GUATEMALA CITY (Dec. 26)
Outside the high wall that surrounds Sharai Benjamin Synagogue, guards are checking visitors’ identification.
A sign above the metal detector warns, “Firearms prohibited.”
In the sanctuary, all eyes are on the b’nai mitzvah twins, but memories drift to the terrifying abduction of their grandfather.
Though it happened years ago, friends and family vividly remember the negotiations, the ransom payment and, finally, the businessman’s release.
This Central American country has been called the kidnapping capital of the world, and prominent Jewish families have been among the victims.
Security concerns occupy Joey Habie, originator of Har Carmel, a new 142-acre development that Habie hopes will unify and strengthen Guatemala’s Jewish community.
Many Jews left Guatemala during a brutal 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
“Most didn’t want to leave us, but the violence became too much,” Habie says. “Now the situation is less grim, and we want to be sure the community doesn’t deplete itself again.”
Like the Biblical mountain from which it gets its name, Har Carmel rises boldly, and on all sides reveals a dramatic vista. Thousands of lush green acres stretch out below, a pleasant reminder of why the Maya called this place Guatemala, or Land of the Trees.
Har Carmel will have 200 homes, a community center, a sports complex, a synagogue and a school. The project grew out of a more modest educational improvement plan.
“At first we only intended to build a school,” says Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, who served the community for 12 years before leaving for Israel a few months ago.
The community’s Consejo Central, or Central Council, had been talking about offering education beyond its present nursery school and kindergarten.
“Joey Habie told us he’d be willing to donate a large tract of land if we’d consider a more ambitious project,” Tapiero says.
Ultimately, Habie not only gave the community the land, but also undertook developing the project.
Bulldozers are now at work preparing the ground for the first homes. Construction of the community center begins late this year.
Guatemala has about 11 million inhabitants. More than half are direct descendants of the Maya, an ancient Indian civilization that flourished in Central America and Mexico.
There are about 850 Jews from 310 families, according to a 2000 Consejo Central census.
Though many communities are losing numbers, Guatemala’s Jewish population is about the same as it was a decade ago.
“Many who left the country during the violence have returned, drawn back by ties to our close community,” says Victor Cohen, lead architect on the Har Carmel project.
Most of the country’s Jews make their homes here in the capital, living in secure apartment buildings and walled compounds.
Some longtime residents are skeptical of the Har Carmel plan. Several say they fear Jews will be “sitting ducks” for kidnappings or Al-Qaida style attacks.
Habie rejects claims that he is building a ghetto.
“This will be as secure a development as you can get,” he says. “The real ghettos are the high-rise apartments people are living in now.”
Har Carmel will have a security gate with state-of-the-art electronic communications, including links to public and private law enforcement. Armed guards will patrol inside and outside the grounds 24 hours a day.
These precautions are not extreme, but “normal in today’s world,” says Habie, whose father was murdered by terrorists in 1980. “Security is a worldwide issue.”
More than half of Har Carmel’s quarter-acre lots have been sold. The cost is $25,000 per lot, payable to an endowment fund that will help build the community center and school. The synagogue will be financed by donors.
Habie even has interviewed Argentine Jewish families seeking to flee that country’s economic crisis. He is offering incentives for settlement in Har Carmel, such as deferred payments for both land and construction, for those with useful skills as engineers and technicians.
Some American Jews also have purchased lots, with the idea of building vacation homes. Guatemala City is a two-hour flight from Miami, and three hours from Dallas.
“What is unique about this development is the way it demonstrates faith in the future,” Tapiero says. “Perhaps because Jews here have lived so long amid violence, there is a yearning to come together, this time in tranquil surroundings.”
There is wide disparity of income in Guatemala, which has virtually no middle class.
For Jews who have been successful, security is important.
Some employ bodyguards, euphemistically called “drivers” or “chauffeurs.” Others deflect unwanted attention by dressing modestly and driving older, nondescript cars. Still others use helicopters to avoid abductions and car- jackings.
Enough Guatemalans pilot their own helicopters to make bird-like flocks of them a common sight in the rush-hour sky.
Helicopters can span any distance in the country, which is about the size of Louisiana. Some lawns offer “guest heliports.”
“Jewish kidnap victims have been targeted because of their wealth,” and not as a result of anti-Semitism, says Uri Roitman, a security specialist. “Their abductors’ motives were not political. They just wanted money.”
Jews always have been active participants in Guatemala’s largely Christian society.
Guatemala has not been a place of overt anti-Semitism, though an attempt was made some years ago to deface the Sephardic synagogue.
The country traditionally has been a stronghold of the Catholic Church, but Tapiero says Protestant evangelical groups also have become powerful.
“Evangelicals are very friendly to Israel, and they are nearly half of the Christian population,” he says.
Guatemala has had friendly ties with Israel since the Jewish state was created in 1948. But the Arab lobby has consistently blocked attempts to move Guatemala’s embassy to Jerusalem.
The Arab population here, which now numbers about 800 families, is growing rapidly.
Jews and Arabs have had mostly amicable relations in Guatemala since the immigration of both groups in the early 20th century. A few Arab children enroll each year in the Jewish school.
But the political climate is changing as Arabs here react to developments in the Middle East.
“There is definitely potential for demonstrations, vandalism, or worse,” says Roitman, who adds that he is preparing his security services to deal with Arab terrorism “just in case.”