Near the end of a bitter, divisive presidential campaign, the desecration marks yet another instance of political tensions apparently producing ugly and sometimes violent attacks. In Florida and the Berkshires, yard signs have been bulldozed and lit on fire. In Boston and Southern California, ballot drop-off boxes have burned to the ground. Across the country, dueling political rallies and protests have devolved into physical confrontations.
“Tensions are high, and everyone is on alert for all kinds of difficulties,” Carolyn Normandin, the ADL’s Michigan regional director, told The Washington Post. “But this in particular is heinous because it’s awful to know that somebody would disturb gravesites. It’s just not okay.”
While Normandin cautioned against labeling the incident as an act of anti-Semitism without more information, she called the incident “disgusting and vile.”
“It’s hard to know what is going on in the minds of anyone who would attack a gravesite,” she added. “It’s a personal attack on an individual who can’t do anything about it.”
The Ahavas Israel Cemetery, which belongs to a Conservative synagogue of the same name, sits in a leafy, residential part of Grand Rapids near Catholic, Lithuanian American and city-run graveyards. The 125-year-old Congregation Ahavas Israel is one of just a handful of synagogues in Grand Rapids, where the Jewish population totals about 1,000 people.
It has not been long since that community last faced a hateful attack. Last year, an extremist neo-Nazi group hung anti-Semitic posters on the outside of a nearby Reform synagogue, including one that read: “A crusade against Semite led subhumans.”
Nationally and statewide, reports of such attacks are also on the rise. More than 2,100 anti-Semitic incidents were reported to the ADL in 2019, up 12 percent from the previous year and setting a record since the organization began tracking the data four decades ago. Reports to the ADL of anti-Semitic incidents in Michigan doubled from 2018 to 2019, Normandin said.
The vandalism at Ahavas Israel Cemetery was first spotted around 8 a.m. Monday by a congregation member. At least six tombstones were defaced with the graffiti, Normandin said, and the incident was promptly reported to local law enforcement officials as well as her own organization.
Grand Rapids police did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.
David J.B. Krishef, the rabbi at Ahavas Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it was unclear if the vandalism was an attack on the Jewish community.
“It’s Halloween weekend. There was nothing spray-painted that indicated anything specifically anti-Semitic,” he said. “Whoever did this may or may not have known that this was a Jewish cemetery."
But liberal groups were swift to seize on the incident.
“Make no mistake, this heinous act was committed on the eve of the 2020 election to send an intimidating message to the president’s opponents, and particularly, Jewish voters,” Michigan Jewish Democrats said in a statement, adding that such an effort would not keep them from the polls.
Hours after the vandalism was discovered, Trump arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, speaking before a crowd of thousands of supporters in the Michigan suburbs that could prove decisive in this year’s election. In 2016, before he won the state by a razor-thin margin, Trump also staged his final campaign rally in Grand Rapids.
“I kept saying we have to finish off here,” he said. “We can be a little superstitious, right?”
Trump did not appear to address the incident at Ahavas Israel during the campaign event, and his campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Tuesday. By the time of the rally, several Michigan lawmakers had condemned the act at the cemetery.
“We stand united with our Jewish friends and neighbors against this disgusting act of vandalism, desecration, and hate toward our fellow human beings,” Rep. Justin Amash, a Libertarian from Michigan whose district includes Grand Rapids, wrote on Twitter Monday.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who is Jewish, said she was “deeply disturbed” by the incident, particularly given the sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Michigan.
“Our system is brimming with tension, hate, and bigotry,” she said. “We’re at risk of it becoming normal. It’s never been more important to find a path forward.”