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Prosecutors charge New York Hanukkah attacker with hate crime, citing journals

Grafton Thomas, a suspect in an attack at a Hasidic rabbi's home, walks from Ramapo jail to be arraigned on five counts of attempted murder in a state court in Ramapo, New York, U.S. in a still image from video December 29, 2019.
Grafton Thomas, a suspect in an attack at a Hasidic rabbi's home, walks from Ramapo jail to be arraigned on five counts of attempted murder in a state court in Ramapo, New York, U.S. in a still image from video December 29, 2019. Picture taken December 29, 2019. Courtesy WNBC via REUTERS.

Federal prosecutors on Monday filed hate crime charges against a man accused of going on a stabbing rampage during a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi's home north of New York City, saying the suspect kept journals containing references to Adolf Hitler and "Nazi Culture."

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The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed the charges. A day earlier the suspect, Grafton Thomas, was arraigned on five counts of attempted murder in a state court in the town of Ramapo.

Thomas is accused of stabbing five people on Saturday night with what the criminal complaint described as a "machete" after bursting into a Hanukkah celebration that included dozens of people at Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's home in Monsey, about 30 miles (48 km) north of New York City.

The town is in Rockland County, home to a large Orthodox Jewish community.

The suspect was expected to appear at a federal court in White Plains on Monday afternoon to face five counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill and use of a dangerous weapon resulting in bodily harm.

Handwritten journals confiscated from the suspect's Greenwood Lake, New York, home contained anti-Semitic sentiments including "referring to 'Adolf Hitler' and 'Nazi culture'" as well as a drawing of a swastika, FBI agent Julie Brown said in the complaint. She said his cell phone was used to search "Why did Hitler hate the Jews" on Nov. 9, Dec. 3, Dec. 7 and Dec. 16.

Brown also said the phone showed searches for Jewish temples in Elizabeth, New Jersey and Staten Island, both on Dec. 18, and for prominent American companies founded by Jews on Dec. 27.

The following day, Dec. 28, the phone was used to access an article headlined "New York City increased police presence in Jewish neighbourhoods after Possible Anti-Semitic Attacks. Here's what's to know."

The complaint identifies the victims of Saturday's attack only by initials. Four of the five people stabbed were released after being treated at a local hospital. One was still hospitalised with a skull fracture, the New York Times quoted officials as saying.

'Scourge of hate'

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo denounced "a scourge of hate in this country". "Its ignorance is intolerance. But it's also illegal. And it's spreading," Cuomo told CNN a day after he called the stabbing an act of domestic terrorism.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed to a "national crisis of anti-Semitism" in an interview with MSNBC.

Thomas' family said through his attorney he had a long history of mental illness, no known history of anti-Semitism and no prior convictions.

On Friday, New York City's police department said it was stepping up patrols in heavily Jewish neighbourhoods. Commissioner Dermot Shea told a Sunday news conference the city had seen a 21% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes this year.

These included an incident last Monday in which a 65-year-old man was reportedly punched and kicked by an assailant yelling an anti-Semitic slur, followed a day later by attacks on two other men in Brooklyn.

"New York is facing a growing problem of #antiSemitic incidents. The pattern is undeniable," Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League wrote on Twitter. "The #antiSemitic stabbing in Monsey is the latest horrific attack to shake our community. There is an absolute need for greater action to protect the Jewish community."

Attacks on synagogues have shaken the Jewish community elsewhere in the country.

On the last day of Passover in April, a gunman killed a rabbi and wounded three people during Sabbath services at Congregation Chabad in Poway, near San Diego.

Six months before that, a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. 

(REUTERS)

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