WINNIPEG – When Maxim Berent arrived for work at his family’s Winnipeg café on Feb. 1, he was greeted with a message that made his skin crawl and his heart sink.
On the fence in front of his mother’s parking spot, and across one of their business’s windows, someone had spray-painted “Jew,” an act of vandalism that struck Berent as an overt hate crime with dangerous undertones of anti-Semitic violence.
“It’s a horrible thing to target a Jewish business like this,” said Berent, 30, during an interview at the BerMax Caffé + Bistro, the restaurant his family opened in Winnipeg’s River Heights neighbourhood four years ago. “We aren’t sure who did this, but it is a very scary thing.”
Berent, who is Orthodox and wears tzitzit and a kippah, said that this is the second time in less than a month that his family’s business has been tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti. Given the restaurant’s location in a neighbourhood with a relatively high density of Jewish residents, Berent is concerned.
The first instance was reported to the Winnipeg Police Service, which, upon investigation, was unable to determine its meaning and felt it to be “typical urban graffiti,” said Const. Rob Carver. However, the second tagging “clearly says ‘Jew,’ ” he added.
Now police are investigating the incident as a hate crime. Yet Carver said it’s unlikely that the investigation will result in anything more than a charge for mischief under $5,000.
“We would like to know who did this, obviously, and that’s what the investigation is doing at this point,” he said. The graffiti “is unbelievably offensive and it makes the hair at the back of my neck stand up, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to move into an area where we can look at someone criminally. Right now, it’s offensive graffiti on a person’s building.”
Berent said he found the incident particularly troubling because it comes on the heels of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a fact that wasn’t lost on B’nai Brith Canada, which labelled the tagging as an incident of anti-Semitic vandalism.
“The first thing I said was this is very reminiscent of Nazi Germany,” said Daniel Koren, the organization’s media relations and communications manager. “And this is exactly how they identified Jewish businesses in the days leading up to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.… The difference is this is not systemic.”
The first thing I said was this is very reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
– Daniel Koren
However, B’nai Brith’s most recent audit of anti-Semitic incidents in Canada does show a stark increase in similar occurrences across the country. According to its 2017 audit, there were 1,752 recorded incidents of anti-Semitism nationwide. This included 327 instances of anti-Semitic vandalism, which increased by 107 per cent from 2016.
“While (the BerMax graffiti) is not surprising, unfortunately at this point, it’s definitely something we’ve seen more of recently,” said Koren.
Carver said the police aren’t taking the incident lightly, despite his doubts as to whether any charges will be laid. “We’ve got a detective looking at this because it is within living memory that these sorts of things got people killed,” he said, alluding to the Nazi-era labelling of Jewish businesses.
For Berent, whose family immigrated to Winnipeg in 2005 from Israel, via Ukraine, the incident – along with the spate of vandalism across Canada and the recent shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue – shows the need for more Holocaust education.
“Some people say, ‘That’s just Pittsburgh.’ But no, it’s here,” he said. “I hope this serves as a lesson for us all.”
After showing the graffiti to The CJN, Berent headed back to the café, looking for refuge from the bitter cold. A black SUV drove by and its driver rolled down the window.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” she said before driving off.
“Thank you,” he replied.