PHILADELPHIA—When Rebecca Subar was 8 years old she joined her parents on a trip Israel to visit a sacred place that had been off limits to her Israeli-Jewish family for nearly two decades: the gravesite of her great-grandparents, who had migrated to Palestine after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.
Since the 1948 war that established Israel as an independent state, the cemetery at the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem had been occupied by Jordan, and Jews were prohibited from going there.
Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 made the Subars’ pilgrimage possible. But when the family finally reached the cemetery, instead of a serene place for quiet reflection they discovered a scene of destruction. Thousands of grave sites had been desecrated, and remnants of smashed tombstones—including those dedicated to members of Subar’s extended family—lay crumbling on the dry earth.
On Tuesday, Subar, who is now 57, stood in the center of another desecrated Jewish burial ground—this one just a short drive from her home in northwest Philadelphia—experiencing an acute sense of deja vu.
Investigators say that sometime Saturday night vandals climbed through a hole in the fence of the historic Mount Carmel Cemetery and toppled more than a hundred tombstones, some of them weighing hundreds of pounds.
“I am moved, I feel terrorized,” Subar told The Daily Beast, as she marveled over the broken remains of a once ornate monument.
“It looks like it’s been decapitated,” she added.
Subar, who was raised Orthodox, now calls herself a secular Jew and is a member of the left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace, the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States, and the public face of the controversial boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Though none of her family members are buried at Mount Carmel, she said she felt compelled to witness the destruction.
“I am persona non-grata in the Jewish community,” Subar said. “I was drawn here because I am Jewish, and like all Jews I have a visceral reaction to seeing this.”
She blamed President Donald Trump for emboldening those who would commit targeted acts of ethnic and racial violence; but she was emphatic in stating that the attack on Mount Carmel is an expression of entitlement and power whose victims include all marginalized people.
“Over my dead body will this ever be used to support Jewish claims to exclusive victimhood or anyone else,” she said. “Whether you’re Muslim, African American, or transgender, this is an attack on all of us and is only a justification for more love and compassion.”
Philadelphia police released a statement calling the vandalism at the cemetery “an abominable crime, that appears to target these particular headstones,” but stopped short of labeling it a hate crime.
“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 department said.
“It was pure hate,” said Marc Weissman, who stood over the toppled tombstone of his parents grave. “I feel bad. They’re not here to see it, but this is their memorial.”
But most observers have already drawn the links between the desecration and troubling rise in ethnic-bias attacks and intimidation since Trump’s victory last November.
The vandalism at Mount Carmel marked the second time in less than a week that a Jewish cemetery was desecrated. On Feb. 22 a group of unidentified individuals damaged 154 headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in St. Louis, sparking a global outpouring of support from communities of all faiths, and focusing attention on the rising number of ethnic attacks since the election of Donald Trump as president.
In the wake of the St. Louis incident the president issued what many felt was an overdue condemnation of the anti-Jewish bias fueling the attacks.
“The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” Trump said last week while speaking at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
As of early February there had been nearly 10,000 hate incidents since Trump’s victory in November. Many have been blamed on elements of the alt-right emboldened by the election of Trump. In recent weeks there has been a spike in property violence and bomb threats against Jewish targets.
On Tuesday more than a dozen Jewish centers around the U.S. were evacuated due to bomb threats, including four in the Philadelphia area.
Adrienne Berger rushed to Mount Carmel that morning after receiving a call from a cousin in Israel who saw news of the destruction on television there.
“I had this sinking feeling of dread,” she said. Berger paced the cemetery, searching for the grave sites of both her parents and grandparents. She was relieved to discover they were still intact.
“Living in a city like Philadelphia you get complacent about this kind of hatred,” said Berger, who grew up in the Logan section of the city, which was predominantly Jewish until the 1970s. “I never really experienced anti-Semitism, and it’s easy to feel secure here.
“It is encouraging to see so many different communities chipping in here to help,” she added.
Solidarity has been a dominant theme at Mount Carmel since the crime was discovered on Sunday morning by a New Jersey man who had come to visit the graves of family members.
On Monday representatives from the Philadelphia chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA visited Mount Carmel to lend support and express outrage at the attack on a community of faith.
“We are deeply troubled by these rising and ongoing attacks on our Jewish sisters and brothers, and members from our Philadelphia chapter are en route to assist in clean up,” said Dr. Nasim Rehmatullah, the group’s national vice president. “We call upon all Americans to stand united against this hatred and extremism.”
Muslim activist Tarek El-Messidi, who helped raise $130,000 following the desecration in St. Louis was also on hand, pledging to raise money for Mount Carmel.
“It feels really scary, but I think this is going to bring people together,” said Judith Elson, who came to the cemetery to distribute bagels to volunteers who were there to help pick up fallen grave stones. “Maybe some good will come out of it. It feels like Muslims and Jews see they are on the same team.”
On Sunday, Philadelphia Police Detective Jim McReynolds told The Washington Post that investigators were still weighing the possibility that the destruction was the act of a group of “drunken kids.”
But Jon Lattanzio, who grew up in a house near the cemetery and was using a crowbar to help lift gravestones, said that’s unlikely.
“No one really parties in here, they drink in the park, I know that from experience,” he said. “I think what happened is that someone saw that thing in St. Louis and decided to do it here.”