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Arrests Follow Anti-semitic Attacks in Toronto, but Community is Shaken

April 1, 2004
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Canadian Jewish officials are cautiously optimistic that a spree of anti-Semitic vandalism that has shocked Toronto over the past two weeks has ended with the arrests of three youths.

But they note that the attacks are symptomatic of a trend in Canadian society that has seen the number of anti- Semitic attacks double in the past two years.

The wave of attacks began two weeks ago when spray-painted swastikas and hate messages were discovered on 13 homes and vehicles in a Jewish neighborhood in the Toronto area.

Days later, seven stained-glass windows at the Pride of Israel Synagogue were broken, the Eitz Chaim school and B’nai Torah Synagogue were vandalized, and a row of United Jewish Appeal signs and a clothing donation box were defaced.

Working under cover of darkness, perpetrators next struck the Bathurst-Lawn Jewish cemetery, toppling 27 tombstones, breaking benches and tearing down plaques and a menorah. The cemetery association has said it will cover the roughly $20,000 in repair costs.

In ensuing attacks, a Jewish family received telephoned hate messages, a Lubavitch Synagogue was pelted with eggs and more sites were spray-painted.

Steven Vandermey, 18, and two unidentified 15-year-old offenders were arrested this week on charges that could put them in jail for months or even years.

Bernie Farber, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Ontario Region, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at a press conference Wednesday as he thanked police for their commitment to solving the rash of crimes.

“If there’s anything that’s going to send a message to hate mongers, it’s a quick arrest,” said Farber, who shared the podium with Police Chief Julian Fantino.

Identified as a result of a tip from the public, the three are charged with mischief under $5,000, mischief over $5,000 and mischief against religious property.

Farber has urged the Ontario attorney general to consider initiating hate crime charges against the trio.

An Iranian-born man also was charged with mischief last week after he was caught spraying anti-Jewish messages at a downtown construction site. Two teenagers also were charged with making harassing and anti-Semitic phone calls that included death threats.

Concerned that the crimes could inspire copycat acts, Jewish officials organized a community rally last week that attracted a diverse crowd of about 3,000 to the Bathurst Jewish Community Center.

“We wanted to deliver a strong message that attacks that target one community for hate are not acceptable here,” Farber said.

Representatives of nearly every faith and ethnic group in the city, as well as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Toronto Mayor David Miller and many other politicians, religious leaders and police chiefs, sent messages of support to the Jewish community.

Solidarity messages also came from Prime Minister Paul Martin and members of the federal House of Commons, where a motion condemning the Toronto attacks and supporting the fight against global anti-Semitism passed unanimously.

One local church group even offered to post United Jewish Appeal signs on its front lawn.

“This was probably the most important ethno-cultural rally of its kind in the history of the city of Toronto,” Farber said. “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I can’t remember a rally that has brought together so many diverse communities to stand together as one to offer comfort and support to a community under siege.”

Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, was equally enthusiastic about the country’s united front against hatred.

“If the politicians and police in France had responded a few years ago to the threats to the Jewish community in the way that the Canadian politicians have responded, the climate there would never have deteriorated into the unfortunate situation that exists right now,” he said.

Police officials in Toronto and the neighboring York Region had put officers who patrol near Jewish sites on high alert. The police chief of each jurisdiction had posted a reward of $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Heartened by the massive show of solidarity — including a second rally of 1,400 high school students — Jewish leaders still are still troubled by the incidents and by a recent B’nai Brith finding that the number of reported anti- Semitic attacks across Canada has doubled since 2001.

The recent outbreak “is symptomatic of a more insidious undercurrent that exists in our society right now,” B’nai Brith spokesperson Joseph Ben Ami said. “I’m not sure that people really appreciate how widespread this intolerance is, how deeply rooted it’s and what’s feeding it. We have to start taking a good hard look at where this stuff is coming from.”

Dimant and others have speculated that Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened here several weeks ago, might have influenced the perpetrators to target the Jewish community.

However, “it’s too early to say whether the film had an effect,” Dimant said.

With trials pending, police declined to comment on the apparent motives of the accused.

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