Fear of anti-Semitic attacks after Jewish graves are violated

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The Independent Online

Almost 400 graves have been desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in what has been described as an attack of unparalleled violence.

Almost 400 graves have been desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in what has been described as an attack of unparalleled violence.

Police are treating the destruction of 386 headstones at Plashet cemetery in east London as a racist attack.

One Jewish group last night described the vandalism as "unparalleled in its scale of damage". A Jewish source suggested that the attack could have been timed to coincide with Israel independence day on Wednesday.

Scotland Yard said that while the incident was being viewed as racist, there was no evidence so far to suggest that it was part of a systematic attack on the local Jewish community.

The vandalism follows a series of anti-Semitic despoliations, including swastikas being daubed on gravestones at a Jewish cemetery in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, in December.

A caretaker of the locked cemetery in East Ham reported the damage to the police on Tuesday night. One man living near the scene said he had seen three or four teenagers climb over the 8ft-high perimeter wall at the east side of the cemetery. Lines of headstones were toppled, cracking and breaking as they hit the ground. Several had knocked neighbouring gravestones over like dominoes.

One ornate temple had been destroyed, with the columns over the grave knocked down. Several gravestones were broken in half and smashed. Most were left lying on the ground. A woman who saw the damage said: "The level of destruction is astonishing."

The cemetery was opened in 1896 and was mainly used to bury Jews living in East Ham, Ilford, Whitechapel and Dulwich. East Ham used to be very popular with Jewish families who settled there when they emigrated to Britain, but few live in the area now. In October 1997, there was another attack on the cemetery, when 10 gravestones were smashed.

Mike Whine, of the Community Security Trust, a charity monitoring anti-Semitism, said his organisation had recorded 89 incidents in the first quarter of this year – a 75 per cent increase on the same period last year. The trust recorded 350 anti-Semitic incidents in 2002. It described the attack as unprecedented.

Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: "We are shocked at the news of this appalling incident. We express our sympathy to all those whose family members are buried in this cemetery.

"There is no evidence of a systematic attack on the Jewish community in this area, but this underlines how the community must remain vigilant."

Dr Jonathan Romain, a leading rabbi of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, said: "It is desperately hurtful for the families affected but also a sad reflection on a small group of people who can only express themselves through acts that even five-year-olds know are wrong."

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: "We understand the serious concerns of the local Jewish community and we can reassure them that we are doing everything we can to discover who was responsible and bring them before the courts." He added: "Police do not believe that this is part of an organised attack."

In the past year synagogues in Finsbury Park, north London, and Swansea have been desecrated. There was also an attempted petrol bombing of a synagogue in Edinburgh. In one of the worst incidents, gravestones in the Jewish section of a graveyard in Milton Keynes were defaced with swastikas. Many of the desecrated graves belonged to people who had survived the Holocaust.