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 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 vandalized 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 a statement late Sunday.
In Philadelphia, the headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery were apparently knocked over sometime after sundown Saturday night, 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 in a statement Monday morning. “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 centers nationwide Monday, 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 Center for Mutual Respect, a nonprofit organization 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.
Vice President Mike Pence visited the cemetery in University City, speaking out against anti-Semitism and condemning the vandalism there. He has continued to speak out against such acts.
On Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump decried 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.
Among incidents motivated by specific bias against individual groups listed in the FBI’s tally, only cases motivated by racism against black people (1,745 incidents) exceeded that number in 2015. There were also 664 incidents motivated by bias against gay men that year, the FBI said.
“We call upon the White House to do more than speak words about anti-Semitism,” Greenblatt, head of the ADL, said in his statement about the Philadelphia graveyard. “We demand a plan of action – that brings the full weight of the federal government to investigate who (has) been terrorizing the Jewish community through bomb threats and vandalism, to bringing them to justice, and to battling anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry wherever it may occur.”
The Philadelphia police said that officers were called to the cemetery on Sunday morning about 9:40 a.m. in response to reported vandalism.
The person who called in the vandalism told the responding officers that “three headstones belonging to his relatives were damaged, due to being knocked over,” the department said in a statement. Officers then discovered the other headstones that had been knocked over.
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.
Two rewards totaling $13,000 are being offered for information in the Philadelphia case. The Anti-Defamation League is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible, while a local police labor union is also offering $3,000 for the arrest of anyone responsible.
“Hate is not permissible in Philadelphia,” Mayor Jim Kenney (D) said in a statement. “I encourage Philadelphians to stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters and to show them that we are the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”
Police have decried the incident and vowed to find the person or people involved.
“We will continue to work to determine the person(s) responsible and make sure that they are held accountable for this reprehensible act,” the department said in its statement Monday.
In the 1998 book “The Jewish Community of South Philadelphia,” author Allen Meyers writes that the Mount Carmel Cemetery “evolved as a conglomeration of several burial grounds” proposed by the founder of a congregation near Philadelphia’s Center City area.
Meyers wrote that Mount Carmel “shared a location unique in American history, with the intersection of four different cemeteries, one on each corner.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Mark Berman