SOFIA, Bulgaria (JTA) — Until this week, leaders of Bulgaria’s small, generally placid Jewish community said they felt untouched by hate crimes or terrorism.
But after Wednesday’s apparent suicide bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in the Black Sea city of Burgas, 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.”
Wednesday’s explosion outside Sarafovo Airport in Burgas killed fiveIsraeli 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 told JTA. Bevenisti said security measures will now be tightened. “The situation needs to be improved,” he said.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said Wednesday 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 to a Bulgarian ski resort from the Turkish border.
“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 in Israel’s relation’s 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.”
Though Bulgaria has a pro-Israel foreign policy, she said, “Israel is always mentioned in a negative context in Bulgaria.” 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, president of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria.
On Thursday, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said the bomber was believed to have been about 36 years old and had been in the country between four and seven days. “We cannot exclude the possibility that he had logistical support on Bulgarian territory,” the minister said. He declined to elaborate.
Nitzan Nuriel, former head of Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau, speculated that the suicide bomber might have been homegrown – either recruited locally or having crossed over from Turkey.
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 Wednesday’s attack as a “barbarian act” and expressed condolences with the families of the victims. Ahmedov said that the attack should not be interpreted as a religious act, but as some kind of “economic provocation” aimed at crippling the local tourist business.
Despite the attack, some Israelis seem undeterred from coming to Bulgaria.
Rabbi Yossi Halperin of Varna – a city situated about 50 miles north of Burgas and where flights to and from Burgas were rerouted after the attack – said he found “a good number of recent arrivals” from Israel when he went to Varna’s airport “to help people through all the confusion.”
(Svetlana Guineva reported for this story from Sofia, Bulgaria; Cnaan Liphshiz reported from The Hague, and Dianna Cahn contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.)
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