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The disturbing history of vandalizing Jewish cemeteries

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, on Feb. 21, 2017. (Reuters/Tom Gannam)

The vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in Missouri has caused an uproar after more than 170 headstones were toppled at the historical burial site. There had been several waves of bomb threats made against Jewish community centers in recent weeks, but the recent acts against the cemetery have raised serious alarm and garnered the most prominent media attention yet.

After the disturbing discovery at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted that the incident was “troubling.” President Trump, who had been under fire from some in the Jewish community for not adequately addressing anti-Semitism in the United States, called the incident “horrible and […] painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

Cemetery vandalism is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to Jewish burial sites. “Attacking a cemetery, especially one that is all-Jewish, all-Catholic, or whatever it is, is basically an attack on the culture, the identity of the people that cemetery represents,” said Aaron Breitbart, a researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. 

Police are investigating the incident. Detective Lt. Fredrick Lemons II told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “There’s nothing to indicate it was any type of hate crime.” 

But for Jews, the act of desecrating cemeteries recalls a dark history of prejudice and intimidation against Jewish communities.

In the 19th century there was an outburst of pogroms against Jews under the Russian empire. “One of the aspects of these pogroms, these violent outbursts against the Jewish community, is targeting Jewish property. A very common target is a synagogue or a Jewish store, but also Jewish cemeteries,” explained Michael Meng, associate professor of history at Clemson University.

During World War II, under the Nazi regime, many Jewish cemeteries were damaged across Europe, including in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Poland, Germany and Greece. During Kristallnacht in November 1938, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, along with businesses and synagogues, by anti-Semitic mobs throughout the Reich.

“You might say it’s part of an anti-Jewish tradition, targeting Jewish sites,” Meng said. “It’s part of the history of how violence against Jews has unfolded, that you target a symbolic space, and through targeting that symbolic space you make it clear that you’re targeting the Jewish community.”

“That probably is one of the reasons why people are so alarmed,” about the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, Meng theorized. “This isn’t just an isolated event, but an event in a larger history of persecution against Jews.”

Even in a post-Holocaust world, Jewish cemeteries still fall victim to vandalism.

In October 2016, a month before the general election, a Jewish cemetery in New York was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. Earlier that year, two Jewish cemeteries in Hartford, Conn., were targeted. The incidents aren’t limited to the United States. In 2016, cemeteries and Holocaust memorials were vandalized in Germany, with the acts attributed to far-right groups. In February 2015, graves were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery in France.

Viewing the incident in St. Louis in the context of bomb threats made to Jewish community centers across the country, some members of the American Jewish community have begun to worry if anti-Semitism is rearing its head in the country more prominently.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement that these incidents “reflect the growing boldness of American anti-Semites. Such incidents cannot be ignored or dismissed as aberrations; they must be loudly and unequivocally condemned from all quarters.”

“People in general should be worried right now. Jews have been described as the miner’s canaries. That means everybody else has better watch out, because there’s more trouble coming,” Breitbart said.

“Whenever there is an upsurge in bigotry against any group of people, others generally get caught up in it. It’s a warning not simply to Jews but to society that there is a certain sickness, a certain rottenness that is rearing its ugly head once again. It may be the Jews one time, but it’ll be others as well. That’s why all forms of bigotry are dangerous, even if you aren’t the target at the particular time.”