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The mall is a foreign novelty to Kenyans, but for the tens of thousands of Western Nairobians, Westgate — with its Israeli-owned brasserie, sushi restaurant and upscale clothing stores — offered access to familiar amenities that are hard to find in this eastern African republic.
It was the first place that Rebecca, the wife of Nairobi’s newly arrived rabbi, was taken to in Nairobi. On her blog, she described it as a pleasant spot to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee. But in an interview with JTA, she requested that her last name be withheld.
“I’m sorry, this whole business has made me a bit paranoid,” she acknowledged.
Charles Szlapak, a longtime member of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, told JTA he believed Westgate was targeted “because it represents the West and the Kenyan government’s pro-Western attitudes,” and that he had “no reason to believe it was struck because of anything connected specifically to Jews.”
But Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, a spokesman for Al Shabab — the Somalia-based wing of al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for the attack — was quoted on Sept. 25 as telling Al Jazeera: “Westgate is a place where there are Jewish and American shops. So we have to attack them.”
Szlapak, a Poland native born in the 1930s, says Jews have lived in Kenya for well over a century. Nowadays, most Jews living in Nairobi are Israeli businessmen and their families, according to Attias.
Al Shabab is presumed to have staged the attack as revenge for the involvement of Kenyan troops in the quelling of an Islamist insurgency in Somalia. It made no reference to Israel in its statements on the attack. Alex Trachtenberg, an Israeli businessman whom media reports have identified as Westgate’s owner, did not respond to requests for comment from JTA.
Westgate was among several business ventures launched by Trachtenberg in Kenya, where a growing middle class, relative stability and government incentives have attracted many foreign investors, Israelis among them. Before Westgate, Trachtenberg started a fishery, among other businesses.