Officials Hesitate to Give Motive in Rome Jewish Grave Desecration

Italian police and Jewish leaders are disagreeing over the motives behind the desecration of dozens of Jewish graves in a Rome cemetery.

Police over the weekend appeared to be focusing their investigation on local cemetery maintenance rackets rather than on neo-Nazi anti-Semites or Muslim fanatics.

“I don’t think I agree with this, but they seem to be pursuing that line,” said Riccardo Pacifici, a spokesman for Rome’s Jewish community.

He urged “prudence,” however, adding that if rackets were involved, it was hard to understand why only Jewish tombs were targeted.

Police over the weekend interrogated cemetery workers and seized tools and maintenance equipment.

Vandals smashed as many as three dozen tombs in the Jewish section of Rome’s Verano cemetery on the night of July 17, the beginning of Tisha B’Av, the solemn fast day that marks the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

“It doesn’t seem to me as if this attack came on a date chosen by chance,” said Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “The coincidence is too suggestive to be ignored.”

Police believe at least 10 people took part in the raid. They shattered marble tablets, destroyed vases and statues, wrenched off Stars of David and even dug down into graves.

But unlike previous episodes of anti-Semitic vandalism in Rome, including the desecration of Jewish graves at another Rome cemetery in 1996, the perpetrators did not scrawl swastikas or anti-Semitic slogans.

The attack stunned local Jews and prompted an outpouring of sympathy and indignation from President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and other officials. Local Muslim groups also condemned the attack.

“This is extremely serious,” Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said July 18 after visiting the scene. “This was clearly done with the intention of damaging a place that is particularly dear to the Jewish community of Rome.”

Jewish groups and other observers alike viewed the desecration as the latest in the wave of attacks on Jewish institutions and individuals in several countries in recent months, linked to the conflict in the Middle East. Most of those attacks appear to have been carried out by young Arabs hitting out at Jews as surrogates for Israel.

To date, no such attacks had taken place in Italy. But the cemetery raid came less than a week after police virtually sealed off the historic Jewish Ghetto in Venice because of an apparent terrorist threat.

In a message last Friday to Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, Pope John Paul II said he was “profoundly saddened by this detestable act that follows other similar events of a serious nature that have taken place with alarming frequency in Europe and on other continents.”

He also condemned such “ignoble acts and the anti-Jewish sentiments that inspire them.”

The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, was in Rome when the attack took place. He was in Italy for a meeting with Berlusconi as part of consultations with European leaders on how to combat the new wave of anti-Semitism. He, too, inspected the cemetery.

“The Jews of the world feel more vulnerable than they did 50, 60 years ago,” he said.

Though until the cemetery attack Italy had been spared anti-Semitic violence linked to the Middle East conflict, Italian Jews have warned of a subtle ideological shift, with pro-Palestinian political stands resulting in a growing acceptance of classic anti-Semitic rhetoric in both public discourse and private conversation.

Last month, in an address to the congress of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the speaker of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies dismayed his audience by minimizing these concerns.

Anti-Semitism “could be the expression of a crazed and criminal fragment of society, but not certainly a mass phenomenon,” Pierfernando Casini said. “To evoke the presence of anti-Semitism in our society, or in some political forces, or in the Catholic Church, demonstrates a mistaken image of our country.”

Francesco Spagnolo, director of a Jewish music study center in Milan, said the cemetery attack proved Casini wrong. “Something really is going on here,” he said. “I’m very disillusioned.”

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