Ultra-Orthodox Jews Vandalize Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial

On Sunday night, vandals scrawled Hitler-friendly hate speech across Israel’s most sacred memorial. The culprits were likely extremist Jews. Alex Klein reports from Jerusalem on what the vandalism means for the Jewish state.

06.11.12 4:50 PM ET

On a typical Sunday afternoon, the central courtyard at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s storied Holocaust memorial, is filled with visitors: Tel Aviv tourists, Israeli Defense Force cadets, American Birthrighters. But on an unseasonably cool day yesterday, the memorial’s gates were ringed with security tape, its walls stained with black paint. Beside a statue of Mordecai Anielewicz, the hero of the Warsaw uprising, dripped a crude cartoon of an Auschwitz-bound train. Below an engraved procession of victims looped rows of hateful graffiti: “Hitler, thanks for the Holocaust,” “Israel is the secular Auschwitz,” and so on.

But the neat cursive writing was not in Arabic; it was in Hebrew. And although the police have not identified any suspects, a museum spokeswoman told The Daily Beast, it’s almost certain that the can-wielding vandals were haredim, or ultra-orthodox Jews. Yad Vashem’s chairman, Avner Shalev, has already told the press that one of the tags was signed “World Haredi Jewry.” According to a guide at the site who asked not to be named, a few key grammatical errors in the Hebrew would confirm authorship by a member of the ultra-orthodox—many of whose first language is Yiddish. “Arabs didn’t write this,” he told me, visibly shaken.

Yad Vashem is nestled in the lush hills of Mount Herzl, where lines of parallel graves mark the resting place of both past Israeli prime ministers and Zionist intellectuals.

A few yards from the plaza is a mirrored hall in which burn five candles reflected thousands of times, each reflection representing a child who perished in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem holds the largest archival collection of papers and digitized documents related to the Holocaust. It is a fundamental “link between Israeli society and Judaism,” Shalev said.

The memorial’s central statues commemorate two kinds of heroes: those who fought, like Anielewicz and the Warsaw rebels, and those who protected, like the rabbi and his Torah or the mother and her child. After sneaking in under the cover of night, the vandals chose these symbols to deface. (The mountain memorial, which is free and open to the public, has no fence.)

So why would Jews desecrate this place? Because, in the eyes of far-right fundamentalists, even Nazism is preferable to the secularism of the Jewish state. The first killed merely the body, while the latter kills the soul. And a liberal Israel that fosters strong Reform and Conservative Jewish traditions—an Israel of nightclubs, shopping malls, and topless beaches? Blasphemous.

The haredim believe that no formal government should exist in Israel before the Messiah comes and reestablishes a Jewish kingdom. Some on the far right even subscribe to the classic anti-Semitic lie that the Holocaust was made up to provide a pretext for the establishment of Israel. One wall bore the phrase, “An alternative museum will be built next to the selective Yad Vashem”—a museum, apparently, for the “true” Jews: the orthodox Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe, and not the “Sephardic Jewry” demeaned in another line of paint.

Already the press is tying the vandalism to last Sunday’s “price tag” attack on the vehicles of seven Arab refugees.

But the spray-painting ultra-Orthodox cannot be clearly associated with the hawkish right-wing Israelis who defend the West Bank settlements. "The wars of the Zionists are not the wars of the Jewish nation,” the vandals wrote. Far from defending Israeli policy in the West Bank, the haredi fringe is attacking the twin pillars of Israeli society: secular democracy and the Zionist project.

Amidst the lines of graffiti, one vandal had scrawled the lone word “If” across the image of a mother’s face, and then stopped or gotten distracted—the beginning of an unfinished sentence.