Second suspect arrested in mosque arson


A second suspect was arrested in connection with the burning of a mosque in a Bedouin-Arab town in northern Israel.

Few details have been released about the second suspect, who reportedly is a resident of the West Bank. He was scheduled to appear Monday in a Tel Aviv court for a hearing on extending his remand.

An 18-year old Jewish man from northern Israel was arrested hours after the Oct. 2 torching of the main mosque of the Upper Galilee town of Tuba Zanghariya. He reportedly studied at a West Bank yeshiva.

Both suspects are suspected of “direct involvement” in the arson attack, Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told news agencies.

Jewish Arsonist Worked for Paris Center


French Jewish leaders fear they may have cried wolf once too often after a Jew was arrested in connection with the well-publicized arson of a Jewish community center in central Paris.

Paris police say a 52-year-old Jewish man arrested Monday morning in connection with the Aug. 22 torching of the Judaeo-Spanish social center in the capital’s 11th district is the principal suspect in the arson.

Police said the man, identified only as "Raphael B." and described as unstable, is a former caretaker at the institution who had received free meals in return for his volunteer activities.

It is believed that the center wanted to part company with the man, provoking what police think was an act of vengeance.

Investigators found keys to the center at the man’s former rented apartment. This discovery tied in with earlier evidence, including the fact that the burned building’s front door was damaged from the inside during the arson, rather than being forced from the exterior.

The arrest shocked community leaders who had successfully mobilized the French political establishment to condemn what appeared to be an anti-Semitic attack.

Moise Cohen, president of the Paris Consistoire — the country’s principal Jewish religious group and the organization that owns the burned building — was sharply critical of community leaders he said had reacted "without taking the necessary precautions."

"From the beginning we thought this wasn’t normal," Cohen said. "The building is in a very quiet neighborhood and there was no indication on the outside that it was a former synagogue. From the start of the investigation, the police thought it was someone connected to the institution."

Cohen was equally scathing about politicians "who fear they’re going to be accused of not doing enough" to tackle anti-Semitism — though in part they have become zealous in their condemnations following stinging criticism that they weren’t taking anti-Semitism seriously enough.

In the aftermath of the attack, Jewish leaders sought to link the incident to recent cases in which judges had been lenient with anti-Semitic offenders.

The Jewish community could have been excused had its cries of anti-Semitism been isolated to one attack that turned out to have different motives. But the recent arson is only the latest example of politicians and community leaders reacting to an event with horror, only to have to ask questions later.

In July, an incident in which a young woman claimed she and her baby were attacked on a suburban train drew fierce condemnations from politicians and religious leaders — until it was discovered that the woman had made up the story.

Similarly, the recent knifing of a yeshiva student in the Paris suburbs also apparently was not motivated by anti-Semitism. And police still are investigating claims by a rabbi that he was stabbed outside his synagogue in January 2003, as reports allege that the rabbi may have stabbed himself.

Less in the media spotlight is the burning last November of an unoccupied annex of a Jewish school in the Parisian suburb of Gagny. It looks less and less likely that the incident was motivated by anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, for Jewish organizations and for the government, these cases are merely isolated incidents in a tide of nearly 300 reported acts of anti-Semitism in France since the beginning of 2004.

Roger Benarroch, vice president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry, said that last week’s arson and the reaction to it should "not cause us to lose sight of the essential, that the climate of anti-Semitism makes these things credible."

But he admitted that such events "give our detractors, and the anti-Semites, an excuse to doubt us."

Similar comments came from France’s Union of Jewish Students, a group in the vanguard of the fight against anti-Semitism.

However, certain groups were critical of what they regard as Israel’s exploitation of the arson incident, which came just weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on French Jews to leave the country "immediately" because of rising anti-Semitism.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom flew hastily to Paris to hold talks with government officials and Jewish leaders following the arson, and to visit the destroyed center.

Benarroch sharply criticized the visit, saying that "the Israelis should be more careful" and "shouldn’t meddle in the internal affairs of the community."

However, Shalom last week was considerably more nuanced about the arson attack than many community leaders.

