Prague Jews Worry About the Fuss As Some See Terror Alert As a Ruse

Security measures are back to normal in Prague after a reported terrorist threat against Jewish sites during the High Holidays, but debate continues over the seriousness of the threat and its implications for Czech Jewry. Three Czech Jews representing different organizations published a letter to Interior Minister Ivan Langer at the beginning of November, accusing the government of inventing the threat to divert attention from its domestic troubles.

One signatory, Rostislav Rod, told JTA that the government seemed to be employing a “Wag the Dog” scenario at the expense of Czech Jews. The reference was to a 1997 movie in which the U.S. president concocts a fictitious war to revive his flagging popularity.

The letter to Langer, printed as an advertisement in the daily Pravo newspaper, accuses the Interior Ministry of engaging in a “political media game” — and, as evidence, cites the far-fetched nature of the plot reported by Czech media, which included the planned bombing of the Jerusalem Synagogue at a time when very few worshipers would have been there.

“Why should terrorists attack a synagogue that is attended by a few Orthodox believers while the Spanish Synagogue was at the moment full of American Conservative Jews who are much richer?” the letter argues, suggesting that the orchestrator of the allegedly fake terror campaign did not know enough about Judaism to come up with a logical scenario.

The writers gave no evidence to back up their suspicions, however, and terrorists in other places have indeed attacked Jewish sites — in Casablanca, Morocco, for example — on days when they apparently didn’t realize the buildings would be empty.

Rod and the other signatories also demanded that former intelligence chief Karel Randak, who was fired after criticizing the government’s response to the threat, be allowed to testify in Parliament. Langer, who has prevented Randak from appearing before Parliament, citing security concerns, has not responded to the letter.

Complicating matters, one of the signatories, Frantisek Fendrych, who heads the Jewish Liberal Union congregation, told the Prague Post that the letter to Langer was just a draft, and was released to Pravo without his consent. He stood by its contents, however.

In an interview with JTA, Langer said the writers do not speak for the Jewish community, but added that he can’t discuss the particulars of their allegations for security reasons.

“Don’t waste our time, please, with his issues,” he said of Rod.

Prague saw a dramatic increase in police presence on the streets beginning Sept. 23, Rosh Hashanah, when the government announced a terrorism threat but did not provide details. Jews and non-Jews are still wondering what was behind the threat.

The letter to Langer has spurred private and public concern about security for Jewish sites, the state’s ability to protect its citizens and whether any threat ever existed.

An Oct. 6 report in Mlada Fronta Dnes, a leading newspaper, stated that according to an anonymous Czech intelligence source, Islamic extremists had plotted to blow up a synagogue full of Jews. The government refused to comment on the report.

When the terrorist alert subsided in mid-October after Simchat Torah, Prague Mayor Pavel Bem told journalists that there had been a specific threat to Jewish sites in Prague, a statement reiterated on the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service’s Web site.

Bem and Langer belong to the same party, the center-right Civic Democrats, which runs the government but does not have a majority in Parliament, the result of a June election stalemate. Rod and his fellow signatories believe Langer may be trying to cover up political instability with a fake terrorism alert that “smacks of the misuse of Jewish issues,” Petr Pechan, the third signatory, told JTA.

The letter to Langer was challenged by some members of the Prague Jewish community who felt that publicly accusing the government was not in the best interests of the capital’s Jewish population, which numbers up to 3,000.

The identity of the three signatories was an issue for Katerina Weberova, coordinator of the Bejt Simcha Reform congregation, since they previously had been involved in what she deemed “angry letter writing” and “controversies.”

About three years ago, Fendrych accused longtime community heads in a monthly newsletter of exploiting the inherited riches of Holocaust victims for their own devices, a concern echoed by a number of the community leaders’ opponents.

Rod briefly was at the center of a political storm last year when he came forward as the source of money for a loan that his uncle had given to Prime Minister Stanislav Gross to purchase an apartment. Gross was forced to resign over speculation that he had obtained the apartment through corruption.

Additionally, though Rod says he represents the Anti-Defamation League in the Czech Republic, the New York-based ADL said it had no knowledge of Rod or his activities.

Pechan once was part of the Conservative Masorti Olami congregation in Prague. He since has had a falling-out with the group’s rabbi and has formed his own organization, Masorti Czech Republic.

Gafna Foltynova, coordinator for Masorti Olami in the Czech Republic, felt the letter posed legitimate questions, but emphasized that she had been pleased, not disturbed, by the increased police presence in Prague.

“The headlines in the press are saying ‘Czech Jews ask Langer’ when it’s really only these three people,” she noted.

Meanwhile, leaders of Prague’s Jewish community and the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities wrote a separate letter to the Interior Ministry at the start of the month after holding several meetings with police about security issues.

Tomas Kraus, head of the federation, said they were not concerned about the validity of the September threats, since Jewish sites in Europe usually are viewed as targets.

“On the contrary, we are happy the police and the ministry are taking any potential threat so seriously and were glad to see a stepped up police presence. What we are more concerned about is that we have been asking repeatedly for the streets in the Jewish town to be closed off to cars to prevent attacks, and that this is not happening,” he said.

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