By the time I heard about the shocking and senseless murder of David Rosenzweig, it had already become an international story. It was early Sunday evening, and I was at a family dinner where CNN happened to be on in the living room. I did a double-take on the breaking news ticker at the bottom of the screen, which I could have sworn said something about the murder of a Toronto Jewish man.
"Oh, no. Not here," I thought, visions of that lone gunman at the El Al counter at LAX going through my head. But it had to be a barbaric, anti-Semitic act. Why else would CNN be interested in T.O.'s 16th homicide of the year?
Toronto police Chief Julian Fantino, who told the media Sunday that they were investigating the possibility that it was a hate crime, was largely responsible for giving the early-morning stabbing at Bathurst and Lawrence international play.
But B'nai Brith Canada also played it up. In its first press release just hours after the murder, the Jewish organization fingered Toronto "neo-Nazis" as the perpetrators and declared right off the top that this signified "open season on Canadian Jews."
Given the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and the deep sense that the plight of Israel has been misunderstood, one can see why the Jewish community would fear the worst. But it didn't help that B'nai Brith president Rochelle Wilner and executive vice-president Frank Dimant immediately politicized the tragedy by broadly linking it to Israel's critics.
"This terrible crime is the fruit of Durban, of an irresponsible press and an indifferent international community," Wilner charged.
"When they were shouting, "Kill the Jews!!' at rallies on Bloor Street, B'nai Brith Canada warned the police and the community that that brazen call would be heard in some hate-filled corners of the city," added Dimant, effectively smearing the city's Palestinian community.
The Israeli daily Ha'aretz immediately picked up on the B'nai Brith's take in its Monday edition. The murder was one of its top stories.
"According to Frank Dimant, of the B'nai Brith in Canada, an anti-Israel atmosphere has given rise to anti-Semitic activity," the paper reported.
But by Monday afternoon, when the homicide squad released photos of the lead suspect in the case, Christopher Steven McBride, and his black girlfriend, Mercedes Asante, they also told reporters there was no evidence that this was a hate-motivated crime.
There was no indication that McBride was a neo-Nazi or that he uttered anything anti-Semitic prior to attacking Rosenzweig.
Not about to let facts get in the way of a good press release, B'nai Brith on Tuesday stuck by its initial comments, even while Fantino was backing away from his.
"We are standing by our initial statement that it was a hate crime," Dimant tells me.
Without getting into details, he also suggests that he has evidence from witnesses who were at King David Pizza at the time of the murder that will show this was a hate crime.
"We have been speaking to some of the people (who were at the scene) and we will be meeting with the chief of police within the next few days to make our position very, very clear to the chief that we expect him to declare that it is a hate crime," says Dimant.
Still, Dimant argues it's academic to debate whether this was a hate-motivated crime.
"When you're looking at a totally visible Jewish establishment, with visible Jews, and when somebody comes in displaying insignia, if you will, that earmark one's ideological belief and bent and then proceeds to stab someone, I personally don't think it's necessary to scream beforehand a statement "I hate Jews,'" he says. (In fact, so far the police have not said that any of McBride's tattoos "earmarked" his "ideology.")
While there are provisions in the law for inciting hatred, the relevant section of the criminal code deals with aggravating circumstances that could increase a sentence, if there was "evidence that the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate..." However, since a first degree murder charge is fixed (life with no parole for 25 years), there would be little incentive for the Crown to prove hate, since it won't effect the sentencing.
The Canadian Jewish Congress's Bernie Farber understands how sensitive proving hate can be. A few years back, the CJC pushed the Crown to lay charges of inciting hate against skinheads who publicly intimidated Roma refugees in front of a Scarborough motel -- charges that were ultimately dismissed.
That may be why Farber told a press conference Tuesday that while he may believe in his gut the Rosenzweig murder was hate-motivated, a court of law may not.
Unlike B'nai Brith, the CJC has been more cautious and measured in its reaction to the murder. In its initial press release, congress regional chair Ed Morgan expressed shock and conveyed his condolences to the family. He didn't attempt to politicize it.
"In my opinion, it is not open season on Jews in the city of Toronto," says Len Rudner, the CJC's director of community relations, who adds, "If it turns out to be, tragically, the wrong man at the wrong time, and indeed any individual who happened to be standing there would have met the same fate, then questions about the implications of what's going on in the larger world become irrelevant."
In the absence of any other clear motivation for McBride's horrific act, it's not unreasonable for the Jewish community -- and all concerned Torontonians, for that matter -- to conclude that it was a hate crime. But by playing fast and loose with the facts, and ratcheting up the rhetoric in such a sensitive case, B'nai Brith isn't serving anyone's best email@example.com