Hate is real. That part is always true. The shocks of terror that regularly rip through the world remind us that it lives everywhere humans do: in the last seven months alone, hatred claimed 11 lives at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Fifty more at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. More than 350 in Easter attacks in Sri Lanka.
And those incidents are just the most horrific of the attacks hate has recently driven against people because of their race, their gender or sexual orientation, or religion. This month, police in Louisiana arrested a young man suspected of arson attacks against three black churches, a white supremacist terror tactic of longstanding tradition.
Hate is real. It ebbs and flows and is fanned by extremists. We can hold it at bay, but it is never truly defeated.
So last week, when police announced BerMax Caffé + Bistro on Corydon Avenue had been targeted for a hate crime on the night before Passover, an attack a spokesman with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg called "the most brazen act of anti-Semitism that we’ve seen in our community, and perhaps ever," it easily tore open a wound.
After all, hate is real, and it festers, and Winnipeg is not immune. This city is not known as a hotbed for outbursts of bigoted violence; but Pittsburgh and Quebec City and Christchurch weren’t either. So when the hatred that so often simmers below the surface seemed to boil up at BerMax, it brought a fresh wave of fear with it.
Who did this? What caused it? If this sort of attack can happen today, what could happen tomorrow?
But in the wake of this fear, the community did what healthy communities do, which was to come together. Friends of the business set up fundraisers, and many people donated. There was an interfaith prayer vigil planned for Thursday night, and all over social media, people of all backgrounds rallied to affirm support for their Jewish neighbours.
So what a shock when, six days later, police released new information: the attack, they believe, didn’t actually happen.
The anti-Semitic vandalism, the damage to the restaurant, the assault on co-owner Oxana Berent; all of it staged, police Chief Danny Smyth said, though he would not speculate on a possible motivation.
The cafe’s owners, Alexander Berent, Oxana Berent and son Maxim Berent have been charged with public mischief. The allegations have yet to be proven in court, and the family has proclaimed their innocence. Winnipeg police were on scene for days, and clearly feel strongly enough about the evidence to call it a hoax; but police can be wrong.
So there is little else the public can do now, but to sit and wait and let the justice system work it out.
Still, this incident lands heavily on the public, because it drew so much on the public conscience. This is to be expected. In the wake of high-profile hate-crime hoaxes — and there have been a number — the fallout always circulates on a core question: after a hoax, will we be more hesitant to believe hatred’s real victims?
To some, the existence of hate-crimes hoaxes speaks to a problem inherent to that belief. The issue, they argue, is that media and concerned citizens enflame fears of hate-motivated violence and, in so doing, create an atmosphere that is ripe for public sympathies to be manipulated, for people to rush to belief before facts have been counted.
I would contend otherwise: it’s not the call to rally in support victims of hate that produces an environment of which hoaxsters can take advantage. It is the existence of the hate itself which both makes such solidarity necessary, and cloaks some fraudulent actions; so that is where the majority of our focus and condemnation belongs.
One of the core aims of terror is to do through fear what it cannot do through force alone, which is to divide and weaken. When all are afraid, when all are suspicious, when all are shaken by the fear that what happened there could also happen here, those are the fault lines in communities that hatred celebrates cracking open.
It is through those cracks that hoaxes can spring up. The hoax depends on a threat being real, to be realistic; to be believable as a hate-driven attack, it also needs precedent. And there is no shortage of precedent for anti-Semitic hatred. In this case, the details didn’t hold up to investigation, but that doesn’t mean the foundation isn’t real.
So if what happened at BerMax was staged, as police allege, the biggest mistake of all would be to let it claim the public’s goodwill as a victim. Those who enact real hate would rejoice to see genuine outpourings of solidarity be dampened by suspicion; they are, after all, they ones who would benefit most from cracks of doubt.
Meanwhile, whatever their tactics and motivations, the thing common to hoaxsters and frauds is they prey on the best qualities of their victims. A con man might prey on an elderly woman’s capacity to love; a pyramid schemer might pounce upon a struggling parent’s desire to take care of their family, and wield it against them.
And when a community is shown what it fears to be the darkness in its own reflection, and responds to that fear with solidarity, with generosity, with compassion, those are the best parts of us. That is the saving grace of what it is to be human, and in a world racked with real hatred, that enduring light is our strongest defence against harm.
There will always be some who try to leverage that light to extract funds or sympathy or attention. But if their actions also threaten to chip away at the goodness in our community, well, they can’t have it. For that light is our best asset and must be protected, even if it is sometimes twisted against us; a bigger loss would be to let it slip away.