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Rabbi says members of Vancouver synagogue were inside during arson attack

VANCOUVER — Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt said people were inside Vancouver’s Schara Tzedeck synagogue after services Thursday night when they heard a “bang” outside.

But it was a passerby who alerted the congregation that their building was on fire, Rosenblatt said, recounting what members told him as he pointed to the scorched front door on Friday morning.

“One of our members took off his jacket and threw it over the fire and extinguished it at that point, but apparently the flames had reached up towards the second story of the building. And you can see some scorch marks through the door on the other side.”

Vancouver Police are investigating the incident as arson and a possible hate crime. The fire was set intentionally and investigators believe an accelerant was used, the department said in a statement on Friday.

The force has also “mobilized additional officers to Jewish community centres, schools, and religious institutions,” it said.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver had initially said an “incendiary device” was thrown at the synagogue at about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, but an update later Friday said someone poured fuel on the front doors and set them on fire.

“This deliberate act of hate was an attempt to intimidate our Jewish community,” the federation said in a statement. “But we refuse to be intimidated or to hide.”

Damage to the synagogue was minor and no one was hurt, it said, adding police and a fire inspector searched the building before declaring it safe to be reopened.

Rosenblatt said the attack shows there is a “new permission structure” for how Jewish people are treated in Canada.

“My grandfather was the cantor of a synagogue that burned down on Kristallnacht,” he said, referring to the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany.

“I thought he was the last rabbi in our family to have to deal with a synagogue that was going to be torched. I guess I was mistaken.”

British Columbia Premier David Eby issued a statement saying the synagogue was “firebombed” in a deliberate act of hate and attempted intimidation.

“I urge anyone with information on this attack to share it with the police,” Eby said.

“Hate crimes that attempt to terrorize a specific community make us all less safe.”

The incident comes after bullet holes were found at two Jewish schools in Montreal and Toronto in recent days. Nobody was hurt in either incident.

A police car and an officer were outside Schara Tzedeck on Friday morning, and there was a strong smell of burning inside the synagogu. But the charring did not appear to have made it far inside the front doors.

“We’re glad we didn’t wake up to a pile of ashes,” Rosenblatt said, adding he was struck there was no attempt to make the attack “clandestine.”

“Somebody decided it was OK to just walk up these stairs,” he said. “You could have picked a spot on the back of the synagogue.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the attack a “disgusting act of antisemitism.”

Trudeau said on social media platform X: “A synagogue in Vancouver was attacked last night in another disgusting act of antisemitism. We cannot let this hate or these acts of violence stand. This is not the Canada we want to be.”

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim described the attack as “heinous” in a statement, adding that police “will not rest” until the suspect in the case faces justice.

Canada’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, Deborah Lyons, called it “horrible news” and said “incendiary rhetoric leads to incendiary violence.”

Lyons said on social media that it is “past time to stand up” against the incidents.

“Three Jewish institutions in three major cities this week have been attacked, and more over the months since Hamas’s horrific massacre on Oct. 7. There is no excuse for silence or inaction,” she said in her comments posted online.

The law must be enforced and “incidents of hate” could not go unanswered, she said.

“It means that incitement and violent rhetoric must be met with consequences. It means that capitulation to unreasonable or threatening demands must end.”

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, an outspoken voice against antisemitism, called on his party to change the Criminal Code in response to the rash of violent incidents targeting Jewish gathering places.

“At this point, condemnation is not enough,” Housefather said in a speech to the House of Commons Friday, citing the incidents in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

“All levels of government need to do more, immediately.”

He suggested creating safe zones around schools and places of worship where protests are not allowed, just as the government did for hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The idea was also floated in Toronto months ago by a local city councillor.

Housefather also called for the group Samidoun and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of Iran’s military, to be labelled as terrorist groups.

The foreign affairs minister has asked Public Safety Canada to explore the possibility of listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization, but Trudeau raised concerns it would punish Canadians who were drafted into Iran’s military by force.

Housefather’s comments were met with a standing ovation in the House.

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement saying it was “appalled by last night’s violent attack against a Vancouver synagogue.”

“This marks the third such incident in the past six days in Canada, following shootings at Jewish schools in Toronto and Montreal. This comes as the country continues to experience surging anti-Jewish incidents since the Hamas atrocities in Israel last October.”

“Absolutely appalled by last night’s violent attack against a Vancouver synagogue,” centre president Michael Levitt said on X, adding, “when is enough, enough?”

Liberal MP Taleeb Noormohamed said on X that he was “furious” to hear about the incident in his riding, which encompasses the synagogue.

“There is no justification for a synagogue to be attacked. None,” he said.

Vancouver resident Alex Agulyansky said members of the local Jewish community have been increasingly on edge since last October, when Hamas militants attacked Israel and killed some 1,200 people while taking about 250 hostages.

In response, Israel launched its war in Gaza, where the Health Ministry says attacks have since killed 36,000 Palestinians, including both combatants and civilians.

While Agulyansky, who is Jewish, isn’t a member of the Schara Tzedeck synagogue, he said it was a centre for the entire community, offering events and programs for children.

“My first reaction is, of course, about kids and what’s next,” he said. “It’s not the one thing that all of a sudden happened out of the blue.

“It’s been developing over the last seven, eight months. And this is the result of it.”

Masha Kleiner, another Vancouver Jewish resident, said she fears that rising instances of antisemitism will spill over beyond Jewish institutions if governments do not take stronger steps to protect the community.

“We shouldn’t only be concerned as a Jewish community,” Kleiner said. “It always starts with the Jews, it never ends with the Jews. So for example, my child attends a public school, not a Jewish school. But I’m still concerned because the violence always escalates, and it may happen to anyone.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2024.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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