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Fire, graffiti at Jewish-owned business ‘targeted,’ being probed as hate-motivated: Toronto police

Toronto police say its hate crime unit is investigating a fire at a Jewish-owned grocery store that was also spray-painted with the words “Free Palestine.”

Police say the fire is being probed as suspected hate-motivated arson. The graffiti is being probed as a possible hate crime.

Staff Supt. Pauline Gray, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, told reporters on Wednesday that International Delicatessen Foods, on Steeles Avenue West near Petrolia Road, was targeted.

“I’ve been a criminal investigator the vast majority of my career, and in most of those criminal investigations, there was a tipping point. This is this tipping point,” Gray said near the scene. 

“This is not graffiti on a bus shelter. This is not lawful protest protected by constitutional right. This is a criminal act. It is violent, it is targeted, it is organized, and it will receive the weight of the Toronto Police Service to exactly what it deserves,” she added.

“We will leave no stone unturned. We will use all the resources available to us to investigate, arrest and prosecute who is responsible for this.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the owner of the business confirmed to CBC Toronto that he is Jewish and said he believes the vandalism is an act of antisemitism.

The business’s name is displayed as the acronym “IDF” in large red letters above the building’s entrance. IDF is also the acronym for Israel Defence Forces, who are currently waging war in the Gaza Strip.

North York fire 2
The business’s name is displayed as the acronym ‘IDF’ in large red letters above the building’s entrance. (CBC)

The business had its windows broken in the incident, but no one was reported to be injured.

According to officials, police and firefighters were called to the scene at about 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday. When firefighters arrived, they saw smoke coming from the rear. Fire crews entered the building and quickly extinguished the blaze.

Gray said officers found the graffiti on the outside of the building at the same time that the fire was discovered.

She said police suspect the incident was motivated by hate and believe it was committed “with bias or prejudice.”

“We’re very early on in the investigation and I must highlight when I say it’s organized, they didn’t just happen upon this business. Let’s be not silly here. These people have targeted this business and so that means they’ve been here before,” she said.

‘Hate and violence are not welcome here’: mayor

The fire and graffiti come after a December Toronto police service board meeting in which Chief Myron Demkiw said antisemitism had made up a majority of all reported hate crimes since Oct. 7, when the Israeli-Hamas war began. Police have previously noted that hate crimes often go underreported out of fear of retaliation.

From Oct. 7 to Dec. 17, police have said there were 98 hate crime reports in Toronto, compared with 48 during the same time period in 2022.

They said that included 56 antisemitic hate crime reports, compared to 18 during the same time period last year, and 20 anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab hate crime reports, versus two during the same time period in 2022.

In a statement on Wednesday, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto said it is “outraged and deeply concerned” about the incident.

“Such an act of hate-motivated arson would be the result of three months of escalating hate and intimidation against Toronto’s Jewish community. History demonstrates that violent words lead to violent actions. This must end now,” it said.

The federation urged Toronto residents to take a stand and speak up against growing antisemitism in the city.

Steeles and Petrolia fire 3
According to officials, police and firefighters were called to the scene at about 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday. When firefighters arrived, they saw smoke coming from the rear. Fire crews entered the building and quickly extinguished the blaze. (CBC)

On Wednesday evening, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow released a statement on X, formerly Twitter, saying her office is in contact with the police as they investigate.

“Incidents like this leave people feeling shaken. They diminish our sense of safety and belonging. All residents of Toronto deserve to be safe and feel safe,” Chow said.

“As Mayor, let me be clear: acts of antisemitism, hate and violence are not welcome here.”

Coun. James Pasternak, who represents Ward 6, York Centre, said he was “shocked and appalled” at the attack on the grocery store.

Pasternak said “this escalation of lawlessness” in the city must end.

Coun. Mike Colle, who represents Ward 8, Eglinton-Lawrence, said he believes the store was possibly targeted because of the acronym on the front of the building resembling that of the Israel Defence Forces.

“The bottom line is they damaged this business and caused all kinds of fear,” he said. 

Colle said other business owners may be wondering who is going to be hit next. “This is the real threat that we have in Toronto right now.”

Police are urging anyone with dashboard camera footage of the business in the last few days to come forward.

“If you have a business in the area, don’t just look today, don’t just look last night, look over a couple of days and really turn your mind to somebody or someone that you might think might have perpetrated this crime,” Gray added.

Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal and Ontario’s ministry of the attorney general are also involved in the fire investigation.

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