Firebombs thrown at Hillel staffer’s house

Employee not injured, moved for safety

By and
Monday, March 17, 2008

In an attack early Saturday morning, improvised explosives were hurled at the off-campus apartment of Yossi Knafo, an emissary from the Jewish Agency for Israel employed by Brown/RISD Hillel. Knafo was home at the time but unharmed by the attack.

In a telephone interview Sunday, Knafo said that he and a friend – identified in a police report as Roei Bahumi ’08 – were in the second-story apartment at 122 Camp St., about a mile and a half north of campus just after 1 a.m. Saturday. At that time, unidentified attackers threw two Molotov cocktails – glass bottles filled with gasoline and stuffed with rags – at the residence. One struck the building and ignited, scorching the outside of the house, and the other entered Knafo’s bedroom through an open window but did not explode. Knafo and Bahumi, who were in the adjacent kitchen at the time, were unharmed. Damage to the property was minimal.

Officials from the Providence Police Department responded to the scene and originally classified the attack as arson. But Special Agent Gail Marcinkiewicz, an FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau is investigating the “possibility of a hate crime.” Marcinkiewicz and PPD officials declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, including whether those responsible for the attack might be affiliated with Brown.

Knafo said he had not received any threats prior to the incident and did not know why anyone might target him. He has moved out of the apartment to a “safe place” and will remain there for at least the next several days, he said.

Knafo, a 25-year-old Israeli citizen, has been working at Hillel since September on a fellowship with the Jewish Agency, an international organization dedicated to facilitating immigration to Israel and education related to Zionism worldwide. His responsibilities at Hillel include scheduling speakers and events and facilitating cultural exchange with Israel through programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel, which pays for Jewish students to travel to Israel. The Jewish Agency has more than 2,000 cultural emissaries like Knafo in the United States “to promote knowledge about Israel” and “cultural understanding,” said Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the organization. Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for the national Hillel foundation, said that Knafo is one of 21 such envoys placed in Hillel organizations on college campuses.

“This is the first time that this has happened in the U.S. to an Israeli emissary,” Knafo said. “That’s why (Jewish Agency officials are) trying to see if it was any kind of terrorism.”

Knafo said he had no reason to suspect that the attack was related to his work. “I don’t believe that it came from my work in Brown, because Brown is a great place to work in,” Knafo said. “It’s very liberal.”

Knafo said he did not see anyone outside his apartment after the attack, but was later told by investigators that a neighbor witnessed the attack and reported seeing two men running away immediately afterward.

In an interview Sunday night, President Ruth Simmons called the incident a “terrible act” and confirmed that University officials were communicating with PPD. But, she said, there remain more questions than answers about the attack.

Simmons and other Brown and PPD officials met with students and staff at Hillel Sunday night to discuss the attacks. “Collectively, people didn’t have much more information than … the fact that these devices were thrown,” Simmons said in the interview.

“There is no way to know at this point what the nature of the incident is,” she said. “Until more is known, we have to exercise judgment about what might be involved without obviously drawing the conclusion that it is a hate crime.”

The University took “precautions” Sunday “to make sure that the staff and students at Hillel are safe,” Simmons said. That includes having “police coverage” of the Glenn and Darcy Wiener Center on Brown Street, which houses Hillel, she said. The University is unaware of any specific threats and has no reason to believe the attack was not an isolated incident, she said.

But, she said, “People are justifiably concerned about what this might represent in the community in general.”

Simmons said she “would never speculate” about the attackers’ possible affiliation with Brown.

“Since we don’t know, it would be irresponsible to suggest that it is someone from the Brown community, or to suggest that it definitely is not somebody from the Brown community,” she said.

“At this time, especially in an environment like this, when there is likely to be some fear and a great deal of concern, it is important not to go beyond what we know,” Simmons added.

Megan Nesbitt, interim director of Hillel, declined to comment Sunday and referred inquiries to Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and University relations. Hillel student leaders and staff contacted by The Herald Sunday directed inquiries to Nesbitt.

The investigation is being led by PPD, which is working in “close contact” with the Department of Public Safety, according to a statement issued by Chapman. Simmons wrote in an e-mail sent to the Brown community Sunday night that PPD notified the University “early Saturday” about the incident. Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Mark Porter said in an interview that he was briefed on the investigation Sunday afternoon by PPD officials.

Jewish Agency and national Hillel officials were also notified of the incident, as was the Israeli embassy.

Simmons, however, said she didn’t learn of the attack until late Sunday.

“I think we could have done better in getting information out more quickly,” she said. The first statement from the University about the incident came from Chapman yesterday and the first campus-wide announcement came in Simmons’ e-mail at 8 p.m. last night. The incident was first publicly reported late Saturday by several Israeli newspapers.

A targeted attack?

Knafo said that he was with Bahumi in the kitchen when he heard the devices being thrown.

