Sadly, it should. Just about a year ago, on December 13, 2018, 37 headstones and a monument to Holocaust victims were defaced in Herrlisheim Cemetery near Strasbourg, France. A year later, just weeks ago, 107 Jewish headstones were desecrated in nearly identical fashion in the Jewish Westhoffen Cemetery, also outside of Strasbourg. The cemetery is the resting place for France’s first Jewish prime minister and, notably, Karl Marx. In addition to spray-painted swastikas, some graves were marked with ‘14’ — a reference and tribute to ‘the 14 words,’ a racist pledge originating among white supremacists in the United States which, subsequently, has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups worldwide. Anti-Semitic inscriptions were also found in the nearby village of Schaffhouse-sur-Zorn.
The Christmas season clearly brings out the worst in some people, especially in France. So much for love and fellowship.
How much anger and hostility are required to cause someone to deface 37 headstones? Is more emotion, more hatred required for 107? What compels an individual or individuals to buy spray paint, arrange a disguise, head to the cemetery and spend hours, likely at night in the wintry cold, to tag headstones with swastikas and 14s of Jews long dead and unknown to them? What sense of accomplishment, what satisfaction, what pride is derived from such an act?
And why attack the dead? Because they’re easy targets who can’t fight back? Because cemeteries have lax security? Because the culprits are unable to muster the ambition or courage to attack a more visible, better-defended target? Because it’s easy? Because it’s safe? Because it generates fear among the living? Because it’s fun?
Some might say that defacing headstones, no matter how disgusting, is preferable to the shooting and killing of innocent people in prayer, like occurred in Pittsburgh and near San Diego last year. Absolutely true. But know that the desecration of Jewish graves and synagogues were precursors to the Holocaust. For the Jews of Europe, it went downhill from there. Fast.
No matter how we look at it, one thing is clear: hate is on the rise. In France, Jews make up less than 4% of the population, given their near-extermination during the Holocaust, yet there has been a 74% increase in reported hate crimes against them since 2018, some involving physical attacks and murder.¹ And here, where Jews comprise just 2% of the U.S. population, a whopping 50% of the hate crimes in this country are anti-Semitic.²
This in no way suggests that Jews have the market on hate crimes. Just ask women, people of color, Native Americans, Muslims, members of the LGBTQIA community, the disabled, the homeless, recent immigrants. The volume and frequency of overt acts of hatred in this country and abroad are staggering — and growing.³
Hate has always been with us. But why the significant increase in hate crimes in France and in this country over the last few years? Have Jews recently assumed more power, more authority, more wealth that somehow generates increased hatred which, in turn, produces anti-Semitic acts? Is this growth of hatred somehow linked to Israel? And/or might it be that white supremacy is on the rise and Jews are but one convenient, visible and useful group to be targeted?
This last option — that white supremacy continues to gain traction — seems to be the most likely explanation. If so, what better time of year to deface Jewish headstones than during the Christmas season — as one dramatic way to reinforce for Jews that we are different, alien, not welcomed and, by some, despised? Like we need the reminder. This has been our lot for more than 5,000 years. We’ve been expelled from countries throughout the world. Several times throughout the ages, systematic extermination efforts have been designed and implemented specifically for us. Fear and loathing well beyond Las Vegas, with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson, has been our ever-present reality for centuries.
Speaking of generating fear and loathing, here are the 14 words embraced by white supremacists: ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.’ What often accompanies the slogan: ‘Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the Earth.’⁴
This will never end. There will always be those who hate. There will always be those who need to express hatred in vile acts designed to enrage and disseminate fear. There will always be a strong, well-meaning, if largely symbolic and futile, response by those in power following acts of hatred⁵ (with the noted exception of the current U.S. administration⁶). There will always be people who rise up and condemn acts of barbarism. There will always be those who turn a blind eye. There will always be Jews and other convenient groups to target, where ‘convenient’ signifies ‘non-violent,’ ‘defenseless,’ and, among other key descriptors, ‘different.’
No wonder Jewish synagogues are locked, guarded and diligently protected, with many now surrounded by tall metal fencing and electronic gates. No wonder Jews await the next shooting, the next defacement, the next defilement with stoicism. We know it will happen, we just don’t know what form it will take or where it will be. Better to be prepared for the worst, the unthinkable, then to relax. Never forget, we tell each other. Remember, we urge ourselves and our children. It hasn’t solved anything, but it helps us accept. It helps us survive.
As the new year begins, consider a central Talmudic teaching: He or she who saves a life saves an entire world. According to the Talmud, an expansive commentary on Jewish laws, saving a life takes many forms. Take a moment to reach out to others who might need — and might not otherwise receive — a warm ‘hello,’ an act of kindness, a smile. Share your joy and good fortune with those who have less. Help instill a feeling of belonging, of importance, of dignity in others. This is how best to push back on those who hate and, in the process, how best to build a community — a world — where differences are embraced, alienation is eliminated, and, just possibly, people are treated with compassion and respect. This year, and beyond, save as many worlds as you can. Love is our best defense. It just might prevail.