want to express my shock and strong condemnation for the outbreak of incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States…[and] call upon the government of Israel to urgently prepare a national emergency plan for the possibility that we will see waves of immigration of our brothers to Israel.” Waves of Jews fleeing America to Israel! Was this a restless rabbi in a messianic fit? The hackneyed plot of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel?
No, these were the words of the man who is perhaps Israel’s most boring politician—Isaac Herzog, the leader of the left-wing opposition who went into the last Knesset elections widely expected to be Israel’s prime minister.
He wasn’t the lone voice to raise this notion, either. “As things stand now, the Zionist Union Party chief’s call is alarmist,” wrote David Rosenberg in Haaretz. “But in Herzog’s defense, straight-line analysis of the increasingly hostile environment for Jews and other minorities in the United States makes it hard to dismiss the possibility out of hand.” On its blog, the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews raised the question: “Is It Time for U.S. Jews to Flee?” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, decrying the spate of anti-Semitism in America and vowing “zero tolerance for any abuse or discrimination of any fellow human being.”
What, specifically, set off all these alarm bells? There were two recent trends.
First, scores of bomb threats were called into Jewish institutions in February and March, especially Jewish community centers. Police believe some of the JCC threats were made by a disgraced left-wing journalist, Juan Thompson, trying to frame his ex-girlfriend. From the beginning, investigators suspected many if not most were made by one person using an autodialing program, perhaps from overseas, which then triggered inevitable copycat hoaxes.
But by the time cops had arrested Thompson, a narrative had formed: It was all Donald Trump’s fault. “The horrible, hateful rhetoric that was used in this election by candidate Trump and by a lot of his supporters directly connects to an increase since the election in anti-Semitic incidents, anti-Muslim incidents, and anti-LGBT incidents,” snapped New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in February. Senator Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, went before the left-wing lobby J Street and mournfully recounted that “in the last several months, since Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential race, there has been a significant outbreak of anti-Semitism here in our country.”
The increasingly partisan Anti-Defamation League got in on the act. ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt filed a furious piece for the Washington Post on February 17: “Immediately after the election, we saw white supremacists celebrating and convening right around the corner from the White House, raising their arms in Hitler salutes. Barely a week after Trump’s victory, the FBI issued an annual report that noted that there were more hate crimes against Jews in 2015. . . . In the months since then, the Jewish community has been victimized by a surge of hate crimes, including waves of bomb threats against Jewish community centers, a torrent of verbal abuse and physical graffiti directed against Jews and relentless attacks on Jewish journalists and Jewish public figures on social media.”
Despite the fear engendered by these outrageous acts, they were hoaxes. It was the second recent trend that really mattered: Vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. There have been at least three incidents, with a fourth that was blamed initially by investigators on weather and neglect.
The desecration of Jewish burial ground is not a new phenomenon, which is why its recurrence is so striking and sobering. It is the last recourse of those who, disappointed in the Nazis’ inability to wipe out the Jews, turn to the next best thing: the destruction of Jewish memory.
n 1954, members of Poland’s Socio-Cultural Association of Jews visited the Jewish cemetery on Lotnicza Street in the city of Wroclaw (known as Breslau during the German occupation). “Countless graves had been dug up with scattered human remains,” the association wrote in a letter to city officials. “The graves have been systematically dug up in search of gold teeth and valuables.” About a decade later, the situation was no better: Another group claimed that Jewish graves were “being ploughed up by bulldozers and the bones are being thrown into heaps of trash like carrion.”
This, explains Michael Meng in his book Shattered Spaces, was the postwar reality in the Communist bloc: “In East Germany and Poland, both Communist parties rejected restitution altogether and seized all Jewish property. . . . In most cases, local officials were the ones who had the power to decide what to do with Jewish sites, not local Jewish leaders.” In countries formerly under the Nazi yoke that had adopted American-led restitution policies, Jewish landmarks were often returned to what remained of the Jewish community but sold right back to the government to raise money for Holocaust survivors.
In many places there was not enough of a surviving (or returning) Jewish community with which to entrust the care and upkeep of such landmarks. A West German Jewish newspaper noted in a chilling passage that, on the question of what to do with Jewish wreckage, history wasn’t much help: “Neither the expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain nor Babylon offers any relevant clues.”
