Placing security for Jewish cemeteries on the global agenda

Understandably, these types of attacks receive a lot of attention, budgets for security and strong condemnation.

French cemetary (photo credit: REUTERS)
French cemetary
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is now clear that antisemitism is rising around the world at a dizzying pace.
Many taboos have been broken in recent years, including the denial, minimization and trivialization of the Holocaust; the murderous attacks on synagogues; establishment political leaders justifying hate against Jews; the threats and beating of little Jewish children; and the chasing of Jews from the public space in many countries. Online hate is growing and becoming more mainstream.
Understandably, these types of attacks receive a lot of attention, budgets for security and strong condemnation.
However, there is another type of antisemitic attack which is growing faster than any other and is arguably the Jewish community’s most vulnerable target.
In only the last few weeks and months, dozens of Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated in Argentina, Greece, Poland, Germany, France, the UK and the US.
From smashed headstones, to dug-up graves and swastika-daubing, our ancestors’ final resting places have become front-line targets in the hateful war against Jews. In Eastern European countries, in particular, many Jewish cemeteries have been partly or wholly destroyed.
One of the main reasons for the frequency of these attacks is that cemeteries are considered a soft or “easy” target. For the most part, cemeteries are open to the public, highly visible and instantly accessible.
In many places, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the cemeteries are the last remnants of Jewish communities, and all too frequently the only proof of thriving Jewish communities, long-since destroyed. There are currently some 10,000 neglected and unprotected Jewish cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe.
Centuries of Jewish European communities and their important contribution to European society and culture are slowly being driven away from the collective memory. Jewish cemeteries must be preserved and protected to ensure that the physical evidence of the pre-WWII Jewish community existed and was an important and integral part of the local population, both economically and culturally.
Cemeteries have a special sanctity in Judaism, and it is our duty to preserve, protect and respect them.
Antisemites do not just want to harm the living. They pursue a path which seeks our complete erasure through the denial of our past and our contributions to a particular area and to civilization and humanity as a whole.
That is why it is so important to rethink how we preserve, safeguard, secure and preserve Jewish cemeteries around the world.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us about the sanctity of our earthly bodies, even after death. The Bible itself exhorts us to treat our physical receptacles with the greatest of respect.
We need to ensure the safeguarding and sanctity of our cemeteries and place this issue on the global agenda with great haste.
Thankfully, some organizations have understood this urgency.
The 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which was approved by 47 countries, declared a recognition of the mass destruction during the Holocaust of centuries of Jewish life, and the extermination of thousands of Jewish communities in Europe, leaving the graves and cemeteries unattended. It also “urged governmental authorities and municipalities as well as civil society and competent institutions to ensure that these mass graves are identified and protected and that the Jewish cemeteries are demarcated, preserved and kept free from desecration.”
In addition, in 2012, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution stating that Jewish cemeteries are a part of Europe’s cultural heritage and will take steps to ensure their preservation and protection.
For thousands of years, it has been a hallmark of the Jewish tradition to bury the dead with great respect and care. This care and honor for the dead and their final resting places should not just be at the time of burial and the placing of a headstone, but for eternity.
It is the greatest debt of respect we can pay our ancestors.
Rabbi Isaac Schapira, OBE, is the founder and president of the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, an organization founded in 2015 which is preserving and protecting Jewish cemeteries in Central and Eastern Europe.