The outside of the Beth Israel synagogue
Congregation Beth Israel Google Maps

Three bias crimes against religious centers in Portland in the past ten days have triggered calls from religious leaders to recognize that hate crimes are on the rise in Oregon.

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“We're not afraid,” said Michael Cahana, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel. “The physical damage was minor, but the psychic damage and the sense of vulnerability is something that we feel and we want others to know that these actions really have a deep effect on real people.”

The Congregation Beth Israel, Muslim Community Center of Portland, and Shir Tikvah Congregation/Eastside Jewish Commons were all vandalized within the past ten days. On Saturday, police arrested Michael Bivins, a former freelance journalist, for the attacks on all three religious centers. Bivins was arrested after he went to a Beaverton TV news station and demanded to speak to a reporter, according to a police press release.

On May 2, members of the Beth Israel congregation discovered an antisemitic death threat written on the wall of the Northwest Portland synagogue, as well as the remnants of a small fire outside sanctuary doors.

“The first time you see something like this written on the walls of our historic sanctuary, a clearly Nazi-referenced antisemitic death threat, it really shakes you,” Cahana said. “It's hard not to feel vulnerable and it’s hard not to wonder how something like this could be in our community.”

The death threat came just a couple days after the congregation commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, with Holocaust survivors in the Portland area.

Bias and hate crimes have been rising in Oregon and across the nation over the past couple years. According to the Oregon Department of Justice, reported hate crimes rose from an average 91.6 per month in 2020 to 140.3 per month in 2021—a 53 percent increase. In 2020, the most recent national data available, the FBI recorded the most hate crimes in over a decade. Nationally, attacks against Jewish people accounted for more than 50 percent of all hate crimes against religious groups in 2020, according to FBI data.

Less than 48 hours after the death threat and small fires outside Beth Israel, police say Bivins tried to light the Muslim Community Center of Portland on fire while people were inside praying. Security video showed a person pouring accelerant against the building and trying to set the center on fire Tuesday evening. When the building didn’t catch fire, the person tried to light the accelerant a second time.

Bivins was also charged with vandalizing the Eastside Jewish Commons/Shir Tikvah congregation at the end of April.

“We are saddened by these senseless acts of petty violence against minority communities,” said Mia Birk, executive director of Eastside Jewish Commons, in a statement to the Mercury. “At Eastside Jewish Commons, we have created a beautiful place of inclusion, joy, and inspiration.”

In response to the group of attacks, Cahana called for greater recognition of Portland’s long history of white supremacy. Oregon passed several Black exclusion laws throughout the late 1800s, the Ku Klux Klan had a large presence in Portland starting in the 1920s, and, more recently, the city has become a focal point for white nationalist groups. The region’s racist history has had lasting impacts, most notably that Portland remains the whitest large city in the nation.

“It’s important that we all stand for each other when this happens,” Cahana said. “We can't just say, ‘Well, it's just speech or someone just expressing themselves.’ Hate speech is not free speech, and it’s important that we recognize that we can’t be complacent about these things.”

To Megan Black, a program director for the Western States Center which advocates for inclusive democracy, the spate of attacks is a sign for people to more diligently recognize and name hate crimes, particularly because these types of crimes can act as precursors to more violent attacks.

“We’ve seen again and again that hateful language and vandalism can lead to violent, even deadly attacks,” Black said. “Together, these three attacks demonstrate the need for people of all faiths as well as all members of our community to join together in vigilance and solidarity against bigotry.”

Cahana stressed that while the death threat has shaken some people, he knows the congregation is an integral part of the community, which has only been underscored by the outpouring of support they have received since the attack.

“I still believe in Portland as a place of tolerance, of mutual appreciation, and of appreciation of diversity,” Cahana said. “This doesn't shake my confidence, but it does [show] that we're not immune to what's happening around the country.”