Muslim Activists Vow to Help After Second Act of Vandalism at Jewish Cemetery

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FILE PHOTO: Man shouts as he helps lift a fallen tombstone at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA.
FILE PHOTO: Man shouts as he helps lift a fallen tombstone at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA. Credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP

Muslim American activist Tarek El-Messidi teamed up with fellow activist Linda Sarsour last week to raise funds to rebuild the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, where hundreds of headstones were desecrated. On Sunday, the attack hit much closer to home, as a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, his home town, became the target of a similar attack, with up to 500 tombstones being hit.

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Muslim Activists Vow to Help After Second Act of Vandalism at Jewish CemeteryCredit: Haaretz

Speaking to Haaretz on his way to the Mt. Carmel Jewish cemetery, El-Messidi, 36, says he wants to see how some of the funds raised last week can be diverted to help rebuild the Mt. Carmel cemetery in Philadelphia.

“I’m on my way to the cemetery, to assess the damage and to speak to the manager about the kind of help we can do with the funds we have raised for the St. Louis cemetery,” he said.

Click to watch Tarek El-Messidi live from Mt. Carmel cemetery:

The campaign has surpassed all expectations, raising $130,000 as of Sunday morning. “We never expected to hit the goal in three hours, it was definitely giving both communities a lot of hope”, says El-Messidi, who heads Celebrate Mercy, an interfaith-oriented Muslim NGO.

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“I got so many emails from synagogues and rabbis in Philadelphia, some have asked me to speak at their synagogue,” he adds

Recent months have seen an impressive show of solidarity, with both communities uniting in reactions to the string of recent bomb threats against Jewish community centers and this week's attacks on Jewish cemeteries, as well as in opposition of the Trump's administration attempt to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

El-Messidi believes that such solidarity will only continue.

“I think we need a dialog, we need to ask each other how we can help each other, how we can be of service. A lot can be done, but this is a good start,” he says regarding the future. “It’s unfortunate that it took a tragedy to bring us closer together, but we will continue from here. Whatever the extremists and haters are trying to destroy, we will go in and try to build.”

The second incident of vandalism in a Jewish cemetery in as many weeks, the incident in Mt. Carmel Jewish cemetery comes a week after hundreds of Jewish graves were desecrated St. Louis in what many took as a continuation of anti-Jewish incidents, including numerous bombs scares at Jewish centers.

Israel: Shocked and concerned

In a first, Israel responded to the incident in Philadelphia, saying "the Philadelphia Jewish cemetery desecration is shocking and a source of worry."

"We have full confidence in U.S. authorities to catch and punish culprits," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emanuel Nahshon said in a statement.

"Vandals target cars, bridges with Nazi and racist graffiti in Buffalo. Evil and hatred must be stopped. Now," Israel said, in the first statement of the type since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected amid increasing concern in the Jewish community over a rise in anti-Semitic incidents that some have connected to Trump's candidacy and presidency.

Melanie Steinhardt comforts Becca Richman at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery, February 26, 2017, in Philadelphia, PA. Police say more than 100 tombstones were vandalized a week after a Jewish cemeterCredit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP

Mt. Carmel Jewish cemetery, a historic cemetery dates to the early 1890s, is located in northeast Philadelphia, an area of the city that used to have a large Jewish population but no longer does. Philadelphia’s earliest Jewish residents settled there before the U.S. was even established, and the community’s first charitable organization was established in 1813.

In response to the incident in St. Louis, a Muslim-lead crowd-funding campaign raised over $100,000 with the goal of the repairing the cemetery and expressing solidarity with the Jewish community.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made an appearance at the vandalized Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in St. Louis, saying that "there is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or anti-Semitism."

Following the incident in St. Louis, Trump broke his silence and issued a long-awaited statement in which he said that "Anti-Semitism is horrible and it's gonna stop and it's got to stop." Trump has been accused of not condemning hate crimes against Jews.

If indeed vandalized, the incidents at both cemeteries could be part of a larger wave targeting Jewish communities across the United States.

On Monday last week, just one day before the incident cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized, a round of bomb threats targeted Jewish community centers in several states across the country for the fourth time in the last few months.

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