Thousands attend 'Stand Against Hate' rally against Jewish cemetery vandalism

Jewish Federation of Philadelphia 'Stand Against Hate' Rally at noon on Thursday, March 2, 2017 near Independence Mall. Rally held in response to vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.

A "Stand Against Hate" rally Thursday afternoon on Independence Mall drew thousands of people protesting the recent desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis and a spate of bomb threats called into Jewish community centers and day schools.

About 100 headstones were discovered toppled at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wissinoming on Feb. 26, prompting an outpouring of donations to restore the graves. It was the second act of vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in weeks. Headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis were damaged on Feb. 20.

>>Click here for complete coverage of vandalism at the cemetery

The noon event, which sprawled across the grassy mall for about two hours, was organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to promote security and peace in the wake of the vandalism, which shocked the community and made headlines worldwide.

“I am incredibly heartened by the outpouring of so many generations of people who are taking their time to come out in the cold to stand against hate,” said Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation. 

She urged the crowd of blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics — people of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist faiths — to take the spirit they found at the rally back to their homes and communities.

“Share your stories of what justice, love and mercy are,” Adler said.

As the rally was underway, however, there were reports of vandalism at a third Jewish cemetery in Rochester, N.Y.

Among the speakers at the protest was Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who got a loud applause when he told the crowd that he had just spent time in Washington, D.C., telling President Trump that the acts of vandalism and bomb threats were hate crimes and needed to be treated as such.

“To my fellow Jews,” Shapiro said, “today it is us, tomorrow it will be LGBTQ people and another day it will be our African American brothers and sisters or our Latino brothers and sisters. . . . But no matter who is being targeted, we all less safe."

Shapiro video.

Max Buchdahl, 21, a junior at Temple University and president of Hillel at Temple, said he was encouraged by the attendance of so many people who gathered at Independence Hall, where American democracy was born.

“It’s great to see this many people here and it’s incredible that it’s across faiths and across racial groups,” Buchdahl said, adding that he and other Temple students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, went to Mount Carmel, at Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues to help with restoration efforts.

Also in the crowd was Amnah Ahmad, 29, associate director of the Arab American Development Corp at Al-Aqsa Mosque in North Philadelphia. She was dressed in a traditional Muslim hijab and carried a sign that said “Islam = Peace.”

“We came to show love and peace to the Jewish community,” Ahmad said.

As she talked to reporters, Barry Ungar, 73, a Jewish man from Haverford, walked up to her: "Any attacks against you are attacks against us."

"I never thought I would see in my lifetime this kind of danger and fear," Ungar said.

The vandalism was reported to authorities on Sunday, though a superintendent from another cemetery said it occurred at least five days earlier.

The police investigation into the vandalism remains underway; officials have not publicly identified any suspects or disclosed a possible motive. A reward to catch the vandals has grown to $69,000.

Also Thursday, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced a bill that would increase penalties for ethnic intimidation and institutional vandalism. The offenses affected by the proposed bill would include vandalizing headstones or grave markers.

In conjunction with the rally, the nearby National Museum of American Jewish History is offering free admission Thursday.

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