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Assault on students renews worries over anti-Semitism

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Yeshivas Lubavitch in Toronto. (Google Street View)

Violent attacks on Jews in Canada are rare, but after the fatal shooting of 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last month, fears about anti-Semitism have risen.

Those fears were stoked by an attack on four teenage yeshivah students in Toronto on Nov. 11, who were targeted by a group of 10 to 12 youths, who punched and kicked them when they saw their kippot, according to Toronto police. A pair of sunglasses was stolen from one of the boys during the assault.

A 17-year-old boy has been arrested and charged with assault and robbery, Toronto police announced on Nov. 14. The youth’s name cannot be released, in accordance with the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The incident was being investigated as both a hate crime, because of the verbal slurs that were used during the assault, and as a robbery, said Det. Angela Kahnt of Toronto Police Service’s 13 Division.

Police would not comment on whether more arrests would be forthcoming.

READ: ONE YOUTH ARRESTED IN CONNECTION WITH ASSAULT ON TEENAGE YESHIVA STUDENTS IN TORONTO

Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, met with the boys, who are students at Yeshivas Lubavitch, shortly before Shabbat and said they were “in good spirits” after their ordeal.

Under Canadian law, there is no specific “hate crime” associated with assault. However, a judge can increase the sentence if there is “a proven hate intent,” Mostyn said.

“That’s why it’s important the police have signalled that they view this as an act of hate and we trust the Crown attorney will be taking the hate motivating nature of this assault and robbery (into account) as they proceed with this case,” Mostyn told The CJN.

The assault attracted attention from politicians across the city. Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted, “No one should ever be attacked for their religion. Please help Toronto police solve this hate crime/robbery investigation.”

The boys were able to “fend off anything serious,” but nonetheless, “they were very shaken up,” said Rabbi Akiva Wagner, dean of Yeshivas Lubavitch.

The four boys were walking past a small park near the yeshivah when they were assaulted by the larger group, who appeared to be “under the influence,” and some of whom were carrying broken bottles, he said.

“The boys were capable of looking out for themselves. It is the only reason they avoided something more serious,” Rabbi Wagner told The CJN.

There have been no incidents in the area for “quite a few years,” he added, but now, the school will be emphasizing that students travel in groups, “which didn’t use to be seen as a necessity in the area.”

The assault has also unsettled the neighbourhood, which is home to numerous Jewish schools and synagogues.

“There’s a heightened sensitivity after what happened in Pittsburgh, obviously,” said Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim, a nearby Orthodox synagogue. “We’re hearing a lot of conversations about security, both internal within the walls of the congregation, but outside as well.”

Parents are already taking precautions, he said, such as walking their teenagers home after a Friday evening program instead of letting them walk unaccompanied.

“I don’t get the sense that people are not going to participate fully in Jewish life. I think that there’s a recognition we cannot allow the anti-Semites to win by somehow changing our pride in who we are and our willingness to engage Jewishly. But at the same time, we’re going to put in as many protections as we can to reasonably make sure our loved ones are not at risk,” he said.

The assault highlights the underlying problem of hate speech and incitement, issues which B’nai Brith has long argued are not treated seriously enough by the courts and government.

“Anti-Jewish derogatory comments, pro-Adolf Hitler comments … made while physically assaulting visibly Jewish youth, this is something very disturbing and something that B’nai Brith has been warning about for many years,” said Mostyn. “This is why we’re so concerned with hate speech in our society – hate speech that is of an inciting nature against our community.”

Violence against Jews in Canada is “quite rare,” he said, “but the fact that it is rare doesn’t mean you can let up vigilance. We don’t want Canada to become a country where violence against Jews is accepted as a part of daily life.”

Jews remain the most targeted minority group for hate crimes, according to police statistics.

According to B’nai Brith’s national audit of anti-Semitic incidents, reports of vandalism doubled from 2016 to 2017, from 158 to 327 cases recorded, while violent incidents increased from 11 to 16.

While the numbers for 2018 have not been compiled, Mostyn said it seems unlikely that the trend will be reversed.

Anyone with information, or who may have surveillance videos of the area, is asked to call Toronto police at 416-808-1300, or Crime Stoppers at 416-222-8477.