Monsey attack: man charged with hate crimes over stabbings at rabbi's home

Edward Helmore in New York
Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

The man accused of stabbing five members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York has been charged with federal hate crimes.

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In a criminal complaint filed by the US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York on Monday, Grafton Thomas, 37, is accused of harboring extremist motivations. The complaint alleges Grafton kept diaries that contained antisemitic views, references to Adolf Hitler and “Nazi culture,” and drawings of a Star of David and a swastika.

The documents also refer to a phone found in Grafton’s car that allegedly contained online searched-for phrases like “Why did Hitler hate the Jews”, “German Jewish Temples near me” as well as a recent news article about New York’s plan to increases police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods.

Thomas pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary. In a statement released Sunday, his lawyer, Michael Sussman, said his client “had a long history of mental illness and hospitalizations” but “no known history of antisemitism”.

The federal hate charges come as Democratic presidential candidates condemned the spate of antisemitic attacks and incidents over the holiday period. Bernie Sanders told a crowd at a menorah-lighting ceremony: “If there was ever a time when we say no to divisiveness, this is that moment.”

Sanders, who is Jewish and who had relatives who died in the Holocaust, made his comments after an intruder stabbed five people at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, Rockland county, about 30 miles north of New York City, on Saturday night. The attack was called an act of “domestic terrorism” by New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

“We’re seeing people being stabbed yesterday in New York City because they were Jewish,” Sanders told a congregation at an event in Des Moines, Iowa, to light a public menorah on the final night of Hanukah.

Sanders described the latest attack, one of seven in as many days in the New York area, as part of an alarming rise in antisemitism in the United States and globally.

“If there was ever a time in American history where we say no to religious bigotry, this is the time. If there was ever a time when we say no to divisiveness, this is that moment,” he added, warning of a rise in tolerance against people targeted for their race, religion or identity.

Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, center, leads Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the inauguration of a Torah scroll ceremony on Sunday outside his home in Monsey. Photograph: Peter Foley/EPA

His remarks came hours after a separate incident in which a gunman opened fire on a church in White Settlement, Texas, killing two parishioners.

As political leaders grappled with the aftermath of the Monsey attack, Thomas is reportedly being investigated in connection with an earlier stabbing of a Jewish man near a synagogue in the same area.

Grafton was reportedly covered in blood when he was arrested in Harlem following the attack, and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation.

Antisemitic crimes rose 22% in 2018 compared with 2017, according to NYPD figures, and have risen again in 2019. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents in 2018, including an attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that left 11 dead and six wounded.

On Sunday, Donald Trump decried the attack in Monsey “as horrific”.

“We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of antisemitism,” Trump tweeted.

Other candidates in the 2020 election race were united in their responses to the attack.

“I’m heartsick for the victims of this horrific attack. This is unfortunately just the latest of a series of antisemitic attacks in New York and New Jersey,” Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter. “We must fight antisemitism and make clear that hateful bigotry has no place in our society.”

Cory Booker, a senator for New Jersey, where six people were killed in a shooting that targeted a kosher supermarket earlier this month, said: “The increasing frequency of antisemitic attacks is horrifying. We must all join to stop them in their tracks and root out the hatred and ignorance at their core.”

Former vice-president and 2020 contender Joe Biden offered his “deepest sympathies” to the victims and their families.

“The horrifying rise of antisemitism is tearing apart the fabric of our communities and the soul of this nation,” Biden messaged. “We’ve got to stand together as a country and fight these flames of hatred.”

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg said his “prayers are with the victims of these horrific acts of antisemitism and hate. This cannot be tolerated.”