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Man charged in Portland, Ore., synagogue and mosque vandalism spree

Michael Bivins had been a freelance journalist covering protests in Portland.

(JTA) — A man who once reported about political extremism in Portland, Oregon, was arrested this week in connection with a string of vandalism incidents at synagogues and a mosque there.

Michael Bivins was charged with one count of arson and three counts of criminal mischief, according to Willamette Week, the weekly independent newspaper where many of his articles appeared.

The charges stemmed from three incidents at local houses of worship: a rock thrown through a window at Congregation Shir Tikvah April 30; a fire and graffiti at Congregation Beth Israel on May 2 and 4; and a fire at the Muslim Community Center of Portland May 3.

Bivins had taken photos and video at clashes between police and protesters in Portland, where the Trump administration cracked down on protesters in 2020, according to local media. (The Oregon attorney general who battled Trump is a Beth Israel congregant.) His Twitter account shows that he more recently had begun posting anti-mask content and conspiracy theories about the Biden administration and had also experienced housing instability in the last year.

Police and local Jewish leaders initially said they did not believe the incidents were connected.

“The message I’m giving to my community is that I don’t want anyone sitting in fear,” Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Michael Cahana told Oregon Public Broadcasting after the first incident there. “We don’t believe that this is part of a larger threat. There haven’t been other antisemitic incidents reported around town.”

But as the string continued and the vandal was caught on video, police made the connection. Jewish advocacy groups such as StandWithUs and StopAntisemitism publicized the incidents, connecting them to a broader spike in reported incidents of antisemitism.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who is Jewish and also a Beth Israel member, denounced the vandalism there, which included the words “Die Juden” spray-painted on an outside wall.

“Hate speech and vandalism must never be allowed to terrorize Portland or any community,” Wyden tweeted. “I stand with Rabbi Cahana and our entire synagogue by adding my voice to his when he says we all must be vigilant against these attacks.”

After Bivins’ arrest, which came after he entered a local TV station and asked to speak with a reporter there, Cahana said the episode underscore the importance of reporting even seemingly minor incidents.

“This series of events, which has shaken our community, is an important reminder that even incidents which seem random and unrelated or too minor to bother with, should be properly reported,” he wrote in a letter to congregants. “We are all responsible for one another.”

The incidents at the synagogues came just after Yom Hashoah, the Jewish Holocaust memorial day, while the mosque fire came just after Eid, the festival to mark the end of Ramadan.

The incidents are not the first at Portland-area synagogues in recent years. Beth Israel was the site of a fire in late 2020; that year, Chabad Jewish centers in the city experienced two fires.

This article originally appeared on JTA.org.

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