From the Editor: Hate crime or not, Winnipeg story was a tragic case

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

On the night of Thursday, April 18, police in Winnipeg, Manitoba, responded to a call at what was described in reports as “a kosher restaurant.”

A woman inside the BerMax Caffé and Bistro had allegedly been assaulted during a robbery attempt – later reports identified the alleged victim as one of the café’s owners. The restaurant appeared to have been badly vandalized and the word “Jew” was spray-painted on windows and in the parking lot, and swastikas were spray-painted on the walls.

The police opened a hate crime investigation into the incident. Reports said this was the fourth anti-Semitic incident at this restaurant in the past five months. The case was widely reported in both mainstream and Jewish media around the world – we published several JTA reports about it on the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin website.

Six days later, police laid charges in the case. And, no, the alleged culprits were not extremist right-wing hate-mongers or left-wing anti-Zionism zealots. The police charged the owners of the café – Alexander and Oxana Berent and their son, Maxim – with staging the incident.

Although the charge was public mischief, the word “mischief” sounds almost benign in a case that Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said was a serious waste of police resources.

“Over 25 officers have invested nearly 1,000 hours through a busy holiday weekend trying to bring this investigation to a close,” the chief said.

At this point, I think it’s important to interject with a couple of caveats.

The first is that the alleged suspects must be given a presumption of innocence unless and until they are convicted in a court of law. That is why we use the word “alleged” in advance of a conviction.

For their part, the owners have denied they staged the incident. “We don’t joke about swastikas on our walls,” Oxana Berent told Manitoba CBC Radio. “My grandmother’s family, they died in the Holocaust. Just her and her little brother survived, the whole family. We don’t joke about that.”

The second caveat is that the BerMax Caffé and Bistro should not be referred to as a “kosher restaurant.” According to a report in the Canadian Jewish News, “BerMax had been operating as a kosher restaurant until last fall, when the family chose to drop its kosher certification, citing higher costs and losing business due to being closed on Shabbat.”

Hate crimes are serious. Whether involving murder as we have heartbreakingly seen all too recently at Chabad of Poway near San Diego, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and at mosques in Quebec City and Christchurch, New Zealand, or in the series of anti-Semitic and racist graffiti attacks we witnessed here in Ottawa in November 2016, such crimes hit us hard as a community, and as individuals.

So, to hear that a Jewish family allegedly staged an anti-Semitic attack on their own business is deeply disturbing (and, reportedly, Winnipeg Police are now investigating the possibility that the previous anti-Semitic incidents at BerMax were also allegedly staged).

When the latest incident at the restaurant was first reported, the Jewish community in Winnipeg rallied their support behind the Berent family. The broader community responded as well: an interfaith rally of support was scheduled to be held on April 25 but was cancelled after news of the charges were made public.

But the feelings of many were captured in a statement released by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg on April 24: “Anti-Semitism is growing globally and here in Canada. This is why we were alarmed by the alleged incident at BerMax Caffé and were grateful for the diligent response of the Winnipeg Police Service and outpouring of support from the broader community.

“We are shocked and deeply disturbed by today’s news. It is deplorable that anyone would make false allegations of anti-Semitism, especially claims of such a serious nature, for any kind of gain.

“Filing false complaints of criminal acts of anti-Semitism are not only illegal, they undermine the important work necessary to counter anti-Semitism and hate in all forms. We reiterate our appreciation of the work of the Winnipeg Police Service and their continued support for the Jewish community.”

Despite this sad turn of events, we must remain vigilant in the face of real anti-Semitism, and all other forms of hatred. And no matter how this case is resolved, there is no doubt that lives have been ruined – and that is tragic.