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Anti-Israel letters found at site
report: Justice minister appalled
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
MONTREAL - Irwin Cotler, the federal Justice Minister, remembers enduring the "anti-Semitism of ignorance" when he was a child growing up in Montreal in the late 1940s. He and his schoolmates at United Talmud Torah School regularly tasted the prejudice directed at Jews by a society that viewed them as outsiders.
But it was nothing compared to the poison spread early yesterday when, on the eve of Passover, the school Mr. Cotler remembers as his "home away from home" was firebombed and anti-Semitic leaflets were posted at the entrance. "This is where I was taught. This is where I grew up. This is where I was nurtured," Mr. Cotler said after a sombre news conference in the gymnasium of the elementary school.
"I mean anti-Semitism is not something new to me. But this kind of racist hate, this kind of violence, an attack of this nature, that was never something that we could have contemplated at that time as students."
Montreal police would not divulge the contents of the letters found taped to the school when firefighters arrived before dawn to fight the fire in the school library, but the words were enough for police to classify the fire as a hate crime.
The Ottawa Citizen is reporting that a "warning" note left outside the school says the attack was intended as retaliation for Israel's assassination last month of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of the Hamas terrorist group.
Television news reports last night said the note warned: "Our goal was only to sound the alarm without causing deaths ... but this is just a beginning. If your crimes continue in the Middle East, our attacks will continue."
Yves Surprenant, an assistant director with the police department, said the attack was the most serious incident of anti-Semitic violence he has seen in 24 years on the force. Nobody was injured in the blaze, which left the library a charred ruin but did not spread to the rest of the school.
The alarm company called the school's maintenance workers at about 2:15 a.m. to report the fire.
By the time Sidney Benudiz, director-general of United Torah Talmud Schools, got to the school, the fire was out and the police had started an investigation.
The act was immediately denounced by religious and political leaders, including Paul Martin, the Prime Minister. "We must all utterly condemn this cowardly and racist act, and draw together to fight such an abomination which, like cancer, undermines the harmonious relations among diverse communities that make Canada an example throughout the world," he said in a statement.
Jean Charest, the Quebec Premier, called the arson intolerable. "Burning a school is in itself a vile act, because it touches the future of our society, but when it is done in the name of racism and intolerance, every Quebecer must stand up and denounce it to ensure this never happens again," he said in a statement.
"It's an act of terrorism, plain and simple," Mr. Benudiz said.
Other Jewish institutions in Montreal were expected to boost security and police said they would keep an extra watch on Muslim mosques, as well.
Muslim organizations also issued statements.
"Montreal's Muslim community will be the first to speak out against this hate as everyone is hurt when these types of actions take place," Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said in a written statement.
Nobody's indignation could match that of Mr. Cotler. When he was a student, the school -- now in the Saint-Laurent borough of Montreal -- was in another section of the city, but he spoke yesterday as a graduate worried for the children following in his footsteps.
In his day, he said, "Students did not have to go to a school fearing that they would be firebombed. Students did not have to go to a school fearing that they would be targeted. Students did not have to go to school seeing the face of racist hate as we've witnessed today."
Matthew Cadoch, 12, a Grade 6 student at United Talmud Torah, saw that face of hate first-hand yesterday as he visited the school with his mother. He ventured into the sooty library to extract a book that had not been burned: Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: How Jewish Boys and Girls Come of Age.
Matthew will celebrate his Bar Mitzvah next year, but in some ways the attack on his school brought a premature coming of age.
"Even if all our books are gone, we will still be the same as before, the same Jews, the same people we were before," he said.
But his bravery has limits. "Sometimes I feel a bit scared that people are able to do this, that people actually have a place in their body to get them to do this. It's kind of scary."
Nearby his mother, Osnat Bitton, watched her boy being interviewed. She is the school secretary, and her 10-year-old daughter attends the school. Already this year, the school was hit by vandals who spray-painted swastikas on the wall. She said she is saddened by such intolerance and fears for her children and the other students.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she said, there has been an increased awareness in the Jewish community that they are favoured targets of Islamist terrorists.
"We realize that there isn't a place anywhere that's perfectly safe," she said. And that makes what should be a mundane part of her job as school secretary nerve-wracking. She is one of the people responsible for buzzing in the roughly 100 people who seek to enter the school on any given day. A camera shows her who is at the door, but sometimes it is hard to be certain.
"I'm always afraid that I'm going to let that one person in. It's always on my mind," she said.
The firebombing of the school follows a spate of anti-Semitic vandalism in Toronto. Three teenagers were charged there after vandals knocked over headstones at a Jewish cemetery and spray-painted anti-Semitic slogans. In a separate incident, a 46-year-old man was arrested for spray-painting a Star of David, an equals sign and a swastika at a construction site.
The target and the timing of the Montreal attack, on the eve of the holiday that celebrates the flight of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, was particularly painful.
"For us Jews, to see books burning, it brings back very painful memories of what took place before the Second World War in Nazi Germany," Mr. Benudiz said.
© National Post 2004
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