Calls mount to investigate killing of San Diego Jewish dentist as a hate crime

Benjamin Harouni allegedly shot dead by 29-year-old Mohammed Abdulkareem; multiple Jewish advocacy groups demand police look at antisemitism as motive; mayor vows to ‘get to truth’

El Cajon, California, Mayor Bill Wells speaks at a vigil in memory of Dr. Benjamin Harouni, a Jewish dentist who was murdered at his practice on February 29, 2024, in El Cajon, March 3, 2024. (Screenshot from video via JTA)
El Cajon, California, Mayor Bill Wells speaks at a vigil in memory of Dr. Benjamin Harouni, a Jewish dentist who was murdered at his practice on February 29, 2024, in El Cajon, March 3, 2024. (Screenshot from video via JTA)

The brother of a San Diego-area Jewish dentist killed at his office on Thursday says Benjamin Harouni was “murdered in cold blood” in an act of hate and pledged to set up a nonprofit to combat hatred in his memory.

Local police have not declared the incident a hate crime, saying that the motive for the shooting remains under investigation and noting that the alleged murderer appears to have been “a disgruntled former customer” of Harouni’s dental practice.

But Jake Harouni’s Instagram post is emblematic of a coalescing discourse surrounding his brother’s death: Jews and pro-Israel activists say the killing, allegedly at the hands of 29-year-old Mohammed Abdulkareem, was likely an act of antisemitism amid the heated atmosphere surrounding the Israel-Hamas war.

“Those saying this was not a hate crime need to rethink what they define as hate,” Jake Harouni wrote in his post. He added, “As a Persian-Jewish American, I have always felt so scared and vulnerable during these times of hatred. Now that it is at my front door, it feels much more real and urgent.”

Multiple Jewish advocacy groups are demanding that local police investigate whether antisemitism played a role in Dr. Benjamin Harouni’s killing, and his childhood rabbi said at his funeral Sunday morning that he was “struck down in a senseless act of violence, in all likelihood because he was a Jew.”

At a vigil Sunday night, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells acknowledged fears that law enforcement could obscure antisemitic motivations for the murder but promised to uncover the facts.

“People have told me that they’re concerned that the city or the FBI or whoever’s in charge may try to sweep this under the rug and treat this as though it were a simple crime,” Wells said.

He pledged, “We will get to the truth of what happened.”

We are heartbroken and outraged to learn of the murder of Dr. Benjamin Harouni at his dental practice in San Diego at…

Posted by StandWithUs on Friday, March 1, 2024

Harouni’s killing took place Thursday afternoon at Smile Plus Dentistry, the practice run by his father, Jack. Harouni, who was 28, joined the practice after graduating from dental school in 2022.

According to an account distributed by the El Cajon Police Department on Friday morning, three people were shot at the office just after 4 p.m. One of them, Harouni, died at the scene. The suspect fled in a rented U-Haul truck, which the police department was able to associate with Abdulkareem. When police apprehended Abdulkareem several hours later, he was armed with a handgun that he had purchased legally less than two weeks ago, police said.

Abdulkareem is currently being held in the San Diego County Central Jail on murder and attempted murder charges. The sheriff’s department’s inmate database says he was booked shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday and lists his ethnicity as “Middle Eastern.”

“Further investigation into the incident may reveal additional felony charges,” the El Cajon police statement said.

Harouni’s family and a growing number of Jewish and pro-Israel voices believe those charges should potentially include hate crimes. They say they believe Harouni may have been targeted because he was Jewish, at a time when record numbers of antisemitic incidents are being reported.

The right-wing commentator Caroline Glick, who lives in Israel, called Abdulkareem a “jihadi” without citing evidence and noted that the vehicle he rented, a white pickup truck, was the same as that used by Hamas terrorists in their October 7 attack on Israel.

The Palestinian terror group led a devastating attack that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Terrorists also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages in Gaza. Israel responded with a military campaign to topple the Hamas regime, destroy the terror group, and free the hostages.

But others were more cautious about drawing a firm conclusion about the killer’s motive, even as they indicated their concerns.

An announcement about the vigil said it had been “organized by the community to bring awareness to the senseless loss of life and to highlight the identities of the victim and the perpetrator: a Jewish man killed by a Muslim man.”

