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Community unhappy with police in probe of murder of Jewish dentist

“Those saying this was not a hate crime need to rethink what they define as hate,” the victim’s brother wrote.

Smile Plus Dentistry & Orthodontics in El Cajon, Calif. Source: Google Street View.
Smile Plus Dentistry & Orthodontics in El Cajon, Calif. Source: Google Street View.

Jews are vocalizing their disappointment with the El Cajon Police Department’s statement that it is investigating the “exact motive” behind a shooting that killed a Jewish dentist and wounded two others, and that the killer appeared to be “a disgruntled former customer,” Bill Wells, the mayor of the San Diego city told JNS.

“A lot of people in the Jewish community felt very slighted,” Wells said. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think they are trying to calm everybody down. It doesn’t appear to be an organized jihadist attack.”

Police arrested Mohammed Abdulkareem, 29, on Feb. 29 after he allegedly killed Dr. Benjamin Harouni. He has been booked in San Diego County Central Jail and faces several felony charges, including a count of murder and two of attempted murder.

The dentist’s brother Jake Harouni, called the attack a hate crime.

“Those saying this was not a hate crime need to rethink what they define as hate. My brother was murdered in cold blood, yet the internet and media want to spin the narrative around and blame this on the murderer being deranged,” Jake Harouni wrote on Instagram.

“You can be both deranged and have hate in your heart,” he added. “Ben, we will not let you leave in vain. We will be setting up a GoFundMe in order for anyone to be able to donate to an organization we will be creating named Humans Against Hate.”

“This hate needs to end,” the victim’s brother 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.”

In his eulogy at Harouni’s funeral on Sunday, Rabbi Reuven Taff, the Harouni family’s rabbi in Sacramento for 25 years, said that the victim was “struck down in a senseless act of violence, in all likelihood because he was a Jew,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Also at the funeral, Sharona Nazarian, a Beverly Hills councilwoman, said she didn’t know the killer’s motive, but everyone must “stand up against hatred and antisemitism and unjust acts such as this,” and that Harouni’s “life was senselessly taken because of hate and discrimination,” per the Union-Tribune.

Wells, the El Cajon mayor, echoed one of Jake Harouni’s points about the alleged killer. “I am told he has been described as psychotic, a paranoid delusional,” Wells told JNS, “It’s possible that you are schizophrenic and still are radicalized.”

Wells, who is running as a Republican in a bid to unseat Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) in the 51st District, which includes El Cajon, has raised nearly $565,000, compared to about $985,000 for Jacobs, who is Jewish, per U.S. Federal Election Commission data.

Wells told JNS that the investigation, which the El Cajon police has said involved the FBI, “is kind of out of our hands.”

“What do we know? We know that a man walks into a dentist’s office. He appears to have a former relationship with this patient. He shot the dentist, shot two other people. The dentist died. The others are in critical condition,” Wells said.

He told JNS that the gun was purchased two weeks before the shooting. Asked if it was legally purchased, he said he didn’t know. “We don’t have the forensics back yet,” he said.

Abdulkareem is a legal U.S. citizen who immigrated from Iraq in 2012, Wells told JNS. “He has a driver’s license and was able to buy a gun.”

‘No indication attack was racially, politically motivated’

The California resident Stella Escobedo, a Jewish journalist whose early social posts spread the story of the shooting on social media, told JNS that she is concerned about how police have handled the case.

“We all know that since Oct. 7, Jew-hatred has been on the rise,” she said. “Although there must be a thorough investigation, I’m disturbed by the fact that the chief of police in El Cajon was so quick to say that this tragedy was not a hate crime.” (The police chief said, “There is no indication this was a hate crime related to race.”)

Harouni’s name was not initially reported widely, beyond Yeshiva World News, which appeared to be the first to name him. Escobedo told JNS that she confirmed the details of the shooting with those who knew Dr. Harouni.

She urged authorities to consider hate-crime charges against the suspect.

“You can be a disgruntled person and also be antisemitic,” she said. “As a Jewish woman myself, the fact that the suspect is Muslim and the victim is Jewish must be investigated thoroughly to see if Jew-hatred was a motive.” 

She told JNS that “when it comes to different races or ethnicities, that’s always taken into consideration.” 

“We understand there are concerns about the suspect’s motive,” the El Cajon Police Department stated on March 1. “While we are still in the early stages of the investigation, we want to make it clear that there is no indication the attack was racially or politically motivated. As we continue to conduct a thorough investigation, we will keep the community informed of any new developments.”

A candlelight vigil honored Harouni on Sunday. “Benjamin’s brother, Jake, spoke passionately about his amazing brother whose life was tragically cut short. May his memory be a blessing,” Escobedo wrote of the vigil alongside video footage she posted on Instagram.

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