U.C. Davis Hillel attacked in suspected hate incident

An unknown vandal or vandals tossed an object through the front window of Davis' Hillel and set fire to the Israeli flag hanging from the building's eaves, sparking a blaze that spread to the building's roof early Wednesday morning.

The Davis Police Department classified the incident as a hate crime, and the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were called onto the scene.

"I'm shocked. It's very disheartening and I think disturbing as well that something could happen especially in this community," said U.C. Davis junior Leah Dansker, a student representative on the Hillel board. "It brings things closer to home for me, personally."

Though the damage to the Davis Hillel is being classified as minor, the incident has frayed the already fragile nerves of the Jewish community in nearby Sacramento; the Hillel serves campuses in both cities.

"While it's a small incident, it does have significant ramifications because our community is generally somewhat tense given the events of 1999," said Sacramento Jewish Community Relations Council President Marc Carrel, alluding to the fire-bombings of three area synagogues in June 1999.

In the Hillel attack, charges include vandalism and felony-level arson of a place of worship, "which can be a federal offense," said Lt. Don Brooks, the Davis Police Department's public information officer.

While shocked by the incident, Hillel officials were not surprised. Earlier this week, Raphael Moore, the board president, said Hillel was notified by another Jewish organization that some members had "overheard people talking about doing property damage to the Hillel house.

"They suspected certain specifically named people," Moore added. "The FBI and ATF have that information, and they will be following up on it."

The incident could be the first anti-Semitic arson attack in the city of Davis since a garbage fire at Congregation Bet Haverim singed the synagogue's walls in the early 1990s, according to Moore.

Alerted to the blaze by her barking dogs, a neighbor of the Hillel called 911 at 5:25 a.m. Wednesday. By the time Moore arrived on the scene shortly after 6 a.m., a policeman had quelled the fire with a fire extinguisher he pulled from his car.

Replacing the 5-by-8-foot window, the burnt Israeli flag and a small segment of the Hillel's roof and rain gutter could run up to $5,000, according to Hillel Damron, the organization's interim executive director.

"There have been threats made to both the Berkeley and San Francisco Hillels, but this is the first time we've had actual damage," said Paul Cohen, the Northern California field service consultant for International Hillel. "This is rare, as far as I know. Hillels, like all Jewish organizations, continue to be on alert and have improved security as a result of problems which happened around the county two years ago."

Area Jewish leaders are evaluating how to respond to the incident.

"I don't know what the response is going to be, but there has to be something other than just shrugging our shoulders to another anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic act and saying 'life goes on,'" said Skip Rosenbloom, president of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. "There's got to be something beyond that."

Damron said the attack has spurred him to make today's Lag B'Omer celebration at Davis Hillel "a big solidarity event." Moore, meanwhile, said he believes the incident may help galvanize the area's Jewish community.

"More than anything, this unites the community rather than dividing it," said Moore, who added that a new Israeli flag was flying in front of the Hillel by Wednesday afternoon. "We're not taking our flag down every day. This is not something we're going to hide from."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.