The announcement added, “While the role of antisemitism remains to be seen, what is known for sure is that hate has permeated our society and has led to senseless violence such as this tragedy.”

Harouni grew up in Sacramento in an Iranian-American Jewish family. He graduated from the Shalom School, a Jewish elementary school, in 2008, according to a Facebook post by the school, and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Conservative Mosaic Law Congregation, whose rabbi emeritus, Reuven Taff, spoke at his funeral. Taff recalled Harouni as “a deeply spiritual human being [who] was wiser than his years,” according to local media reports.

Harouni later moved with his family — his parents and two brothers — to San Diego. The pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs posted that he was an inaugural fellow with the group when he was in high school, before attending college at the University of Southern California.

“Media outlets have been dismissing the shooting as a result of mental instability, as they often do when Jews are the victims of murderous hate,” StandWithUs said on Facebook. “We call on law enforcement to investigate this as a hate crime.”

Also saying that police too often dismiss those whose victims are Jewish as mentally ill, the social media-based watchdog StopAntisemitism is asking supporters to press the El Cajon police department to investigate whether antisemitism contributed to the crime.

“Right now we don’t know [Abdulkareem’s] motivations, but I see a lot of posts asserting that this was a hate crime,” the pro-Israel activist Hen Mazzig posted. “While it’s not confirmed yet, the rise in antisemitism puts us at risk of extreme violence every day.”

Amid a climate of heightened fear since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, triggering war, two high-profile killings of Jews have taken place in the United States. In one, a Jewish man named Paul Kessler died following a physical altercation during dueling protests over the Israel-Hamas war in Thousand Oaks, California, near Los Angeles; a man named Loay Alnaji has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

A man who declined to share his last name places flowers that he bought at the site where Paul Kessler died during an altercation at a rally supporting Israel, November 7, 2023. (Jacob Gurvis/JTA)

In the other case, the murder of a synagogue president in Detroit which prompted widespread concern about a possible antisemitic attack, police have charged a man with murder whom they say randomly entered Samantha Woll’s home and stabbed her to death. They have stressed that there is no evidence the killing was motivated by antisemitism.

On Sunday night, some 200 mourners gathered at the vigil in Harouni’s memory, hours after hundreds more attended his funeral in the Olam HaEmes section of El Camino Memorial Park, a San Diego cemetery.

A student group for Persian Jews at the University of Southern California, Harouni’s alma mater, said in a post that the alleged murder has resurfaced Persian Jewish communal trauma.

“As Persian Jews, our families escaped the Islamic Republic of Iran so we, their children, could live free of religious-based violence,” read the Instagram post by the USC Persian Community at Hillel. “Yet, 45 years later in the USA, we continue to face the same ugly hatred that claimed the life of Dr. Harouni.”

As the discourse surrounding Harouni’s alleged murder has evolved, more established Jewish organizations have recalibrated their reactions.

On Friday, following the first reports of the incident, the San Diego office of the Anti-Defamation League expressed sympathy for Harouni’s family but cautioned that “there is no indication of the murder being motivated by antisemitism.” The following day, the ADL released a new statement saying “it is critical that all possible motives — including antisemitism — that led to the tragic murder of Benjamin Harouni be investigated.”

Detroit police officers work near the scene where Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue president, Samantha Woll, was found dead in Detroit, October 21, 2023. (Sarah RICE/AFP)

Rabbi Zalman Carlebach of Chabad of Downtown San Diego, who is in close touch with the Harouni family, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Friday that he had little information.

Abdulkareem’s “name is very indicative of Arab influence, and the doctor is a Jewish doctor,” he said at the time. “That’s all we know.”

In a second interview on Sunday, Carlebach told JTA that community members have pointed him toward social media profiles that, they say, match the suspect and show evidence of his extremism.

A Facebook page belonging to someone local with the same name, although spelled differently, and who appeared to begin college in 2015, includes expressions of Palestinian solidarity; the page has not been updated in years and could not be verified as belonging to the suspect.

Carlebach said he now believed Harouni’s death was likely the result of an antisemitic act.

“It’s hard to say that it wasn’t,” the rabbi said, adding, “The truth is going to come out.”

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