NEW YORK – An attacker stabbed five people Saturday evening at the home of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi during a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York, in what Governor Andrew Cuomo said would be prosecuted as a case of domestic terrorism.
The suspect fled the scene, but New York City Police Department arrested him after locating his vehicle, confirmed Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel. He faces five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary, Weidel said. Police have identified him as Grafton E. Thomas, 37, of Greenwood Lake, New York.
Thomas had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach, according to prosecutors. He was arraigned Sunday morning and pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at $5 million.
Weidel also said the five victims were taken to hospital for treatment. One victim is reportedly in critical condition, said Evan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation's New York/New Jersey regional director.
The suspect's criminal history includes an arrest for assaulting a police horse, according to an official briefed on the investigation. A lawyer representing Thomas at the arraignment said he had no convictions.
Weidel said it was unclear why the rabbi's house was targeted or if a specific ideology motivated the suspect. According to the official briefed on the investigation, authorities do not believe Thomas is connected to recent anti-Semitic incidents in New York City and he appears to have acted alone.
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The FBI is seeking a warrant to obtain Thomas's online accounts and were scouring digital evidence, the official said. They are also looking into whether he has a history of mental illness.
The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the stabbing an act of domestic terrorism fueled by intolerance. He said the attack was evidence of an “American cancer in the body politic.”
One person was very seriously wounded, the governor told reporters, and remained in critical condition. The rabbi's son was also injured, Cuomo said. His status and that of the other victims was not clear.
“This is an intolerant time in our country,” he said to reporters outside the rabbi's home on Sunday morning. “We see anger, we see hatred exploding.”
Footage obtained by CBS2 showed NYPD officers escorting a detained suspect to custody. His motive remains unclear at this time.
A witness at the scene, Yossi Gestetner, told ABC News that the incident occurred during a Hanukkah celebration at the house of Rabbi Chaim Leib Rottenberg, next door to his Congregation Netzach Yisroel.
Videos from the area showed the Jewish emergency service Hatzolah treating victims at the scene.
"At about 9:50, a call came in to local EMS that multiple people were stabbed at the rabbi's house," Gestetner said. "It turns out that five people were stabbed. The most severe, it seems, were stabbed at least five or six times."
The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council said the suspect had his face partially covered and fled the scene after the attack.
Rabbi Rottenberg had been holding a celebration at his home in honor of the seventh night of Hanukkah. "This rabbi is very popular in this neighborhood of Monsey, so he has a following of Orthodox Jews," Gestetner added.
"The community is genuinely scared and people are very confused. Many parents have asked whether they should send their children to school tomorrow. People are confused and people are scared," Aron Wieder, a Rockland County lawmaker and himself an Orthodox Jew, told Haaretz.
Wieder said he was promoting several measures together with local law enforcement authorities to make the community feel safer, including more cameras and security in public places such as synagogues and school. However, he added that "anything you do is not going to be 100 percent proof.
"We need to collectively get county leaders to denounce the hate," Wieder continued. "I think there is much hatred on social media: It used to be people who post anonymously; now people don’t even hide their hateful rhetoric on social media.
"Other than that, it's another day in Galuth," he said, referring to life in the Jewish Diaspora.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel "categorically condemns the recent acts of anti-Semitism and the vicious attack" in New York at the start of the weekly government meeting, wishing the victims a speedy recovery.
"We will cooperate in every way with the local authorities to help them eradicate this phenomenon. We offer this help to every country," he said.
New York Attorney General Letitia James wrote on Twitter, "I am deeply disturbed by the situation unfolding in Monsey, New York tonight. There is zero tolerance for acts of hate of any kind and we will continue to monitor this horrific situation. I stand with the Jewish community tonight and every night."
"I am horrified by the stabbing of multiple people at a synagogue in Rockland County tonight – the latest in a string of attacks against members of the Jewish community in New York this week,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement following the attack. “On behalf of the family of New York, my heart goes out to the victims and I am praying for their full recovery.”
The governor added that he has directed the state police hate crimes task force to “immediately investigate and to use every tool available to hold the attacker accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
"Let me be clear: Anti-Semitism and bigotry of any kind are repugnant to our values of inclusion and diversity, and we have absolutely zero tolerance for such acts of hate,” he said. “In New York, we will always stand up and say with one voice to anyone who wishes to divide and spread fear: You do not represent New York, and your actions will not go unpunished."
Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog said the attack was “an attempt of cold-blooded murder of Jews, in the heart of a warm and thriving Jewish community.
"Law enforcement agencies in the United States are making huge efforts to protect Jewish communities, but a relentless battle must be waged against this horrifying and painful spate of violent anti-Semitic acts. It’s unacceptable that a Jew wearing a kippa cannot safely walk the streets of New York. It always starts with the Jews, but never ends just with the Jews,” he added.
Uptick in anti-Semitism
The attack comes following a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey during Hanukkah.
Since the holiday began last week, there were multiple incidents of Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn and Manhattan being punched, kicked or having objects thrown at them, triggering heightened security in Jewish communities.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio asked NYPD officers to make themselves more visible in neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg. The police have also boosted visits to houses of worship and some other places, according to the mayor.
"Anti-Semitism is an attack on the values of our city – and we will confront it head-on,” said de Blasio.
Last month, a man walking to synagogue in Spring Valley, which neighbors Monsey, was also stabbed by a perpetrator who got out of a car to attack him. The assailant fled the scene before police and first responders arrived.
Monsey, a hamlet located within the town of Ramapo in New York State, has a population of 22,043 people, according to the American Community Survey from 2017 and is located in Rockland County, northwest of Manhattan.
The county has seen its Orthodox Jewish population grow in recent years. According to the New York state website, Rockland has the largest Jewish population per capita of any U.S. county, with 31.4 percent – or some 90,000 residents – being Jewish.
Orthodox Jewish residents in Rockland County, like other growing Orthodox communities, have been the target of much online hate, with other community members blaming them for overdevelopment in the area, public school budgets and zoning.
Last summer, a video released by the Rockland County Republican Party was slammed for being anti-Semitic and “deeply disturbing.”
Titled “A Storm is Brewing in Rockland,” the video – which was eventually removed – featured menacing music, the slogan “If They Win, We Lose” and a warning that “they," referring to Orthodox Jews, will “change our way of life.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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