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Around the Jewish World As Rio Suffers Crime Wave, Jews Wonder if They’re Potential Targets

May 7, 2003
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When he was six months old, Victor Grinbaum and his father were kidnapped.

Now 23, Grinbaum has gotten used to seeing stoplight robberies at gunpoint, shootings and assaults as a drug-fueled crime wave marks the daily lives of Cariocas, as natives of Rio are known.

To date, Grinbaum and other Jews have not come under specifically anti-Semitic fire, but some expect that could happen — while others are still reeling from a kind of wanton terror that local police seem unable or unwilling to fight.

“I would feel much safer in a country where there is terrorism but there are also well-armed forces to fight it, unlike here, where police are corrupt, incompetent, impotent,” he says.

Grinbaum is part of the 40,000-strong Jewish community in Brazil’s second largest city and top tourist spot, where many have been forced to live under virtual lock and key as crime from neighboring slums spills over into other areas.

Witness: In the early hours of April 1, gangs riddled Rio’s major tourist attraction, a cable car that carries tourists to the statue of Jesus at the Corcovado hill, with gunfire. The site is close to the city’s Hebraica club.

Meanwhile, someone threw two homemade bombs at the Le Meridien hotel. “If I was in Iraq, I think I would be safer,” one tourist told the daily newspaper O Globo.

In simultaneous attacks the same night, buses burned in the city’s poor, violent northern zone; a police officer was killed on a major expressway; and several cars were shot at.

The night before, gunfire and Molotov cocktails hit a subway station and a mall in the same region.

Journalist Marcia Sasson, who lives just a few blocks from the Le Meridien in the elegant seafront Copacabana district, where 3,500 Jewish families reside, does not feel safe even leaving home.

“There is a true danger when we go to the synagogue or when my daughter goes to school,” she says.

Bombings and shootings have grown common here, and so-called “lost bullets” from errant gunfire are killing people randomly.

Some, like Sasson, say the violence could turn against Jews.

“I believe that Jews are placed in the line of fire every time some wave of violence or terrorism starts,” she says. “Intolerant groups such as skinheads take advantage of any uproar to attack the ones that they consider different and undesirable.”

Rio’s largest synagogue, the 900-family Reform congregation Associacao Religiosa Israelita, is not far from Le Meridien.

Shortly after the 1994 bombing of the AMIA community center in Argentina, ARI’s directors decided to replace a fragile waist-high metal fence at its entrance with a higher cement wall and to install a security guard.

“Because most Jews belong to a higher social class, we are most susceptible to being targeted by urban violence,” Grinbaum says. “On the other hand, Jews have more ways to protect themselves, such as living in closed condominiums, riding armored cars and even hiring bodyguards.”

Even with such precautions, most Jews are “exposed to the same risks as the rest of the city dwellers,” he says.

Grinbaum has just moved out of Tijuca, the neighborhood where he’d lived for most of his life, but one where a 14-year-old girl recently was shot at a subway entrance when she was allowed to attend school alone for the first time.

“I am scared but I try not to panic. If I do, I’ll become paranoid and I won’t leave home anymore,” he says.

Not everyone feels Jews are potential targets.

Renato Guertzenstein, president of the Brazilian Israelite Club, says the club remains safe.

In part, that’s because it receives police protection, and in part because it welcomes Jews and non-Jews alike.

The club “is the main meeting point of all of Copacabana’s non-Jewish community organizations,” he says. ” We live hand-to-hand with the society. There is no better way that we can feel fully protected.”

Guertzenstein is so sure that Jews won’t be singled out that he recently affixed a big silver Star of David to the club’s entrance, facing the street.

“I am definitely not fearful. All Copacabana residents know that we are a Jewish house that is open to everyone. I don’t believe that an anti-Semitic attack would strike us,” he said.

Osias Wurman, president of the Rio de Janeiro State Jewish Federation, also does not fear anti-Semitism, though he has become a crime victim.

He has been robbed in his office, and his car was stolen.

“We Jews are part of the broader society. Therefore we are subject to this moment of gravity,” he says.

As if living with crime were not enough, the war in Iraq heightened Jewish tensions.

Wurman says security was beefed up at all 52 Jewish institutions under the Jewish federation after the war began in March.

“As a Jew,” adds Grinbaum, “I am today more concerned about the anti-Semitic wave caused by the war in Iraq.”

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