It was the eve before Passover and the Jewish community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was on edge.
They could tell from the yellow police tape blocking off the entrance to the BerMax Caffé and Bistro, a popular Jewish-owned restaurant in the area, that yet more vandals had left their mark. It appeared to be the fourth time in a matter of months that the cafe had been targeted with anti-Semitic vandalism — only this time it seemed much worse.
By morning, police said a woman inside the restaurant had been assaulted by a suspected burglar just after closing time. Hateful black graffiti covered the walls. Plates and glassware were shattered on the floor. Tables and chairs were overturned. Immediately, community organizers began mobilizing. A fundraiser for the cafe’s owners was created. An interfaith vigil was scheduled.
“It’s the most brazen act of anti-Semitism that we’ve seen in our community, and perhaps ever,” Adam Levy, communications director of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last Friday, the start of Passover.
But just five days later, after new revelations from police have shocked the community, the vigil was canceled and the money has been returned. There was a crime at the BerMax Caffé and Bistro — but it was not a hate crime, Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth said at a news conference this week.
It was a staged crime, he said.
On Wednesday, the owners of the cafe — Oxana and Alexander Berent and their 29-year-old son, Maxim — were arrested and charged with public mischief and accused of faking everything, including the assault on 48-year-old Oxana Berent in which she claimed to be the victim. Smyth said a combination of video evidence, forensics and police interviews led authorities to believe that there were no nefarious outside perpetrators.
“I am hugely disappointed and frankly angry that this family has used hate and racism in such a disingenuous way,” Smyth said Wednesday. “In doing so they have allowed cynicism to creep into this discussion, cynicism that trivializes genuine victims of hate, cynicism that risks reinforcing stereotypes that the Jewish community here locally and throughout the world have fought hard to dispel.”
He said it’s possible that the past anti-Semitic vandalism incidents at the business over five months — which included anti-Semitic graffiti or thrown rocks — were also staged.
The alleged hoax has left the Jewish community feeling betrayed and confused, torn between believing the police or supporting the Berents’ insistence that they are innocent, said Jai Siwak, director of community outreach for Be’TLV, a Jewish LGBTQ organization that shared office space at the cafe and had spearheaded the fundraising efforts. The organization’s offices, which are accessible from inside the cafe, were also vandalized, Siwak said, putting the organization’s financial future in peril.
“Obviously, if this turns out to be a hoax, people will be very hurt and betrayed,” Siwak told The Washington Post. “If not, it means that someone in the community is capable of violence. It gives people a sense of uneasiness.”
The Berents, Jewish Ukrainian immigrants who came to Canada from Israel in 2005, founded the restaurant in 2015, Canadian Jewish News reported. The family members did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Thursday night. But earlier on Thursday, they were interviewed on CBC’s afternoon radio show, “Up to Speed,” where Oxana and Maxim Berent denied they would ever fake a hate crime.
In their version of events, 56-year-old Alexander and Maxim Berent left Oxana alone at the cafe on the evening of April 18 while they made a run to Home Depot. Oxana claimed she was bustling around the restaurant, making preparations for Passover, when suddenly, as she was walking in a corridor near the kitchen, she felt someone grab her. She claimed she fainted immediately. “The next thing I remember, I was . . . I’m sorry,” she told the host, choking up. “I was in an ambulance.”
Maxim claimed he returned from Home Depot to find the restaurant a mess and his mother lying on the floor, still in the corridor. Oxana told the CBC host that her clothes were ripped and there were marks on her skin. But Smyth said Wednesday that she sustained no serious injuries. She had been transported to the hospital in stable condition and promptly released, police said.
After allowing Oxana and Maxim to share their side of the story, the radio host grew more pointed. “Did you fake this?” he asked.
“I didn’t fake,” Oxana responded. “I will tell you something, okay? So I [hadn’t been] in the restaurant yet, but they say there were swastikas on the walls. You have to have this in your family to understand. All my grandmother’s family died in the Holocaust. Just her and her little brother survived. We don’t joke about that. . . . We don’t joke about swastikas on our walls.”
Smyth said the motive for the allegedly faked crime is unclear, although Canadian news outlets unearthed court documents Thursday suggesting that the family was in financial trouble. The Royal Bank of Canada sued Maxim Berent on Tuesday for $43,628 in unpaid credit-card debt, CTV News reported. In August, the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench ordered Alexander and Oxana Berent to pay another bank $112,358 in outstanding loans. In an interview with CBC, Oxana denied that this could have motivated them to stage a crime.
The case comes on the heels of actor Jussie Smollett’s alleged hate crime hoax in Chicago. Echoing the Chicago Police Department’s frustration, Smyth said his officers wasted significant resources investigating an explosive crime, only to conclude that it was not real. He said more than 25 officers from three units spent nearly 1,000 hours investigating throughout the busy Jewish holiday weekend.
And like the aftermath of the alleged Smollett hoax, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg shared Smyth’s concern that invented hate crimes would dilute the seriousness of genuine attacks.
“It is deplorable that anyone would make false allegations of antisemitism, especially claims of such a serious nature, for any kind of gain,” the Federation said in a statement Wednesday. “Filing false complaints of criminal acts of antisemitism are not only illegal, they undermine the important work necessary to counter antisemitism and hate in all forms.”
Siwak told The Post that after the anti-Semitic vandalism at their offices, the organization has asked all members to avoid traveling alone when possible, fearing escalating anti-Semitism. The group hasn’t been allowed back into its offices, and Siwak worries they will likely have to find a new space, a significant expense.
The Berents, she said, were always “kind and treated us like family” for all the time they shared the space together. Could the family really have done this to them?
Nobody can know for sure, Siwak said — among the most unsettling uncertainties of all.
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