Cemeteries are attractive to juvenile vandals, as they are easy targets with minimal security. Adolescents—usually male, but also female—find the darkness and quiet comfortable locations for underage drinking and other illegal activities. The vandalism that follows is part of the antisocial package—with the added psychological edge of fear of death, defiance of death, "triumph" over death.
The vandals that fit this profile are opportunistic in their choice of location, the cemetery.
But the U.S. and Europe have recently seen a rise in another kind of cemetery attack. Not vandalism, but hate crimes. Not opportunistic, but selective. Not psychologically motivated, but politically meaningful.
Hundreds of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries around the country have been destroyed and overturned in an expression of anti-Semitism that has significant historical roots. Jews consider the land in which they bury their dead to be sacred ground, and cemetery destruction is a deeply felt defilement. It is heartbreaking for a family member to see a tombstone violated.
Donna Warwick’s great grandparents’ graves were attacked in the St. Louis cemetery. Warwick posted an open letter to the cemetery attackers on Facebook, letting them know that their victims had been real people, with lives of dignity and struggle, who were proud of their children and grandchildren and believed in service to the community. She writes:
They gave to all kinds of charities and offered many people in St. Louis a chance for better lives. They may have even donated to a cause that helped someone in your family. You may never come to know it, but they could have donated to a hospital that offered your mother care or have given to a food pantry that fed your sister or to a scholarship fund that educated your brother.
With remarkable open-heartedness, Warwick honors her great grandparents’ memory by extending her hand to the “vandals.”
So, I want you to know something. Whenever you do find it in your heart to feel the regret, I will wholeheartedly forgive you. For I know that is what my grandmother would want me to do. So, please come forward and I will help you bury your hate and lead a life that would better honor your own parents, your own grandparents and your own great grandparents who may have struggled and worked hard to try to make a better life for you too.
Vandalizing a loved one’s grave injures the family, and far beyond. Attack on a cemetery is an attack on memory and community that resonates with humanity’s ugly history of ethnic and religious hatred.
Attacks against Jewish cemeteries carry the message “you don’t belong here,” and the threat “we are wiping out your memory, and therefore your existence.”
Cemetery attacks express contempt and symbolic uprooting of past—and therefore future—presence. The Jordanians understood this back in 1948, so when Jordan attacked and occupied parts of Jerusalem, it desecrated the 2,500-year-old Jewish graveyard on the Mt. of Olives. Tens of thousands of tombstones were broken into pieces to be used as building materials. Synagogues and other institutions were destroyed as well.
Cemetery desecration was part of the infamous Kristallnacht in Germany, the initial step in the program of Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Although human beings continue to experience their darkest impulses, history need not repeat itself. These criminals can be caught, and the law enforced, when hatred is condemned at the highest levels. America cannot tolerate any hate crimes, including anti-Semitism.
Vice-President Pence sent that message by participating in the cleanup of the St. Louis Jewish cemetery. Law enforcement needs to follow.