swastika graves 88.
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Forty Jewish gravestones were damaged, five of them completely destroyed, in the Jewish section of the Via Jona cemetery in Milan late Monday night. The graves had been overturned, though no graffiti or anti-Jewish slogans were found at the site.
Members of the Jewish community and investigators are split as to whether this was an anti-Semitic act, or one of pure vandalism. The gravestones had been overturned in area 8, the zone nearest to the road, raising the issue of whether the vandals had just struck the area closest to where they had entered the cemetery grounds.
The local media, however, claim it was an act of anti-Semitism, amid the growing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment voiced in Italy since the installation of recently elected prime minister Romano Prodi.
In a statement issued by his office, Milan Chief Rabbi Alfonso Arbib said: "It is a serious episode. For now I prefer not to make declarations. I will wait to better understand this serious event."
An unofficial source at the Milan Jewish community's Mosaico, the online version of monthly print edition and widely circulated Bolletino, reported: "We are uncertain whether this was an act of anti-Semitism, or a matter of vandalism."
Milan Mayor Gabriele Albertini was unavailable for comment. However in a statement, Deputy Mayor Riccardo De Corato called the incident "an event of... extreme seriousness" and expressed his solidarity with the chief rabbi and the Jewish community "for this intolerable offense to dignity."
"It is absurd that in a multicultural town like ours we should allow these serious acts of anti-Semitism and I hope that will we soon be able to...deliver to justice the people responsible for the desecrations."
Remy Cohen, until recently vice chairman of the Milan Community Board, said: "This is a disgraceful act. I hope it is not an act of anti-Semitism."
Cohen noted an April 25 anti-Israel demonstration, where an Israeli flag was burned, adding that "I think we have to be worried."
Milan's Jewish community numbers about 12,000 in the metropolis of 1.3 million.
Last month, Italian authorities opened a probe into the anti-Israeli protests that flared on the sidelines of a march in Milan on April 25 to mark national Liberation Day.
The protests, in which Israeli flags were trampled and burned and slogans shouted in support of Palestinians, were apparently sparked by the presence during the march of Israeli flags to honor members of the Jewish Brigade, an infantry unit from pre-state Israel that helped to liberate Italy during World War II.
AP contributed to this report.