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Comparisons Made to Nazi Germany After Arson at Montreal Jewish School

April 9, 2004
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Police here have tightened security at local synagogues and mosques following an arson this week that destroyed most of a Jewish school’s library.

The heightened security came as some parents of students at United Talmud Torah’s elementary school said the attack was reminiscent of book burnings in Nazi Germany.

Official condemnation of Monday’s predawn firebombing of the library, in which most of the books were damaged or ruined, came quickly.

Politicians, community leaders and letters to the editor all condemned the attack.

The city’s Sun Youth community organization has offered a $15,000 cash reward to anyone who provides information leading to the arrests of the perpetrators.

Police reportedly had leads into the perpetrators’ identities, but say they don’t know the group that claimed responsibility on a note left at the school.

The note linked the attack to Israel’s recent assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and implied that further attacks would follow.

A local resident was awoken by the fire and filmed it with his digital camera. The footage is being examined by authorities.

David Birnbaum, executive director of the Quebec Region of the Canadian Jewish Congress told JTA that top community officials had met early Monday morning to discuss their reaction to the situation.

Birnbaum chairs a security coordinating committee that involves Montreal’s major Jewish institutions and the city’s police force.

“First and foremost, we are making sure our institutions are safe,” Birnbaum said. “This is the kind of thing, sadly, that we have to be prepared for.”

He also stressed that it’s not solely the responsibility of the Jewish community.

“This is something that should concern parents of schoolchildren city-wide, as well as all of our political leaders. We know we don’t stand alone on this,” he said.

B’nai Brith Canada issued a statement Monday calling on the government to do more to protect Jewish sites.

“We acknowledge and appreciate the condemnation by politicians of all backgrounds,” but “words are meaningless if not accompanied by action,” said Frank Dimant, the group’s executive vice president.

The incident occurred a few weeks after a rash of anti-Semitic incidents, including graffiti spray painted on homes, in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto.

Birnbaum said Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Ottawa about 10 days ago with members of major Jewish organizations, who expressed their concern about a growing tide of anti-Semitism in Canada.

The groups included Canadian Jewish Congress, B’nai Brith Canada, United Israel Appeal, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the leadership of several of Canada’s Jewish federations.

Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler visited the burned school as Martin’s emissary.

Cotler graduated from United Talmud Torah, making this extremely personal for the international human rights lawyer.

“What we have witnessed here today is the anti-Semitism of hate and of racism,” Cotler said.

“We will not be silenced,” he continued. “We will not be intimidated and we will act. We will bring the full force of the law to bear on those who would commit these cowardly acts of racist hate crimes.”

The government is finishing a plan to establish a hate crimes police force across the country and to establish initiatives to combat racist attitudes, Cotler said.

Cotler described the plan as “an effective and comprehensive approach” that will help to “mobilize a constituency of conscience in this country.”

On Tuesday, leading politicians, including the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, also issued statements of condemnation and support for the Jewish community. Members of Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously condemned the incident.

The heads of two leading Islamic organizations, Salam Elmenyawi, of the Muslim Council of Montreal, and Mohamed Elmasry, of the Canadian Islamic Congress, condemned the attack. Elmasry called it a hate crime, adding that “the agony will be double if it was committed by a Muslim.”

The St. Laurent district, where the school is located, has a large number of residents of Arab descent, a community that has experienced rapid growth in recent years. Historically, many Jews have lived there as well.

Parents of students were especially fearful of the ramifications of Monday’s attack.

“It was terrible,” Joel Greenberg, a parent of a child at the school, told JTA. “The library is gone, its books completely burned or smoke damaged, and the entire building reeks of smoke.

“My sons are in shock and so am I. I am very worried about their safety from here on in.”

Another parent, Zev Mestel, likened the incident to “the ’40s in Germany.”

This is the first time a Jewish institution in Montreal has been firebombed.

Earlier anti-Semitic acts have been confined to graffiti on synagogues or vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. A mentally unbalanced man unsuccessfully tried to torch a synagogue in Quebec City several years ago. This same school had swastikas painted on the building a few years ago.

Shelley Paris, public relations director for the school, said school officials were heartened by the support they are receiving from the community.

“Parents and teachers, as well as community members, have been offering help to get the library up and running and the school on its feet,” she said.

More and more members of the public are coming out in support of the Jewish community and the school.

The principal of another Jewish day school in Montreal offered to give the school some books, and a leading Toronto book publisher, Kids Can Press, also said it would replace some of the books.

Dominic Spiridigliozzi, chairman of the English Montreal School Board, pledged to try to help the students, either by providing books or allowing them access to other school libraries in the area.

One man on a local radio talk show commented on a sign held in front of the school by one parent at a protest of more than 200 people Monday morning.

“You can burn our books, but you can’t burn our sprit,” the sign read.

“I am here to tell the people who did this that you can’t burn our books, either,” the man said. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I want to buy a book for the students of this school, and I challenge all of your listeners to do the same.”

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