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Hanukkah celebration stabbings ‘domestic terrorism’

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the ambush was part of a ‘cancer’ of growing hatred in America.

The suspect, Grafton Thomas (AP)
The suspect, Grafton Thomas (AP)

By Ryan Tarinelli, Michael R Sisak and Michael Balsamo

A knife attack by a man who stormed into a rabbi’s home and stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City has been described as domestic terrorism by the state governor.

Andrew Cuomo said the ambush was fuelled by intolerance and a “cancer” of growing hatred in America.

One person among the five who were stabbed is still critically ill.

Police tracked a fleeing suspect to Manhattan and made an arrest within two hours of the attack on Saturday night in Monsey.

The stabbings happened at around 10pm on Saturday at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, located next door to his Congregation Netzach Yisroel synagogue.

Officers said the suspect, Grafton E Thomas, had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach but said “almost nothing” when officers stopped him.

An automated licence plate reader alerted officers that the suspect’s car had crossed over the George Washington Bridge into New York City about an hour after the attack.

Thomas was stopped and taken into custody about 20-30 minutes later, New York Police Department (NYPD) commissioner Dermot Shea said.

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Alex Mizrahi, centre, lights a candle on a menorah at a lighting for the last night of Hanukkah in Grand Army Plaza in the Brooklyn borough of New York (AP)

Security camera footage the NYPD made public on Sunday night showed two officers approaching Thomas’ car with guns drawn before the suspect placed his hands on the roof of the car and was handcuffed.

US president Donald Trump condemned the “horrific” attack, saying in a tweet Sunday that “we must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism”.

Thomas, 37, was arraigned on Sunday and pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. Bail was set at five million dollars and he remains jailed.

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Neighbours gather to show their support of the community near a rabbi’s residence in Monsey (AP)

The Greenwood Lake street where Thomas lived with his mother, about 20 miles from Monsey, was blocked with police tape on Sunday as FBI agents and police officers carried items from their home.

The FBI is seeking a warrant to obtain his online accounts and are scouring digital evidence. They are also looking into his mental health history.

The family’s pastor, the Rev Wendy Paige, said Thomas has been suffering from mental illness and that his family believes that condition was the cause of the alleged stabbings — not hatred toward Jewish people. She said his family is sorry for the pain he has caused.

The stabbings on the seventh night of Hanukkah left one person critically wounded, Mr Cuomo said. The rabbi’s son was also injured. Authorities have not provided a motive and Commissioner Shea said investigators do not believe, at this point, that any other people were involved.

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Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, celebrates the arrival of a new Torah near the rabbi’s residence in Monsey a day after the stabbing (AP)

The attack was the latest in a string of violence targeting Jews in the region, including a massacre at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey on December 10. Last month in Monsey, a man was stabbed while walking to a synagogue.

Mr Cuomo said Saturday’s savagery was the 13th anti-Semitic attack in New York since December 8, and was endemic of “an American cancer on the body politic”.

“This is violence spurred by hate, it is mass violence and I consider this an act of domestic terrorism,” Mr Cuomo said. “Let’s call it what it is.”

Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel said it is unclear why the rabbi’s house was targeted or if a specific ideology motivated the suspect. According to one official, authorities do not believe Thomas is connected to recent anti-Semitic incidents in New York City.

Senator Charles Schumer called on the FBI to investigate possible links between the Monsey stabbing spree and other recent attacks. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre said it wants the FBI to create a special task force.

Monsey, near the New Jersey state line about 35 miles north of New York City, is one of several Hudson Valley communities that has seen a rising population of Hasidic Jews in recent years.

Jewish communities in the New York City metropolitan area have been left shaken following the deadly December 10 shooting rampage at a Jersey City kosher market.

Six people – three people who had been inside the store, a police officer and the two killers – died in the gun battle and stand-off that New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has said was “fuelled” by hatred of Jews and law enforcement.

Last month, a man required surgery after he was stabbed while walking to a synagogue in the same town that was the site of Saturday night’s attack. It is unclear whether the assailant has been arrested.

PA

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