Firebombs at Montreal kosher eateries spark price war rumours
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Saturday, June 15, 2013 - Toronto Star
MONTREAL—Around closing time last weekend two men walked into Montreal’s Chops Resto-Bar, tossed a flaming Molotov cocktail toward the bar and escaped on foot, though not before a security camera picked them up.The damage was limited to a scorched section of the restaurant’s wall and shock among the 20-odd diners wrapping up their meal shortly after midnight Saturday. But there was clearly something nefarious at play. This was the third time since 2011 that Chops, a kosher establishment that serves Asian fusion cuisine, had been targeted with a flaming bottle.Then emerged news of two other firebombings in the previous 48 hours — one at another kosher restaurant a few doors down and another at the home of a Jewish businessman a short drive away — and people immediately assumed anti-Semitism was the spur. But police dashed that theory almost as quickly as the flames.Instead another troubling motive has risen from the ashes, which has the city’s Jewish community facing the possibility that there’s a kosher restaurant war in the predominantly Jewish west-end neighbourhood of Hampstead.The few remarks police have made over the past week suggest they are looking at “competition” as the driving factor. Chops co-owner Ouri Ohayon, who says his high-end restaurant does a brisk business, offers “jealousy” as the likely cause.“We’re not Mafia-related. We’re not gangsters. We don’t owe nothing to anybody. It’s somebody who wants us to be closed,” he said in one of several interviews last week. “We’re a high-end restaurant ... We’re busy every night, thank God.”Ohayon won’t say who he thinks might be targeting his restaurant. He has offered a $20,000 reward to anyone who can help solve the crime.Of that reward, $5,000 is for information identifying each of the two men on the surveillance footage, he said, noting a security camera also captured two men launching a Molotov cocktail into the restaurant last fall in the second of the three attacks he has endured.The remaining $10,000 “is for the person that hired them,” Ohayon said.Ohayon says his own criminal past has no connection to the firebombing campaign. In February 2005, he pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence for intimidating the former wife of a friend in 2004 and 2005 in order to collect on a $150,000 debt.The transcript of a preliminary inquiry obtained by the Star includes testimony that Ohayon badgered a Montreal school teacher — a newly divorced mother of two — to have her repay her ex-husband’s debt. In a 2004 phone call to the woman, Ohayon said he was simply a “messenger” but explained he stood to make a 5-per-cent commission on the repaid loan.When the money didn’t appear, Ohayon became insistent and increasingly aggressive, the woman testified. In a recorded conversation, Ohayon warned her not to go to the police for help and told her “two very large men” would be visiting her if she didn’t soon comply.When she resisted further, her home and that of her elderly parents were pelted with bottles, juice cans and other objects late at night.“I cannot express to you in words properly as a mother who’s scared for her children, for her family ... how the blood dropped from my head and I began to shake, and this was only the beginning of a 5½-month ordeal of having things thrown at my windows,” said the woman.Asked on Friday about the charge, Ohayon downplayed it, saying it was merely a situation that got out of control.“Somebody owed me money and I lost my temper and that’s all it was,” he said.Such activities are rarely brought to light in Montreal’s Jewish community, but the fact that Ohayon’s restaurant has been firebombed on three separate occasions has given rise to speculation about a serious conflict simmering just below Hampstead’s cosy facade.A leader in Montreal’s Jewish community — who asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the situation and the police investigation — said one theory in circulation is that one kosher restaurant felt threatened by the success of either Chops or Cafe Shalom, the other eatery targeted in the early hours of June 9.“In that specific area ... there are so many kosher restaurants,” the community leader said. “But the prices of kosher restaurants are what makes them competitive. Some are less expensive than others.”There are more than a dozen kosher restaurants in Montreal and they are generally divided into two groups: those that serve food containing dairy products and those that sell meat.Jewish dietary laws prohibit the two food types from being eaten together at the same meal. The extra steps involved in slaughtering, inspecting and processing meat to ensure it meets the religious standard tend to drive up the price of a kosher steak.At least one competitor casts doubt on the price-war theory. Amir Toledano, who runs Fuego, a kosher steak house a kilometre away from Chops and Cafe Shalom, noted that the first attack on Ohayon’s restaurant occurred in June 2011, several months before either Fuego or Cafe Shalom opened for business.“When the first one happened there was no competition. So it cannot be a price war,” he said. “And competition? There’s no competition. They could open another five restaurants. There are another three restaurants opening now. There’s room for everybody.”Toledano said police testimony about his past and possible links to gang members that was used to strip a downtown bar of its liquor licence also has no bearing on the Molotov cocktail attacks against kosher restaurants.The written decision by Quebec’s alcohol and gaming commission said the Pub St-James was a hot spot for violence and a known hangout for members of the violent street gang Les Bleus, whose members are mostly Quebec-born Haitians and may have ties to the Hells Angels biker gang.“Amir Toledano was seen at the establishment in the presence of individuals belonging to a criminal group and he presented himself as the owner,” the decision says.The provincial commission also revoked the bar’s alcohol permit, citing Toledano’s unspecified past legal troubles.“What does it have to do with my past from seven years ago,” he said of the current police investigation.“I’m doing very well for myself. I changed my life 360 (degrees), you understand? And I have no friends like this. I work from morning to night.”Toledano noted he has subsequently been able to obtain a licence to serve alcohol at another downtown establishment, suggesting there are no outstanding concerns about his credibility.He also said that he has not been asked by police as a member of the kosher restaurant community about the firebombings of Cafe Shalom and Chops Resto-Bar. He said his primary concern is getting customers back into his restaurant. In the last week, they have been reluctant to dine out, he said.