Visiting the burned-out building, Shalom told reporters "we should leave the French authorities to conduct their investigation." He added that it was "of little importance what happened here when we know that during the last six months there have been more than 170 anti-Semitic incidents [in France].

The Consistoire’s Cohen, though, issued a warning to the Jewish community.

"Sixty years after the Shoah, every anti-Semitic incident rightly goes to the community’s head," he said. "When you cry wolf, you need to be very careful and ever vigilant. We are becoming less and less credible."

Fire Attacks Target Two Encino Shuls


Some 65 detectives from the anti-terrorist and other divisions of the Los Angeles Police Department have been assigned to investigate arson attacks on two synagogues and two other houses of worship in Encino.

Early Wednesday morning, apparently a single perpetrator hurled an incendiary device through a stained-glass window of the sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), one of the city’s leading Conservative congregations.

The device landed only 10 feet from the ark holding five Torah scrolls and set fire to a carpet. The smoke triggered the automatic sprinklers, dousing the fire but causing some water damage.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the congregation’s spiritual leader, praised the quick work of the custodians.

“Without any instructions, these men and women, mainly Hispanic Catholics, rushed to the ark and carried the scrolls to safety,” he said.

Two days earlier, arson had struck the Iranian Synagogue, a storefront congregation on Ventura Boulevard, singeing the roof. A passerby called the fire department, which prevented further damage. No one could be reached at the synagogue.

The same day, an arson fire was set at the Baha’i Faith Community Center in the same neighborhood and, two weeks earlier, the First Presbyterian Church of Encino sustained the most damage in a similar attack.

Despite the 6:30 a.m. fire at VBS, toddlers and their parents arrived for preschool sessions a few hours later, and the morning prayer meeting proceeded normally.

However, due to the sanctuary damage, Shabbat services were to be held at another location, said Jeffrey Levine, the VBS board chairman.

Assignment of the large police force, augmented by fire department investigators, FBI and other federal agents, indicated the seriousness of the incidents in the eyes of city officials.

At a press conference outside VBS, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn pledged that the city and federal government will “not tolerate these acts of terrorism and hatred…. We will use all necessary resources to protect our houses of worship and the perpetrators will be brought to justice.”

L.A. Fire Department Chief William Bamattre said that preliminary evidence seemed to indicate that a single individual set all four fires.

Asked if there was any sign that the synagogue fires might have been set in connection with the Jewish community’s observances of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day, Bamattre said that so far there was no such evidence.

L.A. Police Chief William Bratton termed the investigation a top priority for his department and asked the public to report to police any leads or any suspicious activities around synagogues and churches.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district encompasses the four houses of worship, said he is asking the City Council to post a $25,000 reward for the apprehension and conviction of the arsonist.

Schulweis told The Journal that he was touched by the concern shown by neighbors of the synagogue. A representative of the Wells Fargo bank branch across the street showed up early in the morning to present a $5,000 check to Levine.

There have also been a series of calls from the district attorney and other municipal and county officials.

On Thursday evening, Schulweis was to convene a meeting of the entire congregation at a neighboring church or synagogue to talk about the incident and allay excessive fears.

“All of us have been religiously violated,” Schulweis told the news conference.

Rabbi Allen Freehling, representing the L.A. County Human Relations Committee, declared that “no peddler of hate can divide this community.”

Gennady Shtern, Valley director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was on the scene and pledged the full ADL resources to aid law enforcement and Jewish institutions.

The San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council has designated May 16-18 as a weekend of reconciliation for all area congregations, and announced a fund to repair the damage at the four houses of worship.

Donations and equipment should be sent to the Valley Interfaith Council, 10824 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Check should indicate “House ofworship support fund” on the memo line.

Arsonist Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana


Police have labeled as an arson-related hate crime a fire ignited early Friday at the rear door of a yet-to-open Persian synagogue in Tarzana early Friday morning is being called an arson-related hate crime. Investigators found anti-Semitic graffiti at the scene, as well as a burnt door and trash.

