Desecrating a cemetery is a particularly heinous act.
This is why the Nazis deliberately dismantled Jewish cemeteries in Germany, Poland and across the swath of Europe they once controlled, using the gravestones as paved stones, forcefully telegraphing the message: We don’t honor these dead. We walk all over them.
This is why states and municipalities in this country have specific laws against defacing and desecrating cemeteries. Vandalism and destruction of tombstones are criminal offenses. In some states, the crime is a felony because a burial ground is not just another piece of public or private property. It has a recognized sacred purpose.
This is why the damage done to Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in suburban St. Louis, where upward of 150 headstones were overturned in mid-February, followed by the vandalism of 500 tombstones at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia in the past few days, is so appalling. It cuts deep, compounding the grief that already resides in a place where we say a final goodbye to loved ones.
Desecrating a cemetery is also a particularly cowardly act.
After all, the vandals — or in at least these two cases, the anti-Semites — will face no resistance. The dead are dead. The mourners come and go. The setting is meant to be quiet, removed, private.
What do these cowards want? To inflict harm for the hell of it? To make a statement? To infuriate or frighten?
It’s not the first time in the past few years that Jewish cemeteries have been damaged; these incidents have occurred elsewhere in the United States and Europe. But in this fraught political moment, when anti-Semitism that had been long dormant is being aroused and given social permission by even top White House officials, it’s impossible not to see these incidents as part of a larger, more incendiary trend.
But if the actions are heinous and cowardly, the response is affirming. Vigils are being held. Public officials are speaking out. The Israeli government, inexplicably slow to respond to rising anti-Semitism in the United States, called this incident “shocking.”
Even Vice President Mike Pence, representing an administration that is swift to condemn a department store for a business decision but unconscionably slow to condemn hatred of minorities, realized he had a responsibility to do something when he was pictured, rake in hand, helping to clean up the destruction in St. Louis.
More gratifying is the continuing support from the Muslim community. An effort organized by Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi had intended to raise $20,000 after the St. Louis vandalism. The total now surpasses $130,000, and the organizers say that they are reaching out to help repair the damage in Philadelphia.
“Through this campaign,” they wrote, “we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration and violence in America. We pray that this restores a sense of security and peace to the Jewish-American community who has undoubtedly been shaken by this event.”
Thanks to all these efforts, the cemeteries will undoubtedly be repaired. Security will be increased. If it happens again, I am certain that the response will be equally swift and sure.
But America needs to search its soul and ask how it has happened that even the resting places of the dead have become the battlegrounds for bigots.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.