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Alleged vandalizer of Holocaust memorial has mental health issues, defense says

The man charged with damaging the New England Holocaust Memorial has a “host of mental health issues,” his defense attorney said Wednesday.
The man charged with damaging the New England Holocaust Memorial has a “host of mental health issues,” his defense attorney said Wednesday.

The tattoo the Nazis branded him with at Auschwitz is still legible on his forearm: A-18651.

Israel Arbeiter, 92, who survived more than five years in concentration camps, never had it removed.

“Why should I?” he said Wednesday. “I keep it to show what I went through.”

Arbeiter was among the organizers who built the New England Holocaust Memorial in the 1990s, and he was among those in the Jewish community shocked and deeply hurt when the downtown Boston memorial was damaged early Wednesday morning, allegedly by a 21-year-old from Roxbury with a history of mental illness.

Just hours later, Arbeiter and other civic leaders gathered at the site in a show of solidarity, pledging to repair and rededicate the memorial.


“The Jewish people are strong; the city of Boston is strong,” he said. “We’ll work. We’ll build. We’ll rebuild.”

Around 1:50 a.m. Wednesday, James E. Isaac was arrested after a witness reported seeing him throw a large rock at the memorial, shattering a glass panel, Police Commissioner William B. Evans said.

At Isaac’s arraignment in Boston Municipal Court, his lawyer, Rebecca Kozak, said her client “is struggling considerably” with mental health issues and is participating in a partial hospitalization program at an Arbour Health System facility in Jamaica Plain. His father was murdered when he was 8 years old, she said.

Israel Arbeiter.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Isaac is a high school senior who is expected to graduate next year, she said.

Isaac pleaded not guilty. He was held on $750 bail, but his bail on a pending case was revoked. He is due back in court July 18.

Isaac was arraigned two weeks ago in Chelsea on a charge of assault and battery, and is due back in court in August in that case, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office. Last year, Isaac was arraigned in Roxbury District Court on a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon. That case was continued without a finding, Conley’s office said.


Isaac had been involved in several other cases that were dismissed, including accusations of threats and destruction of property.

On Wednesday, Isaac was charged with malicious destruction of property and causing more than $5,000 in damage to a place of worship, which includes buildings used to memorialize the dead.

Robert O. Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Isaac’s alleged history of mental health problems should not affect how Boston responds to the destructive act.

“Regardless of the motive, the impact on the community is the same,” he said.

Late Wednesday morning, broken glass was still piled at the foot of one of the six towers that make up the memorial. Glass the size of ice cubes were scattered in the nearby grass.

Jeremy Burton, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said Wednesday that extra glass panes were produced and stored when the monument was built, and he did not anticipate the repair would take long.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh decried the “vandalism at this sacred place.”

“As a city we stand with the Jewish community,” Walsh said at a news conference at the memorial, which is near City Hall, the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, and tourist attractions such as the Freedom Trail.

Barry Shrage, chief executive of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said he was proud of the community’s support. “This is an amazing city with great heart,” he said. “We are so proud to be here together to resist evil and to stand for good.”


The Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations commended Boston police for the arrest.

“Massachusetts Muslims stand in solidarity with the Jewish community in Boston and across our state,” the council’s executive director, Dr. John Robbins, said in a statement. “While we do not yet know the motive behind this crime, desecration of a religious memorial is always heartbreaking and must be condemned. We hope that the prompt arrest by the Boston police provides some measure of comfort to the local Jewish community.”

The memorial features six chimney-like glass towers, built with 132 panes of glass etched with numbers, an allegory for the numbers tattooed onto the arms of Jews murdered in Nazi death camps. The six towers symbolize the estimated six million Jews killed in six main death camps from 1939 to 1945.

Each tower has 22 panes of glass; each pane is inscribed with 17,280 numbers, according to the memorial’s website.

Designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz, the memorial allows visitors to pass through the towers on a dark granite walkway.

Some 8,000 people attended the memorial’s dedication in 1995; Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke at the ceremony.

Boston Police detective searched through the broken glass for evidence. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
Israel Arbeiter, president of The American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston, spoke at a press conference. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Mike Bello and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.