On its face, a utilitarian approach prevailed, Meng writes: “As Poles and Germans rebuilt their bombed-out cities, towns, and villages, they expelled the traces of the Jewish past.” In some cases, the rubble of Jewish graves were left conspicuously in limbo—neither erased completely nor restored or preserved. An East Berlin Jewish cemetery was in this state for decades. Even after East Germany began authorizing the return of Jewish property, Potsdam’s Jewish cemetery wasn’t part of the deal, Meng notes, “probably because no postwar Jewish community existed to use them.”
This is a key part of the horror of vandalizing Jewish cemeteries. Especially in Germany but also in Poland, anti-Semites were finishing what they started. And it started, argues historian Robert Bevan in The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, with the same ruination of property that continued after the war ended.
Kristallnacht, the murderous assault on German Jewish people and property of November 10, 1938, “arguably marked the beginning of the Holocaust, even if, as some scholars argue, the decision to attempt the extermination of European Jewry was not taken or fully articulated until later,” Bevan writes. Why? Because it “presaged the destruction of a people, not merely harsh discrimination against them; it was a step-change.” Bevan calls the assault on architecture a “proto-genocidal” act of dehumanization: “Such was the purpose of the Nazi destruction of German synagogues on Kristallnacht in 1938: to deny a people its past as well as a future.”
And such is the purpose of destroying cemeteries—not just to erase Jewish lives, but to erase the record of Jewish existence. Not all inconvenient reminders stay buried. In 2014, the Belarusian city of Brest, near the Polish border, moved ahead with the construction of a planned supermarket. The project required demolishing houses on the property. That’s when the town made a horrifying discovery: The houses workers were demolishing had been built using Jewish tombstones. The town had been home to a housing colony built to accommodate Jewish orphans after World War I. During the Second World War, the Nazis rounded up the town’s Jews and sent them off to die. And then came the all-too-familiar story, in the words of Kate Samuelson of Vice News: “After the war, with Brest’s Jewish community devastated, the Communists set about getting rid of the remnants of Jewish culture in the town. In 1959 they dismantled the Jewish cemetery—one of the oldest and largest in Belarus—and turned it into a sports stadium.” Jewish graves “have since been discovered in the makeup of Brest’s road surfaces, pavements, and gardens.”
In 2013, vandals destroyed the five remaining gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Blonie on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
During their occupation of Lithuania, the Soviets built an electric substation in Vilnius using Jewish gravestones. Last year the city began removing fragments of those stones to be returned to the cemetery from which they had likely come. But, noted a Lithuanian Jewish group, “Jewish headstones…were used all over Vilnius for construction during the Soviet era.”
The reaction of the authorities in these cases is laudable; they withstand the public shame in order to (finally) do the right thing. But that shouldn’t fool us into thinking such vandalism is behind us—either in Europe or here in the United States. It is not.
In 2013, vandals destroyed the five remaining gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Blonie on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It was a watershed moment in modern anti-Semitism: Haaretz reported that “the destruction of the cemetery took with it the final remnants of the area’s once 1,200-strong Jewish community, transported by the Nazis to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.” What happened to the rest of the cemetery? Aside from 40 or so headstones found in overgrown vegetation and removed for preservation in 2011, all “were stolen throughout the years, and probably used for private construction.”
Nowhere is this phenomenon illustrated more clearly than Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery. Constructed 3,000 years ago, it contains tens of thousands of burial plots including those for great rabbis and Jewish figures over the centuries. When Jordan took control of that area of Jerusalem during the Israeli War of Independence, it commenced desecrating every Jewish holy site it could find, very much including the Mount of Olives cemetery, using the stones for construction. Israel won the territory back in 1967, and the cemetery has consistently been the target of vandalism up to the present day. New security measures seem finally to be working; in late February the Forward reported that the cemetery was “free of vandalism for the first time in decades.”
All of which makes what’s happening now in the United States so disturbing, for two reasons. First, it’s not new. Second, it’s being treated as if it is.
rom my earliest childhood, I have memories of walking by the Fir Street cemetery,” Cleveland municipal judge Raymond L. Pianka told the Cleveland Jewish News in 2007. Despite Pianka’s Catholicism, Fir Street’s Jewish cemetery was the first cemetery he’d ever seen, and it stuck with him. At least 150 years old, it had long ago fallen into disrepair, and Pianka had set about raising the funds to restore it. The article mentions, with detached nonchalance, that over the years, “Headstones had fallen over or been pushed over. Neighbors wished it were better maintained, and there were occasional acts of vandalism.”
