The shocking face of anti-Semitism

At a West Ham cemetery yesterday: the 117th attack on a Jewish graveyard in 15 years

The graves of the two children - Rachel, aged 13, and Abraham, aged four and a half - had stood undisturbed side by side for almost 150 years. But yesterday their headstones lay smashed, the Hebrew inscriptions, etched on fine Portland stone, crumbling in the dust.

Only yards away on an intricately crafted tomb, the words "Jew Boy Dead. Ha Ha" were scrawled in marker pen. Swastikas defaced the headstones of some of the 87 graves desecrated at West Ham cemetery in east London, where generations of Jews have been buried since the mid-19th century.

Vandals wreaked a trail of destruction, smashing and kicking over headstones in an act which has shocked the Jewish community. The main target of the attack appeared to be a grand circular mausoleum, built in the 19th century by the Rothschilds, one of Britain's most prominent Jewish families.

It is the latest in a rising number of racially motivated attacks on Jewish cemeteries across Britain. This was the 117th Jewish cemetery desecrated in Britain since 1990 and the third to be discovered in a week.

On the wall of the Rainham Jewish cemetery in Essex, it was discovered yesterday, two giant swastikas and the words "Yids out" had been daubed in paint. Last week, vandals smashed 100 gravestones in a historic cemetery in Manchester.

The desecration is part of a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, including violent attacks on children and orthodox Jews. There were 532 anti-Semitic incidents last year, the highest since records began 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said it was "concerned at the considerable and steady increase of anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom."

"While these incidents usually mirror tensions in the Middle East, representatives of the Jewish communities report there now seems to be a higher level of background violence against these communities," the report by the European human rights watchdog said. "Although manifestations of anti-Semitism continue to come from extreme right-wing and neo-Nazi groups, an increasing number ... is reportedly coming from Muslim fundamentalist groups," the report said.

"It has now regrettably become commonplace to desecrate Jewish cemeteries," said a spokesman for the Community Security Trust, which offers security advice to the Jewish community. "These acts must be treated seriously by the police and the judiciary should pass deterrent sentences in these cases."

Melvyn Hartog, head of burials for the United synagogues, was picking his way yesterday through the mess of graves in West Ham. Standing before the broken headstones of children, he said: "Tell me what these kids have done to people? These are dead kids. They can't fight back. This is the greatest form of cowardice you'll find."

The circular tomb, designed for the Rothschilds by Matthew Digby Wyatt, the architect of the India office in Whitehall, had its door battered in with iron bars, ripped from the sides of tombs.

The 4th Baron Rothschild was said to be aware of the desecration but declined to comment.

Police visited the cemetery and removed items for forensic examination. Detective Inspector Steve Lane, of Newham police, described the vandalism as "a despicable racist attack" and asked anyone with information to come forward.

A clue to the identity of the those responsible was found on the side of an elegant mausoleum, where the words "A Hitler" and several swastikas were scrawled. A number of graffiti "tags", including "snow-man and Greedy" were scribbled alongside, suggesting that teenagers were involved. The scrawled swastikas were the wrong way round.

Members of the Jewish community said they had no doubt the motive was anti-Semitic. Directly next door to the Jewish cemetery is a communal graveyard that was left untouched.

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