Two juries deliberating the case of two Palestinians accused of trying to firebomb a Riverdale synagogue came back this week with divergent guilty verdicts.
For three months the juries heard the same testimony and saw the same evidence in the same courtroom in the Bronx County Court House, but the jury for Mazen Assi, 23, returned in one day with a guilty verdict on all seven counts, while the 12-member panel for Mohammed Alfaqih, 20, took four days to acquit on six of seven counts.
Assi threw a pair of Molotov cocktails at the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale that failed to ignite. He faces up to 22 years in prison if Judge Steven Barrett imposes consecutive sentences for weapons possession, harassment and attempted arson, along with violations of a hate crimes statute that went into effect just hours before the Yom Kippur Eve incident two years ago.
Alfaqih was convicted only of criminal mischief, not the hate crimes or the more serious charges, and faces up to four years. Alfaqih, the getaway driver, was charged with ìacting in concertî with Assi. Alfaqih admitted that he gave Assi ìa lift,î but thatís all.
The defendants will be sentenced next month.
Both made explicit taped confessions indicating that hate was at the heart of what one executive of the Anti-Defamation League called the pairís ìpersonal intifada.î
Assi told police that they wanted to teach the ìfó-ing rich Jews of Riverdaleî a ìlessonî for supporting Israel.î Alfaqih following his arrest told police he ìhas hatred in his heart for Jewish people.î
Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said the juries ìfound that the perpetrators intended to do a horrible crime. Their sentences should be commensurate with their heinous act.î
Stanley Cohen, Assiís attorney, told The Jewish Week after the case that ìno Muslim, particularly a Palestinian, can get a fair trial in America after 9-11.î Thatís a prejudice ìthat transcends race, color and class,î he said in a phone interview. Cohen said he plans to appeal the verdict.
Jewish professionals, after a string of controversial acquittals in anti-Semitic crimes dating back to Lemrick Nelson for the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, said the Riverdale verdicts ratified their ìsha-shtillî strategy, in which the Jewish community downplayed the trial, shying away from publicity and not having visibly Jewish observers in the courtroom.
One professional, who asked not to be identified, said: ìThe goal is to have the crime punished, not to shrie gevalt.î
Would a jury be more attentive to hate crimes if the victimized Jews were in court?
ìThatís assuming the jury will care,î he said. ìI donít know about you but Iíve experienced enough anti-Semitism in my life not to assume that people will do the right thing.
ìThe [visibility] strategy is terribly risky. What weíve seen in Brooklyn is that visible Jews provoke backlashes.î
Representatives of the ADL and the Riverdale Jewish Community Council attended the trial on occasion, but often there were few or no Jewish observers in the Bronx County Court House, in contrast to the many friends and family of the Palestinians.
Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale officials would not comment on the case other than to express satisfaction after the verdicts.
The JCRC also chose not to publicly comment during the trial, though it was in steady touch with the office of District Attorney Robert Johnson and monitored the case.
Karen Stahl-Don, executive director of the Riverdale Jewish Community Council, questioned why there was no sustained Jewish presence in the courtroom.
ìI canít figure that out,î she said, concerned that some juries might think ìour community doesnít take these cases that seriously. If Palestinians attacked a synagogue overseas, New York Jews would be outraged.î
Another Jewish observer in the courtroom, who asked not to be identified, said he was there because he remembered the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls nearly 40 years ago, and how Jews reacted so strongly. Now a New York synagogue almost shared that fate and no one seemed to react, he suggested.
Johnson said the case concerned more than an assault on a synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.
ìThis case was vigorously prosecuted for the protection of Jews, Arabs and all citizens of Bronx County,î he said in a statement.
Cohen defended the Palestinians in his summation by quoting a story from the Talmud, complete with Aramaic punch line.
He asked the jury to see beyond the prosecutionís ìprettyî case, hoping it would find that like fine wine, the Palestiniansí defense may have come in wooden casks rather than the gold and silver presentation of prosecutors.
He had argued during the case that Assi, who was born in America and raised here and in Jordan, was so ìfixatedî by televised images of the new intifada that he attacked the synagogue.
Cohen said he was sorry the Conservative Synagogue ìlost a golden opportunity to build bridges [with the Palestinian community].î
ìAs a Jew, I thought it was chance for both communities to break bread and come to a better understanding,î he said. ìI canít name names but there was actually a debate in Riverdale where the younger rabbis and a younger synagogue approached me to try and resolve this,î involving lesser sentences and community service, with Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, but ìthe older synagogues and older rabbis were opposed under any circumstances.î
Cohen, who said he worked pro bono, told The Jewish Week that he took the case because of his personal interest in the Palestinian cause.
ìSince 1995, I have represented ó and he happens to be a good friend of mine ó the head of the political wing of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzook,î Cohen said.
Cohen noted that he is also ìcurrently suing Israel and the United States for a whole host of issues, including killings, theft of property and torture, on behalf of American citizens who are also Palestinians.î
Here in New York, though, the ADL, which monitors those same crimes against the Jewish community, said the Riverdale verdicts were ìhistoric.î
The message, said Joel Levy, ADLís New York regional director, is that ìsenseless acts motivated by bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated because hate crimes laws work.