Why Attacks on Jewish Cemeteries Provoke Particular Fear

Each new incident assumes added significance for Muslims and Jews who see them as part of a broader pattern.

Jewish headstones were toppled in a cemetery in Philadelphia.  (Tom Mihalek / Reuters)

Tarek El-Messidi had been planning to leave Philadelphia to visit family on Sunday night. But when he heard that Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery had been desecrated, he cancelled his flight. El-Messidi is Muslim, but he felt it was important to be with his hometown Jewish community at that moment, he said. “Both communities in America are being targeted right now. There’s a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism,” he said. “That could have just as easily been a Muslim cemetery.”

Just one week after a Jewish cemetery in Missouri was vandalized, Philadelphia police reported that roughly 100 headstones have been toppled or damaged in the Mount Carmel cemetery. These are not easy monuments to knock down, El-Messidi said: He saw several toppled stones that were three or four feet wide at the base. El-Messidi and the local rabbis who showed up on Sunday night said their group observed far more extensive damage than police reported, with more than 500 headstones affected throughout the cemetery. It’s not clear when that damage happened, though, or whether it was all intentional.

Like El-Messidi, Philadelphia Jewish leaders have been quick to condemn the vandalism as an act of targeted anti-Semitism. “After you start walking from row to row,” said Shawn Zevit, the lead rabbi at Mishkan Shalom, a local Reconstructionist synagogue, “it quickly moves from a random act of vandalism to something with larger intentions and a systematic approach to things.”

Proving those “larger intentions” of anti-Semitism may be harder than it seems. While the timing of the two acts of vandalism may seem deliberate and discriminatory, religiously motivated hate crimes are notoriously difficult to prove. What’s clear is that people are scared, and they see the destruction of cemeteries as an implicit threat. On Monday, 13 Jewish Community Centers around the country received bomb threats, according to a spokesperson, the most recent wave of threats since January. Muslims’ and Jews’ strong reactions to the cemetery vandalism underscores the heightened sense of discrimination both groups feel right now. As each community continues dealing with attacks like this, they may feel drawn to act together more frequently—in part because they’re operating in similar environments of religious hatred.

To prosecute an act of vandalism as a hate crime, law-enforcement officers face several important challenges, said Jack Levin, a professor emeritus of criminology at Northeastern University who studies hate crimes. First, they have to identify the culprits. Then, they have to provide evidence, from bigoted graffiti to suspects’ statements, that crimes were motivated by religious hatred. “In many hate crimes, the offenders are simply not that stupid to leave evidence of the motivation at the crime scene,” Levin said. “We may all think a hate crime has occurred, but prosecutors refuse to charge” because of a lack of evidence.

“Hatemongers don’t specialize.”

Sometimes, crimes like this are motivated by youthful stupidity. “Chances are, they are teenagers or young adults in a group who went out on a Saturday night looking for a little fun at the expense of the outsiders—in this case, Jews,” Levin said. He thinks Jewish institutions—including the many Jewish Community Centers that have been getting bomb threats in recent weeks—are often targeted because there are so many of them. The perpetrators may as well have chosen a Muslim cemetery, he said. “Hatemongers don’t specialize.”

And yet, the fear people have expressed in the wake of these cemetery attacks is distinctive. When headstones are tipped over in Christian cemeteries or family plots, it typically doesn’t become a national news story. “Why is there a stronger reaction to the desecration of a Jewish cemetery than to a Catholic cemetery?” Levin said. “The answer has to be given in historical context. Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head for thousands of years.”

This history seemed to be on the minds of some of the rabbis and other community members who gathered at Mount Carmel on Sunday night.“It comes in the context of systemic anti-Semitism,” said Ari Lev Fornari, the rabbi at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, on Monday, referring to America’s political atmosphere. Levin cautioned, though, that “it’s kind of hard to make the case that [Trump] is in any way responsible for anti-Semitic hate crimes,” especially because the president’s daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. Trump has condemned recent acts of anti-Semitism, and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Missouri cemetery last week following the vandalism.

If anything, Jews are experiencing an intensification of a hatred that was already present, as are American Muslims. According to the FBI, Jews and Muslims together account for the vast majority of religiously motivated hate crimes: In 2015, 51 percent were committed against Jews, while 22 percent were against Muslims—and those are just the crimes for which the motive can be proven. This isn’t even the first time Mount Carmel has been desecrated: In 1989, dozens of tombstones were shattered and scrawled with graffiti, according to a story from the time by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“The silver lining in … this kind of eco-system of hate is that both communities are reaching out.”

What does seem to be new, though, is some Muslims’ and Jews’ urgent desire to collaborate in the wake of attacks. After the Missouri cemetery attack, El-Messidi, who runs a Muslim non-profit called Celebrate Mercy, started a fundraising campaign with the political organizer Linda Sarsour. He said they felt motivated by a story about Prophet Muhammad, who stood as a Jewish funeral procession went by as a sign of respect. The Missouri fund quickly reached its goal, and the pair plan to use the extra money to help out in Philadelphia. By Monday, El-Messidi said, the total was over $130,000.

Things haven’t always been this way. “The Jewish and Muslim communities in America haven’t worked that closely together before,” El-Messidi said. Issues like Israel-Palestine often divide the two communities, he said, but “I’m not asking about the politics of the dead people whose graves we’re trying to repair.” Despite the sadness of the desecrated headstones, he said, “the silver lining in this tragedy, and this kind of eco-system of hate, is that both communities are reaching out, getting to know one another, and standing together to defend each other against this kind of bigotry.”

That’s why the graveyard solidarity between Jews and Muslims is so significant: It suggests that at least some representatives of both groups, particularly those who are progressive and strongly anti-Trump, are looking to reframe their relationship. Although “the conservative voices in both Islam and Judaism, especially related to Israel and Palestine, have attempted to create a narrative that divides us,” Fornari said, “we long to be connected to each other. We are both religious minorities persecuted by white supremacy in this country.”

Zevit agreed that the atmosphere of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is bringing the two communities closer in Philadelphia, although he has worked with local imams for a long time, he said. “I won’t deny my own heartbreak in what I saw,” he said. “But I’m not feeling fear, because I know our similarities and our relationships are much stronger, and these incidents are bringing us together and forging solidarity.” This certainly wasn’t what the graveyard vandals wanted, he said. In fact, it is “perhaps the opposite.”