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Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia latest to be vandalized

PHILADELPHIA - 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.

Following the episode in Missouri, Trump relented in the face of mounting criticism and offered his first public condemnation of the anti-Semitic incidents that have unfolded since he was elected.

Trump had twice been asked to condemn these episodes earlier this month during news conferences, but declined to do so. In one news conference, he responded by talking about his electoral victory and referred to healing the nation's divisions, while during the second news conference he criticized the reporter for asking what he called an "insulting" question.

The Anne Frank Center assailed Trump's comments as "a pathetic asterisk of condescension" and criticized his administration for its behavior, including the White House's decision not to mention Jews in a statement remembering the Holocaust.

Vice President Pence visited the cemetery in University City a day after Trump's remarks, speaking out against anti-Semitism and condemning the vandalism there. He has continued to speak out against such acts, becoming the Trump administration's most high-profile voice on the subject.

On Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump decried the 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.

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.

Less than a week ago, Tarek El-Messidi helped organize a fundraiser to help with the cleanup of a desecrated Jewish cemetery near St. Louis. It raised more than $130,000, garnering widespread media attention and tweets from celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres and J.K. Rowling. Because it brought in considerably more than expected, El-Messidi vowed to use the remaining money strictly when needed to counter anti-Semitism.

He hoped he wouldn't have to dip back in so soon.

But on Sunday night, El-Messidi read the news of yet another vandalized Jewish cemetery. This time it hit closer to home, just miles from where he lives in Philadelphia.

So El-Messidi immediately went to the cemetery to see how he could help.

There he found a team of diverse people, including many local Muslims, at work doing their best to erect what he said were several hundred toppled headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in a neighborhood in the northeast part of the city. Police have said they counted about 100 overturned.

"Seeing this in person was very devastating," El-Messidi said in a Facebook post. "Many people there were embracing one another in tears due to what they saw. I want to ask all Muslims to reach out to your Jewish brothers and sisters and stand together against this bigotry."

A local rabbi, Yosef Goldman, who also was at the cemetery, wrote on his Facebook page: "We're turning upright the stones that are light enough for us to do so. And I'm feeling that the faith community in the US is strong. A caretaker for a nearby Quaker cemetery has been here for hours, and Muslim and Christian friends and colleagues are reaching out. Acts of violence against Muslim and Jews will only make us stronger and bring us together. # sacredresistance # lovetrumpshate"

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.

Other threats and vandalism made against Jewish institutions over the last week include:

** WASHINGTON - Two Jewish schools in the Washington region received bomb threats Monday, disrupting classroom activities and leading police to sweep the campuses in Maryland and Virginia.

The bomb threats came to both schools through what seemed to be an automated voice message system, school officials said. The incident is under police investigation. The calls came into the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, and Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, after 9 a.m. Administrators at Gesher evacuated the school as police swept the building for explosives. Students on the upper campus inBethesda at Charles E. Smith were kept in their classrooms as part of the school's standard procedure as administrators and police inspected the building and its perimeter.

** WASHINGTON - Again and again, the calls have come in.

In Miami, hundreds of young students fled their school building. In Foster City, California, parents scrambled to pick up preschoolers whose school suddenly closed for the day. In West Hartford, Connecticut, elderly women climbed out of the pool mid-swim to evacuate.

And so it went in Albuquerque, in Birmingham, in Chicago and in 47 more cities - a rash of ominous phone calls threatening that a bomb had been placed at Jewish community centers in 26 states and one Canadian province since the start of January.

No bomb was found after any of the calls, but the threats prompted clamor for President Trump to condemn the anti-Semitism behind the targeting of these Jewish institutions. After initially responding to questions about anti-Semitism with boasts about his electoral college victory, Trump eventually called the threats to the community centers "horrible" and "painful," and Vice President Pence paid a visit to a Jewish cemetery vandalized near St. Louis.

Now, many Jews are looking to law enforcement, hoping the FBI will find the perpetrator so that the disruptive phone calls will end.

"While we are relieved that all such threats have proven to be hoaxes and that not a single person was harmed," the JCC Association of North America said in a statement following the fourth wave of bomb threats, "we are concerned about the anti-Semitism behind these threats, and the repetition of threats intended to interfere with day-to-day life."

Each of the calls has come from someone using robo-call technology to mask his or her voice and phone number, said David Posner, JCC Association Director of Strategic Performance.

** NEW YORK CITY - Hate crimes in New York City, particularly against Jews, have spiked in the past 100 days, a trend police officials say is probably connected to ethnic bias and xenophobia that emerged during the 2016 election campaign.

Between the Nov. 8 election and Feb. 19, the New York Police Department received 143 hate-crime complaints, 42 percent more than during the same period a year earlier. Seventy-two of the post-election offenses targeted Jews, compared with 39 a year earlier, according to data provided by the department.

The spate of incidents in New York – home to more Jews than anywhere except Israel – mirrors a trend throughout the U.S. and western Europe. Recent incidents include the desecration of more than 170 graves at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis earlier this month, and more than 50 bomb threats made to Jewish community centers in 26 states in the past 60 days, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which received a Feb. 22 telephoned bomb threat at its Manhattan headquarters.

"Based on the timing and the extraordinary increase we've been seeing, not only in New York but around the nation, you have to conclude that the presidential campaign was the major factor," said Stephen Davis, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for public information. "To be cautious about casting blame, one would have to consider the heated nature of the rhetoric on both sides" during the election.

** UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. - As many as 200 headstones at a Jewish cemetery were toppled over the weekend here in a case that is making national headlines.

Anita Feigenbaum, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, said officials will be cataloging the damage Tuesday and notifying relatives whose families are affected. A monument company will decide which headstones need to be replaced and which need to be reset, she said.

Feigenbaum was emotional in describing the damage she saw.

"It's hard to even express how terrible it was," she said Tuesday morning. "It was horrible."

Police are investigating the vandalism, which happened sometime over the weekend. No arrests had been made, as of Tuesday. Asked whether the incident is being investigated as a hate crime, Detective Lt. Fredrick Lemons II said police were keeping all options open.

Lemons said police were notified of the vandalism at about 8:30 a.m. Monday. Investigators are looking for clues from video surveillance cameras on the cemetery property and nearby businesses.
According to its website, the cemetery dates to 1893.

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