Federal Agents Comb for Clues in Arson Attacks on 3 Synagogues
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Federal Agents Comb for Clues in Arson Attacks on 3 Synagogues

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More than 100 federal agents are searching for clues in last Friday’s arson attacks on three Sacramento-area synagogues, considered one of the worst anti-Semitic hate crimes of the past 20 years.

The predawn attacks targeted Congregation B’nai Israel and Congregation Beth Shalom, both Reform temples, and the Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue. Total damage was estimated at close to $1 million.

At two of the sites, arsonists left leaflets that blamed the “International Jew World Order” and the “International Jewsmedia” for the war in Kosovo.

“We are Slavs, we will never allow the International Jew World Order to take our Land,” read one flier. “We fight to keep Serbia free forever.”

Hardest hit was B’nai Israel in downtown Sacramento, whose gutted library lost 5,000 books, some hundreds of years old. Also destroyed were 300 videotapes on Jewish history, which the congregation had been collecting for its 150th anniversary celebration in October. Damages were estimated at $800,000.

B’nai Israel is believed to be the oldest American synagogue west of the Mississippi River.

Congregants defiantly held Friday evening services in a community theater and applauded Rabbi Brad Bloom’s injunction, “Do not be afraid.”

At Beth Shalom, vandals broke in through a side window and started a fire on the bimah, causing $100,000 in damage. Earlier this year, the temple’s walls had been defaced by painted swastikas. Beth Shalom congregants held services Saturday morning at a nearby Conservative synagogue.

At Kenesset Israel, it appeared that a Molotov cocktail was lobbed through a sliding glass door. Smoke damage was estimated at $30,000. Congregants attended services Friday evening in a private home.

The synagogue attacks, at locations up to 10 miles apart, occurred within a 35- minute time span, leading officials to assume that more than one person must have been involved.

Seventy agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and 30 from the FBI are leading the investigation. The ATF sent its National Response Team, a mobile investigative unit of chemists, structural engineers and police dogs dispatched for major incidents, such as the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the World Trade Center in New York.

“These are our cream of the crop of investigators when it comes to fire and explosives investigations,” ATF spokeswoman Sheree Mixell told the Sacramento Bee.

California Gov. Gray Davis ordered all law enforcement officials in the state capital to assist the federal efforts and called the “despicable hate crimes” an “offense to all decent people.”

Members of B’nai Israel reacted to the incident with both concern and defiance.

“It’s incidents like these that remind Jewish people and other ethnic minorities how vulnerable they can be, even in safe communities like Sacramento,” said attorney Steve Merksamer.

Judie Panneton, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, said the attacks “tell you that anti-Semitism is still alive and not a thing of the past. But we are a strong people. We have been through hell and back before, and we’ll survive this.”

At Friday evening services in the theater, B’nai Israel librarian Poshi Mikalson held up a charred book. “I promise you, from these ashes we will rise again,” she promised, as congregants cheered.

There have been 39 arson attacks against synagogues and Jewish institutions in the past five years, according to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is one of the worst attacks since we began keeping records 20 years ago,” he said.

“What is so distressing is the resiliency of anti-Semitism,” Foxman added. “Nazism is gone, fascism is gone, communism is gone and yet anti-Semitism is still here. It’s been around for 2,000 years and it continues to pollute our environment.”

ADL, which has been monitoring hate groups in the Sacramento area for the past few months, found them using similar propaganda themes to those used in the attacks, blaming Jews for the NATO bombings of “Serbian Christians.”

The flier left behind at Kenesset Israel denounced the “North Atlantic Terrorist Organization,” adding that “the fake Albanian refugee crisis was manufactured by the International Jewsmedia to justify the terrorizing, the bestial bombing of our Yugoslavia back into the dark ages.”

The text was accompanied by a cartoon of bombs raining down on President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The Rev. Dobrivoje Milunovic, pastor of Sacramento’s Serbian Orthodox Church of the Assumption, said the 250 families in his church had “nothing to do with this act of terror, this act of hate.

“Our prayers and thoughts are with the members of the Jewish congregations whose temples have been burned.”

In San Francisco, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he had contacted the Hate Crime Unit of the San Francisco police department to request an appropriate level of heightened alert for Bay Area synagogues over the weekend.

B’nai Israel was previously targeted in 1993, when the temple was damaged in a spate of fire bombings that also struck the offices of African American and Japanese organizations, and the home of a Chinese city councilman. An 18-year old white supremacist was convicted in the case and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

On Sunday, the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported that two private citizens have posted a total of $35,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonists. Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla is offering $25,000 and Michael Swebner, an Israeli-born businessman, is offering $10,000.

Federal authorities are asking anybody with information on the arsons to call 800-435-7883 or 888-ATF-FIRE.

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