Vandals desecrate Jewish cemetery in Alsace region of France, topple 300 headstones, creating ‘image of desolation’

Vandals damaged hundreds of tombs at a Jewish cemetery in France over the weekend, leaving behind what one local politician called an “image of desolation.”

Officials on Sunday, including the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, toured the desecrated cemetery, located in the town of Sarre-Union, in the Bas-Rhin department of Alsace, in northeastern France, Agence France-Presse reported.

The vandals toppled as many as 300 tombs, a source close to the investigation told the wire service. There were no reports of any type of hate messages being scrawled on the headstones.

“It’s an image of desolation,” Philippe Richert, president of the Alsace region, told AFP. He described how Jewish steles, which are stone or wooden slabs used to commemorate the dead, were pushed over. “One doesn’t knock over heavy steles like that, dating from the 19th century, very easily. It was a deliberate act of destruction,” he said.

French authorities vowed an aggressive investigation and swift arrests.

“The country will not tolerate this new injury, which goes against the values that all French people share,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters on Sunday. “Every effort will be made to identify, question and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for this despicable act.”

This isn’t the only time that vandals have wreaked havoc at the Jewish cemetery, which is near the German border and hosts a Holocaust memorial ceremony each year.

In 1998 vandals knocked down 60 headstones; in 2001, another 54 steles were damaged, the French publication Latest News from Alsace reported.

OLIVER DIETZE/EPA The Jewish cemetery in Saare-Union has faced vandalism before, but the earlier incidents paled in comparison, a local told a French publication.

But the latest incident was more serious than the previous ones and has turned the burial shrine into a “field of ruins,” local Jewish resident Jacques Wolff told Le Parisien.

“The monument in honor of the deportees and victims of the Holocaust was literally pulverized,” he said. “Many of the graves of my family are gone.”

Word of the vandalism arrived on the day after a Saturday attack in which a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Copenhagen, and almost a month after terrorists attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris in conjunction with the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The wrecking of the cemetery seemed to reinforce a message spread by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told his cabinet on Sunday that the recent anti-Semitic attacks should cause Europe’s Jews to move en masse to Israel.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who immediately issued a Twitter statement condemning the vandalism at the cemetery, told AFP that he disapproves of Netanyahu’s comments.

“My message to French Jews is the following: France is wounded with you and France does not want you to leave,” said Valls. “The place for French Jews is France.”

French President Francois Hollande called the desecration an “odious and barbaric act” while Prime Minister Manuel Valls, writing on Twitter, described it as “anti-Semitic and ignoble”.

It is not the first time that a Jewish cemetery in Sarre-Union has been targeted.

In 1988, around 60 Jewish steles were knocked over, and 54 tombs were wrecked in 2001.

News of the latest incident comes just over a month after an Islamist gunman shot dead four Jews in a kosher supermarket siege in Paris and less than 24 hours after a fatal shooting at a synagogue in Copenhagen.

“I am fed up of all these anti-Semitic acts, in their different forms that we saw on January 9 in France, yesterday in Copenhagen and today in Alsace,” said Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France.

Such “cowardly acts” showed a “lack of moral and ethical values” and was an illustration of a failure of France’s national education system, he added.

In another incident in March 2012, a 23-year-old man, Mohamed Merah, shot dead three soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban, southern France, before killing three students and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Merah was later killed in a shootout following a siege at his apartment by French police.


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