The PPD report stated that the attack took place around 1:15 a.m. on Saturday. The report said that Knafo “heard a banging sound coming from the bedroom” and upon investigating noticed flames on the sidewalk outside his window. He then smelled a strong odor of gasoline and “observed a small glass bottle with a clear liquid and white cloth inside” on the floor. Police recovered that bottle and another, shattered bottle from the sidewalk outside.

“I just, like, realized what happened,” he said. “I went into the room and I saw the fire outside and I found the bottle next to my bed.”

He did not see the attackers, he said. He only later heard that a neighbor had seen two men running away.

Knafo said he quickly realized what had happened and called the police. “In the Middle East, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, there is a lot of this,” he said.

Knafo lived in Israel before coming to Brown in the fall. He said he had seen similar attacks during his time as a soldier in the Israeli army.

Bahumi could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The only visible evidence of the attack on the outside of Knafo’s building Sunday afternoon was a few square feet of blackened, scorched siding next to a second-floor window above the building’s front entrance. That was where the Molotov cocktail hit the outside of the house and caught fire, said Irene Twomey, Knafo’s landlord.

Although an initial police report identified the attack as arson, Twomey said she had no reason to believe anyone would want to burn the building down, and said the use of Molotov cocktails thrown from outside the house would represent “a very poor attempt” at arson.

“I think somebody wanted to attack him,” she said, calling the attack “really cowardly and really crazy.”

Knafo said he had no idea who might have attacked him, or why.

The incendiary devices, which police took from the scene as evidence, were Corona beer bottles filled with gasoline and rags, Twomey said. p>

“They could have hurt so many people,” Twomey said. “They could have burned down this house.”

Twomey said the only damage to the apartment was the scorched siding and the spilled gas in the room where the other device landed.

“The girl who lives on the third floor was home, asleep, but she didn’t hear anything. Nobody (else) heard anything,” Twomey said.

Tanenbaum confirmed that Knafo had left. She is still living in the apartment, she said, and is “not scared” of further violence. The apartment still smelled on Sunday afternoon from the gasoline that spilled in Knafo’s bedroom, she added.

The third resident of Knafo’s apartment was not home for the attack and could not be reached for comment.

Both Tanenbaum and Twomey said that Knafo does not associate much with other residents in the neighborhood. “He knows only people on campus, friends. He doesn’t know anybody in the city,” Twomey said. But Knafo does go out to clubs sometimes, Tanenbaum said.

Coordinating a response

At Hillel’s Sunday meeting about the attack, Simmons, Porter, Interim Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, PPD officials and employees of the Chaplain’s Office discussed security and creating broader campus opportunities to talk about the incident, Carey said.

Simmons told The Herald that officials were working to organize a forum “early in the week” for the wider campus.

According to Simmons, some students at the meeting Sunday evening wondered why the University had not gotten word out about the attack earlier, a concern Simmons said she shared.

“There are lots of reasons for that,” she said. “I didn’t find out myself until late (Sunday).”

Simmons said that in the next several days, while police are conducting their investigation, it’s important to have a coordinated response on campus to address the issues the attack raised.

“This is a time to draw together” and to “be sure that we protect individuals who are vulnerable and who feel afraid,” she said.

“That’s the work of this community right now,” Simmons added. “We will wait and pressure law enforcement officials to work hard to get to the bottom of this.”

Simmons said she has been told by police that they were able to gather evidence from the scene of the attack, which she hopes will help police make headway in the investigation.

Though University officials were unaware of any other recent incidents of violence against Brown students or employees, Simmons said, it’s important that anyone notify the Office of Campus Life, the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life or DPS if they are aware of an incident – “even when they think it’s minor.”

“Any sense of threat or harm that anyone is aware of, they should report it immediately,” Simmons said. “How would we know (about any issues) if the community doesn’t take the time to report incidents?”

Jewish organizations alerted

Dallal, the Jewish Agency spokesman, and Rubin, the national Hillel spokesman, said both the Jewish Agency and Hillel were very concerned about the attack and are following the situation closely.

Other Jewish Agency emissaries have been notified of the incident, Dallal said, but the Jewish Agency has no specific reason to believe there is any further threat.

“In the somewhat tense climate of what’s going on internationally, this incident is of great concern to us,” Dallal said. “Such an incident certainly would alarm us and has to be investigated. We have to find out who the perpetrator was and what the motivation was.”

The Jewish Agency is “in touch with the local authorities” to ensure a full investigation, Dallal said, “and of course to check the hate-crime angle.”

“It is especially important in a university setting that everyone be able to operate freely and express their worldview freely and with respect,” Dallal said, adding that conclusions about the motivation behind the attack should not be drawn until officials have finished investigating the incident.

“If indeed it’s something that was meant to curtail or intimidate people who represent a certain country, or with a certain worldview, that’s very serious.”

“A firebomb is a lethal device,” he added. “This is a serious incident either way, but we hope it’s not hate-related.”

Rubin said that the incident “won’t lead to any heightened security measures” at Hillel organizations on other campuses, but that they have all been made aware of the attack.

“I think that as a rule of thumb, Jewish organizations are very security-conscious,” he said.

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