Jewish community targeted by serial arsonist

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The Independent Online

The scorch marks ran half- way up the smoke-blackened door but stopped short of a small wooden block inscribed with a single Hebrew character. It was a mezuzah, the symbol used by Jews to protect themselves from the Angel of Death in biblical Egypt, and now from a serial arsonist in 21st- century London.

In the past five weeks, the Hasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill, north London, has suffered six separate attacks – described by police as racially motivated – in which the front doors of homes have been sprayed with petrol and set alight. So far, no one has been hurt but the attacks have left the deeply private and close-knit Orthodox community concerned for its safety and anxious that it does not get caught up in the kind of race hatred seen recently Oldham and Burnley.

But amid the kosher supermarkets and religious gift shops yesterday few wanted the world to know about it. Virtually no one on the streets of Stamford Hill, which with 21 Hebrew schools and 56 synagogues is home to the largest Hasidic population after Israel and New York, was willing to discuss the attacks.

In a group made visible to the irrational and intolerant by the distinctive dress of Hasidic men – long black coats and tall black hats – the message was one of calm in the face of adversity. Rabbi Abraham Pinter said: "People are obviously concerned and they are being more vigilant, checking smoke-alarm batteries and so on. But they are not panicking – nobody is moving away. The belief is that these attacks are not the work of an organised group. It is more likely to be one person working on their own, possibly with a mental health problem.''

Detectives agree that the fires are probably the work of a lone, deranged individual rather than the sinister activities of organised anti-Semites. They have released an image from a CCTV camera of a woman of Afro-Caribbean origin, aged about 35, who they believe may be setting the fires. She was filmed shortly after one of the attacks last month by a camera at a nearby bank.

The arsonist has so far restricted the attacks to using a small amount of flammable liquid, causing minor damage, but in at least one incident the flames spread across carpets inside the door. Smoke forced the occupants – a family of 13 inside, including six children – to take refuge in the garden.

At least two of the attacks happened in a single street and all but one were between 12.30am and 6.30am while the victims were asleep. The other fire was started at about 12.30pm.

But while suspicion centres on a single individual, fears remain that a larger or more sinister criminal enterprise could be behind the fires. Anxiety has been further heightened by the stabbing last October of a 20-year-old Jewish man on a bus by a Muslim fundamentalist.

Detective Inspector Dave Whellams, who is leading the investigation and is based at the Hackney Community Safety Unit, said: "There is no doubt that this is causing a scare among the Jewish community. Although these attacks appear to be at the lower end of the scale, and carried out by an individual with local knowledge, they still have the potential to cause harm. There is always that concern about just what an individual is prepared to do.'' Police have stepped up patrols in the area but, such is the sensitivity surrounding the campaign, officers refuse to reveal the streets were the attack took place.

At the house seen by The Independent, where the arsonist struck three weeks ago, leaving burn marks on the door, the occupants did not want to discuss their ordeal. But one member of the Hasidic community said: "There is a mixture of fear and anger that we are being targeted in this way but also concern about getting mixed up with the race riots in Burnley and Oldham or events in the Middle East. That is not the case. We don't want to become a cause célèbre because of the actions of what we hope is a sad and deluded individual. We'd rather be left alone.''