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Around the Jewish World After Terror Threats, European Jews Are on Their Guard — but Not Cowed

April 20, 2004
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Agnes Penzias was shocked when police reported arrests in a terrorist plot aimed at Hungary’s new Holocaust Memorial Center — but the news didn’t prevent Penzias and her husband from attending the center’s inauguration.

“I’m always worried about people vandalizing Jewish buildings and graveyards, so you can imagine how frightened I was to learn about this terrorist plan,” she told JTA. “But then I saw how seriously they took the security arrangements, so that calmed me considerably.”

Indeed, there was unprecedented security at the April 15 inauguration of the center in Budapest. Hundreds of guards monitored the event as helicopters hovered overhead and snipers watched from the rooftops of nearby buildings.

The security seen in Budapest is not uncommon in Europe. In the wake of last month’s lethal Al-Qaida bombings in Madrid — and with reports last week that those bombers were planning follow-up attacks on Jewish targets — security is being stepped up at Jewish institutions across the continent.

While some European Jews are frightened by the threats, many appear to be going on with their day-to-day lives.

Some are going on with their routines out of defiance, with the sense that changing their routines would be giving in to the terrorists.

“It’s unrealistic to assume that we are somehow invulnerable to terrorism, especially when there are so many prominent Jewish sites in Budapest,” said Dora Ses of Budapest. “But I lived in Israel for years and I learned there very quickly that you cannot live in fear. That’s exactly what they want to achieve.”

Others seemed resigned to the fact that altering their comings and goings wouldn’t make them any safer. Jewish Community Protection Service spokesman Ariel Goldman noted the arrest last week near Paris of suspected members of a Moroccan Islamic terror cell who are believed to be linked to suicide bombings in Casablanca last May that targeted a number of Jewish sites.

“The arrests are worrying and reassuring at one and the same time,” Goldman said. “On the one hand, it shows the effectiveness of the anti-terrorist police, but it also shows that the threat is there.”

Still, many shoppers searching for their first post-Passover baguettes in Paris’s heavily Jewish 19th District said they weren’t taking special precautions.

“If you’re Jewish, there’s always a threat. But look at Madrid — these people don’t care who they kill,” Guy Seban said.

Just the same, security patrols were stepped up outside French Jewish community institutions over Passover after President Jacques Chirac ordered extra measures following Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in late March.

Many synagogues in central Paris had a police guard outside the building and patrols were more frequent.

The measures at Jewish institutions were in addition to France’s anti-terrorism plan, which already had raised alerts to a high “red” level at sensitive sites such as airports.

In Britain, many Jews were trying to live as normally as possible while remaining aware of potential threats.

“I’m aware of the threat everyday. I take care, but I won’t let it stop me from going to Jewish events,” London resident Richard Cohn said.

Cohn, who spends much of his social time in pubs and clubs frequented by other young Jewish people, says he won’t give the terrorists a victory by staying away from Jewish events and buildings.

The community’s official security organization, the Community Security Trust, raised its alert warning to its highest level at the end of last year. The last time the trust warned the threat of attack was so high was when both the Israeli Embassy and a building housing Jewish and Israeli organizations were bombed in 1996.

“Since Al-Qaida made public its threats to attack Jewish communities two years ago, we have been on a high state of alert,” a spokesman for the trust said in an interview. “All the evidence suggests that the community faces threats from diverse sources.”

Yet well-known Jewish institutions, such as Carmelli’s kosher bakery in London’s largely Jewish Golders Green area, remain popular hangouts.

Still, some Jews are wary. Ros Narden, 29, a London-based Web site designer, says she believes Jews are threatened because of their support for Israel, and she admits avoiding situations where she feels exposed as a Jew.

“I don’t feel it’s safe to go to synagogue anymore,” she says. “Whereas I will go on the tube if I have to, I’ll try to avoid areas with lots of Jews now.”

The tube, as London’s subway system is called, has been singled out as a place where the security threat is higher.

To be sure, many European Jewish institutions have long been protected by tighter security than in North America.

In Italy, for example, security at major Jewish sites has been tight for more than 20 years, ever since a 1982 Palestinian terrorist attack on the main synagogue in Rome, which killed a young boy and injured about 100 people.

Armed police stand outside Rome’s main synagogue and Jewish school at all times, and the Jewish community offices are guarded. There also is an internal community security apparatus.

The Israeli Embassy in Rome also is heavily guarded; the block where it’s located is closed off on both ends.

About a year and a half ago, the Rome Jewish community distributed to community members a brochure called “Some Useful Advice on How to Live More Safely,” and provided a 24-hour hot line number for use in case of emergency. The booklet stated that synagogues, Jewish schools, and other Jewish centers and institutions represent potential terrorist targets, making a heightened awareness of security indispensable.

The brochure mainly reiterated guidelines and directives that have been issued in the past. But in much of Europe, traditional security measures are no longer seen as enough.

The president of Madrid’s Jewish community, Jacob Israel Garzon, says the community’s own security has been beefed up, while the Spanish authorities have been asked for additional protection.

Garzon says some Jews now are afraid to attend community activities, but he insisted that “those of us who are not afraid are more numerous.”

Garzon confirmed that plans for attacks against Jewish targets near Madrid were discovered — including an estate outside the capital called “Masada,” where the community holds youth camps and activities such as Israel Independence Day celebrations — but he sought to minimize the threat.

“For a long time now we’ve supposed that we were a target for the jihadist movement,” he said. “This only confirms what we thought.”

No specific threats have been received in Barcelona, but community spokesman Yitzhak Levy, whose two children go to the city’s heavily guarded Jewish school, says the fear is palpable — at the school and at community events.

“At Yom Hashoah there were only about 15 or 20 of us. Last year, there were 80 or 90 people,” he said.

Security concerns also affected Berlin’s Yom Hashoah commemoration.

For the second year in a row, the reading of names of some 60,000 Berlin Jews deported to their deaths during the Holocaust was held not in a public venue but inside the locked gates of the Jewish community.

Nevertheless, someone from a building facing the Jewish Community Center threw a full plastic water bottle at the volunteers reading the names. Police are investigating the incident.

In the past, the reading has taken place outside the Wittenberg Platz subway station, a shopping and transportation hub.

In the Czech Republic, Jewish leaders have been pressing state officials to provide greater protection, particularly since the Budapest terrorist plot was uncovered.

The Czech Interior Ministry already has put in place a number of measures at Jewish sites, particularly in Prague. Measures have included erecting barriers and increasing police patrols at key Jewish sites.

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities, said smaller communities outside Prague were as concerned about the continuing threat posed by skinheads and neo-Nazis as they were about terrorists. Czech Jews, he said, had become used to living with the terrorism threat since the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

“Sometimes we think that we are sitting on a barrel of gunpowder, but nothing has changed. It’s

not that we are frightened, it’s just a psychological feeling,” Kraus said.

For many Jews in Europe, particularly older ones, the recent threat is the latest in a lifetime of having to deal with danger.

“They have survived so many things,” said Tomas Jelinek, head of the Prague Jewish community. “When you’ve been standing in front of the gas chamber, what else could be more frightening?”

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