Strangers to terror, Bulgarian Jews reeling from attack

sofia, bulgaria  |  Until this week, leaders of this country’s small, generally placid Jewish community said they felt untouched by hate crimes or terrorism.

But after the July 18 suicide bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in the Black Sea city of Burgas, Bulgarian Jews 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. “Things will have to change from now on.”

The explosion outside an airport in Burgas killed five Israeli 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. An accomplice of the suicide bomber reportedly is likely to still be in Bulgaria, possibly with another bomb.

Israeli ZAKA emergency rescue team examines the remains of the bus at the scene of the terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 19. photo/jta-flash90-dano monkotovic

The accomplice is believed to have been a backup for the suicide bomber, the Bulgarian news site reported. Another accomplice was set to shoot the other two if they were captured by or turned themselves in to police, and both reportedly were at the airport during the July 18 attack.

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, but security measures will now be tightened. “The situation needs to be improved,” he said.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said 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.

The changes 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. This week, a summer camp for Jewish children in Bulgaria was scheduled to open. 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.’”

The flow of Israeli tourists into Bulgaria picked up in 2009, following the deterioration in Israel’s relations 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 the 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.

Though Bulgaria has a pro-Israel foreign policy, she said, “Israel is always mentioned in a negative context in Bulgaria.” The terrorists picked her country, she said, “because they sought for the weakest link in the European Union, and they found it.”

Some observers worry 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 historically have been “peaceful and friendly,” said Benvenisti of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria.

The day after the attack, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said of the bomber, “We cannot exclude the possibility that he had logistical support on Bulgarian territory.” He declined to elaborate.

Representatives of Bulgaria’s Muslim community issued strong condemnations of the attack, as did representatives of other ethnic and religious groups and associations.

Bulgaria’s chief mufti, in an official statement to the Bulgarian media, denounced the attack as a “barbarian act” and expressed condolences to the families of the victims.

Despite the attack, some Israelis visiting Bulgaria are undeterred.

Rabbi Yossi Halperin of Varna — a city 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.”

Cnaan Liphshiz
reported for this story from the Hague, and Dianna Cahn contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.