When I was a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I had a housemate who would walk nearly a mile and a half into downtown New Brunswick to help make a minyan at a synagogue called Poile Zedek. The congregants were mostly older post-Soviet immigrants, and my housemate and the shul’s rabbi were the only attendees who really knew the prayers. The congregation had been founded in 1901, and these men and their wives were what stood between its proud history and obsolescence.
In 2008, the synagogue’s cemetery, which it shares with a congregation in nearby Highland Park, was broken into by vandals who destroyed 500 headstones. When I went out to the scene, this time as a journalist, the comment I heard repeatedly was: This is what we left Europe, and came to America, to get away from. But even in America, you can run but you can’t hide from anti-Semitism.
Attacks of this sort didn’t start in 2015, but Trump is not blameless when it comes to the harassment, especially on line, that his so-called alt-right supporters have dished out.
That same year, dozens of graves were desecrated at a Chicago Jewish cemetery. In 2010, Jewish graves in France, Hungary, Latvia, and Greece were hit. In 2011, cemeteries in New Jersey and Kosovo were hit. In 2012, Jewish cemeteries in France, Germany, Austria, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Canada, and New Zealand were vandalized, as well as the graves of Jewish war veterans in Florida. In 2013, it was Arizona’s turn. In 2014, Wisconsin and Massachusetts saw vandalism at Jewish graves, as did Hungary, Greece, England, and Norway.
And these are just the ones that make the news. But, as the case of the Cleveland cemetery shows, many don’t. Attacks of this sort didn’t start in 2015, when Donald Trump decided to run for president. Trump is far from blameless when it comes to the harassment, especially online, that his so-called alt-right supporters dished out to those who opposed his candidacy.1
Candidate Trump’s response to this outpouring of hate on his behalf was never better than insufficient, and often worse. But there was nothing linking Trump to any of the cemetery desecrations around the world in 2015, or one that hit Philadelphia’s Adath Jeshurun in July of that year. Yet this year, when another Philadelphia Jewish cemetery was hit and despite the fact that no arrests had been made as of this writing, it was viewed differently not only because it came after another such incident in Missouri and amid the JCC bomb threats, but because the media framed the attack specifically in a Trumpian context.
When Muslims helped raise funds to fix the Philadelphia cemetery, the Atlantic’s Emma Green asserted that “the graveyard solidarity between Jews and Muslims is so significant” because 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.”
In the words of Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, “There was a lot of discussion, while Donald Trump was running for president, about just how destructive his administration could really be.” He answered his own question: “as bad a worst-case scenario as could have been imagined” that was still deteriorating, as proven by—needless to say—the cemetery attacks in Missouri and Philly.
After the Missouri incident, a Washington Post religion writer pointed out that in October 2016, “a month before the general election,” a cemetery in New York was hit. “Even in a post-Holocaust world,” she added, “Jewish cemeteries still fall victim to vandalism.”
That “even” is, as we’ve seen here, a dreadful misunderstanding of anti-Semitism. Jew-hatred persists even in places, like Poland, from which Jews have been all but extirpated—and, of course, in the Middle Eastern countries that expelled Jews after the founding of the State of Israel. Dead Jews seem to evoke the same emotion. And if we view Kristallnacht as Bevan does—a proto-genocidal outburst foreshadowing the main event—we ought to pay far more attention to cemetery desecrations, no matter who was or is president. Anti-Semitism isn’t a partisan issue, to be used as a cudgel in America’s political tussles. It’s visceral, adaptable, and frighteningly close to the surface of enlightened society—East or West, left or right.
After all, the youths cleared of a hate crime in New Brunswick didn’t seem to prosecutors to be consciously targeting the Jews, as risible as that excuse may seem.
And that—an anti-Semitism embedded in a society’s subconscious so well camouflaged even to its hosts that it appears without warning, provocation, or explanation—is what should frighten us the most.
1 I know this personally: After the campaign, the ADL released a list of the 10 most common victims of this white-nationalist subculture’s social-media attacks. My wife—former Commentary social-media associate Bethany Mandel—was on it.