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November 4, 2021 2:19 pm
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Authorities Release Images of Suspect in Austin Synagogue Arson as City Council Passes Resolution Condemning Antisemitism

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

The aftermath of a fire set at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas on Sunday, Oct. 31. Photo: Austin Fire Department

The Austin Fire Department on Wednesday released images of the suspect in an arson attack on an Austin, Texas synagogue, the latest in a spate of incidents in the city that has prompted the passage of a City Council resolution condemning antisemitism.

Congregation Beth Israel was set on fire on the night of Oct. 31, causing serious damage. In a message to the congregation, the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday, the synagogue’s Rabbi Steve Folberg and President Lori Adelman said, “Because of the likelihood that the time to get our sanctuary fit for occupancy will be measured in weeks rather than days, we will be looking for alternative ways to gather together on our campus.”

In a media release, the Austin Fire Department issued stills from a security camera video of the suspect and his vehicle.

The release said that the suspect drove into the parking lot of the synagogue in a black SUV and approached the building carrying a five-gallon gasoline can. He then returned to his vehicle.

The FBI is also now investigating the incident.

On Monday, some 500 people — including clergy, political leaders, and prominent businesspeople — gathered at the B’nai Abraham Synagogue, the oldest in Texas, to condemn antisemitism, the American-Statesman reported.

Folberg and Adelman said of the rally, “These expressions of solidarity have been a source of strength for all of our staff members and volunteers who are facing the practical and emotional demands of beginning to heal our community from this attack.”

The arson was the latest in a series of antisemitic incidents in Austin, including the vandalization of a local high school with Nazi symbols, an antisemitic banner hung from an overpass that said “Vax the Jews,” and the public display of antisemitic posters on a local street.

Two of the incidents were committed by a local hate group called the “Goyim Defense League,” which has been involved in other incidents of harassment and public antisemitic statements.

The ADL has called the group a “small network of virulently antisemitic provocateurs led by Jon Minadeo II of Petaluma, California” that espouses “vitriolic antisemitism via the internet, through propaganda distributions, and in street actions.”

In response, the Austin City Council on Thursday passed a resolution condemning “antisemitism and all hateful speech and violent action that casts blame, promotes racism or discrimination, or harms the Jewish community.”

“Events in the last few weeks are simply further evidence of the challenges we discuss on this dais every week, and further evidence that our world is in need of repair,” said Council Member Alison Alter, in remarks at the Thursday council session. “The reality is that the hate is here — and we need to up our game and to lead our community, and to devote focus and attention so hate does not take root in our community.”

The resolution further directs the Austin City Manager to collaborate with local groups, including the ADL, “to review and then identify and implement improvements to the City’s response to hate.”

“The improvements should include training for relevant city staff that educates participants in how hate manifests, how to effectively respond to incidents of hate, and how social media is used to propagate hate,” the resolution said.

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