Toronto police are investigating a fire at a Jewish-owned deli in North York as a suspected hate-motivated arson, based on the associated graffiti and other damage to the building.
The Toronto Police Service (TPS) said on Jan. 3 that officers responded to a call at around 6 a.m. at International Delicatessen Foods in the plaza at the intersection of Steeles Avenue and Petrolia Road, near Keele Street, “for reports of a fire in a store.”
“The fire was extinguished by Toronto Fire,” a police news release said. “Officers also located graffiti on the outside of the building.”
“Free Palestine” was spray-painted on the building exterior at the rear entrance, and windows were broken. CTV News reports that later on Jan. 3, police were taking paint samples and canvassing nearby businesses for potential video evidence to assist the investigation. CTV also reported that police said they are looking into whether perpetrators entered the delicatessen from the roof of the building; CBC Radio Toronto reported on Jan. 4 that police say they have recovered jerry cans from the roof.
Speaking to reporters, Staff Supt. Pauline Gray confirmed the police suspect a hate-motivated incident and that they believe the act was committed with bias or prejudice.
Gray, who addressed media standing near the crime scene, emphasized the serious nature of the incident, and that the TPS would employ all its available resources to “investigate, arrest and prosecute” those responsible for the acts against the Jewish owned-business.
“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,” said Gray.
“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.”
“We will leave no stone unturned.”
When asked about the investigation during a separate press conference on Jan. 4, TPS Chief Myron Demkiw echoed those words about the gravity of the incident, saying he believes it was hate-motivated.
The police statement noted that the investigation is being handled in consultation with the Ministry of the Attorney General, with assistance from the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office.
The store entrance is emblazoned with “IDF” in tall, red block letters, for International Delicatessen Foods. IDF is also the acronym for the Israel Defence Forces. The owner of the building told CBC News that he is Jewish and believes the vandalism was an act of antisemitism.
Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, vice-president of the Greater Toronto Area for Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), told The CJN that the incident appears to be part of the rising levels of antisemitism in the city.
“I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not, because we have seen antisemitism escalating rapidly in the city over the last three months,” said Kirzner-Roberts.
On Dec. 19 Chief Demkiw, in his monthly update to the police services board that includes the numbers of hate crimes in the city, said that antisemitic hate crimes amounted to 53 percent of the total reported hate crimes since Oct. 7.
In 2023, TPS defined 147 occurrences between Jan. 1 and Dec. 17 as antisemitic, up from 81 occurrences that were reported in the same period in 2022.
“We have seen, for example, the protests coming closer and closer into our neighbourhoods. We’ve seen protests targeting random Jewish businesses,” said Kirzner-Roberts.
As recently as the past week, Toronto police have had to cordon off the bridge over Highway 401 near Avenue Rd. and Wilson Ave. after pro-Palestinian protesters draped it with flags. The area has a high concentration of Jewish residents.
“The community has been very concerned about what’s been going on on the bridge and out on Avenue Rd., and now this seems to be taking the concerns to another level,” she said.
“I mean, obviously, you’re setting a fire. People could get killed. I mean, thank goodness nobody was hurt.”
Kirzner-Roberts says that many in the Jewish community have felt disappointment from a lack of vocal support from allies outside the community.
“I don’t think there’s a single Jewish person in the community that doesn’t have someone in their in their own personal life that they thought for sure would stand with them, and in fact have not.”
She says that this is the moment that Jewish Canadians are looking to political, community, and faith leaders for visible support, and commended the TPS for its ongoing, visible presence and vigilance.
“You’re either standing with our community when haters are literally attacking a random Jewish business because of something going on on the other side of the world or you’re not. You’re either speaking out clearly and unequivocally or you’re not.
“This is the time to speak out. It’s now in our city.”