The attack came two days before the grand opening of Beith David Education Center’s new building. Congregants are scheduled to carry Torahs from the shul’s original location nearby at Reseda Boulevard to the new home in the 18600 block of Clark Streeton Sunday, July 9.

“I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses,” said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue’s vice president, who hopes those responsible will turn themselves in.

The blaze was started at 3 a.m. using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved to directly beneath the oak front door, according to Sgt. Jim Setzer of the LAPD’s West Valley Division. The flames were quickly extinguished by the synagogue’s fire-suppression system, which runs along the building’s eaves. Damage was limited to the door.

Hakimi said the initial damage estimate is $4,000, enough to classify the crime as a felony.

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a retaining wall of the building as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim wash their hands and feet.

A joint House of Worship Task Force that includes detectives from the LAPD’s criminal conspiracy section, L.A. Fire Department investigators, as well as FBI and ATF officials were first on the scene after a congregant living nearby called police at 6:30 a.m. Officials are still investigating and currently have no suspects.

Because construction has not been completed at Beith David, the building is presently without a security camera system. However, LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist.

Following an inquiry by the mayor’s office and City Councilman Dennis Zine, the LAPD reported that patrols of the area will be stepped up in advance of the new shul’s Sunday ceremony.

“I’m horrified to see this, especially because this is my community. It’s a very sad day,” said Fortuna Ippoliti, area director of neighborhood and community services for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“It’s probably some misguided kids,” Tarzana Neighborhood Council President Leonard Shaffer said as he looked over the scene. “It’s really ridiculous.”

The attack comes three years after a string of arsons in a nearby area targeted The Iranian Synagogue, Da’at Torah Educational Center, as well as the Conservative shul Valley Beth Shalom. There have also been attacks on the nearby First Presbyterian Church of Encino and the Baha’i Faith Community Center. Farshid Tehrani, an Iranian Jewish immigrant allegedly suffering from depression, was arrested in connection with those crimes in May 2003.

Beith David Education Center’s journey to the new location has been a long one. After a years-long battle over parking that has kept the congregation in its Reseda Boulevard location, Hakimi says nothing will stop the congregation from moving to Clark Street.

The synagogue purchased the former post-office building for $1 million in 2002, but L.A. City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle. The Tarzana Property Owners Association claimed the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a more Conservative style of worship and often drove to services. Synagogue representatives rejected the argument, saying that its congregants were Orthodox, regularly walk to the shul on Shabbat and do not need the parking.

Following City Council approval of the Clark Street site in 2004, the Beith David congregation has devoted the last year and a half and has spent a $1.2 million on renovation of the building in advance of its grand opening. Beith David has limited the advertising of the Sunday event to Radio Iran 670 AM, a local Iranian newspaper and word-of-mouth among congregants.

Like Shaffer, Beith David Vice President Hakimi believes the targeting of his synagogue was likely a hate-crime by youths and not a targeted attack related to the City Council battle or animosity toward Persians.

“This is an isolated situation, and it doesn’t reflect on the community that we live in. That is my hope,” Hakimi said. “But it’s a very sad incident.”

‘United Against Hate’


Under a giant banner that read “Sacramento United Against Hate,” some 4,500 citizens of all faiths and colors dedicated themselves to the fight against bigotry as their answer to coordinated arson attacks on three local synagogues.

More than 2,500 people crammed into the Community Center Theater Monday night, and 2,000 more listened in an adjacent auditorium, during a 2 1/2-hour rally that participants described as “electric” and “the most emotional experience of my life.”

The audience rose to its feet as California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante declared, “Tonight all of us belong to the three synagogues,” and as Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna said, “When I hear of synagogues burning, then I am a Jew.”

There were more standing ovations as the representative of an African-American housing association presented the first $10,000 check for a proposed municipal museum of tolerance, and as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated that, in future years, Sacramento would be held up as a model of how a community must respond to bigotry.

Not far from the emotion-filled scene, more than 100 federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI were painstakingly combing the three synagogue sites for evidence to link the hate crimes to their perpetrators.

Last Friday’s pre-dawn 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.

+