Probe into 'reprehensible' toppling of 100 headstones at Jewish cemetery

By Mark Berman

Damaged headstones rest on the ground at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. Photo / AP
Damaged headstones rest on the ground at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. Photo / AP

Police in Philadelphia are investigating what they call a targeted act of vandalism that toppled more than 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in the city, just a week after a similar incident occurred in Missouri.

Although US authorities investigating both cases have not deemed them hate crimes, the episodes have sparked alarm among Jewish groups and public officials at a time when reports of anti-Semitic actions appear to be on the rise.

"For the second time in a week, a group of cowards vandalised a Jewish cemetery, desecrating the resting place of people who could not defend themselves," Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said.

In Philadelphia, the headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery were apparently knocked over sometime yesterday, police said.

Precisely who is behind the incident remains unclear, as the Philadelphia police did not say they think the headstones were targeted because they are at a Jewish cemetery.

But the police department decried a "reprehensible" act they said appeared aimed at a particular group of graves.

"We must allow the investigation to take its course before we can determine a specific motive or label as a particular type of crime," the Philadelphia police said. "However, this is an abominable crime, that appears to target these particular headstones."

Compounding the anxiety, a wave of threats were reported at Jewish schools and centres nationwide today, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has documented dozens of such threats recently.

They similarly reported threats a week earlier, even as the community in the St Louis area was still reeling after more than 150 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in suburban University City, Missouri, were toppled or damaged.

The Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect, a nonprofit organisation targeting discrimination, released a statement saying it is "sickened, sickened, sickened" by the incident, and calling on President Donald Trump to explain how his Administration plans to target episodes of bias and hate against Jewish and Muslim people.

Following the episode in Missouri, Trump relented in the face of mounting criticism and offered his first public condemnation of the anti-Semitic incidents that have unfolded since he was elected.

Trump had twice been asked to condemn these episodes this month during news conferences, but declined to do so. In one news conference, he responded by talking about his electoral victory and referred to healing the nation's divisions, while during the second news conference he criticised the reporter for asking what he called an "insulting" question.

The Anne Frank Centre assailed Trump's comments as "a pathetic asterisk of condescension" and criticised his Administration for its behaviour, including the White House's decision not to mention Jews in a statement remembering the Holocaust.

Vice-President Mike Pence visited the cemetery in University City a day after Trump's remarks, speaking out against anti-Semitism and condemning the vandalism there. He has continued to speak out against such acts, becoming the Trump Administration's most high-profile voice on the subject.

Today, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump decried the the vandalism in Philadelphia and anti-Semitic acts elsewhere in the country.

"The President continues to condemn these and other anti-Semitic and hateful acts in the strongest terms," Spicer said during his briefing. "No one in America should feel afraid to follow the religion of their choosing freely and openly."

According to FBI statistics detailing hate crimes in 2015, there were 664 known incidents of bias motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment involving more than 700 victims.

Following the Philadelphia incident, a Muslim activist who helped raise money to clean up the cemetery outside St Louis similarly reached out to help and also visited the cemetery.

- Washington Post

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