sarafovo Airport in Burgas killed six I sraeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and the suspected suicide bomber. More than 30 Israelis were injured. The Israelis had just arrived on a charter flight from Israel.

Maxim Benvenisti, president of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, said that three years ago the community had drafted emergency plans to respond to potential terror attacks. "We discussed such scenarios. But we see that it's one thing to discuss them, and it's another to see the scenario happening before your eyes," he said. Security measures will now be tightened, he added.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said last week that at a meeting a month ago with representatives of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service did not warn Bulgarian officials of the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Bulgaria's Jewish community had increased its security arrangements in February, following warnings from the local Israeli Embassy, according to Martin Levi, vice chairman of the Jewish community in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. Among other measures, security at the entrances to the community building in Sofia and other Jewish institutions were tightened. Bulgarian authorities had been made aware of the warnings, he said.

That came in the wake of the discovery by Bulgarian authorities of a bomb on a charter bus for Israelis that was heading from the Turkish border to a Bulgarian ski resort .

"We took the alerts seriously and upped security, but the Bulgarian authorities were dismissive," Levi said. "Some argued Bulgaria was immune because it had such excellent relations and cultural attachment to Muslim populations. I am deeply disappointed in how the authorities handled this."

He learned of the attack while in Hungary, where he is helping instructors run a summer camp for some 260 Jewish children from the Balkans. Next week, a summer camp for Bulgarian Jewish children will open in Bulgaria.

The camp has taken additional precautions as well, he said, without offering details.

"We want to beef up security without causing panic," Levi said. "We try to tell the children as little as possible about the attack and continue with our program. We don't want this to become 'the summer camp of the terrorist attack.' "

The flow of Israeli tourists into Bulgaria picked up in 2009, following the deterioration of Israel's relations with Turkey. Bulgaria's minister of tourism was quoted as saying that nearly 150,000 Israelis were expected to visit Bulgaria this year. Some 20 percent of standing reservations from Israel have been canceled since the attack.

Tania Reytan, a sociologist at the University of Sofia who is Jewish and promotes interfaith dialogue, said she has limited faith in the effectiveness of additional security measures in the long run. "The biggest security gap is in the extremist's mind," she said. "We need to reach out more to the other communities and explain who we are and what our values are."

The terrorists picked Bulgaria, she said, "because they sought for the weakest link in the European Union, and they found it."

Some observers are worried that the attack could have negative repercussions for the generally positive relations between Bulgarians Jews and Muslims. Approximately 8 percent of Bulgaria's 7 million people are Muslim, the vast majority of them ethnic Turks.

Bulgaria has an estimated 3,500 to 5,700 Jews.

Relations between Jews and Muslims in Bulgaria have historically been "peaceful and friendly," said Benvenisti.

Representatives of Bulgaria's Muslim community issued strong condemnations of the attack, as did representatives of various other ethnic and religious groups and associations.

"We refuse to believe that the bomber is a Bulgarian Muslim. We don't believe that any of them could undertake such action," said Ahmed Ahmedov, spokesman for the chief Bulgarian mufti.

Mufti Mustafa Alsih Hadzhi, in an official statement to the Bulgarian media, denounced the attack as a "barbarian act" and expressed condolences with the families of the victims.

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