Cemetery Vandalism Arrest: A Cautionary Tale


What did you feel when police finally figured out who knocked over all those headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery — and that reportedly the reason was drugs and drink, not anti-Semitism?

Relief? When a crime goes unsolved for more than 14 months, a crime that struck at the heart of the Jewish community, it’s natural to worry that no one would ever be held responsible. Last week’s arrest of Alzado Harris of Florissant, who confessed to the vandalism that caused more than $30,000 in damage, thankfully brought the case to a close.

Gratitude? The good police work which ultimately resulted in the arrest of a suspect deserves praise not only from the Jewish community, but from the St. Louis community at large.  The response of the general community to the desecration was certainly heartening as Jews were joined by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other faith groups in the clean-up efforts.  Also on hand were Missouri’s first Jewish governor,  Eric Greitens along with Vice President Mike Pence.

Concern? The whole situation brought home once again the danger of jumping to conclusions, even when they seem to appear obvious. The photos of the toppled headstones clearly raised suspicions of anti-Semitic behavior, and a seeming copycat crime at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia a few days later heightened that fear.  The caution against “jumping to conclusions” goes both ways:  no definitive conclusion should be made regarding the cemetery vandalism until the matter has been fully investigated and adjudicated.

The University City police said all along that they could not be sure anti-Semitism was involved but that they couldn’t rule it out. DNA found on a jacket left at the scene finally led investigators to Harris, who told police he was drunk, on drugs and mad at a friend when he went on his rampage. 

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Similarly, no anti-Semitic motives were immediately apparent in bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers nationwide made by an Israeli-American teenager who reportedly suffers from a brain tumor and by former journalist Juan Thompson, who was found by authorities to be acting out a plot to frame a former girlfriend.

Vigilance? The conclusion of anti-Semitism was apparently wrong in these cases, but that fact doesn’t mean that what the Anti-Defamation League calls “a rising climate of incivility” involving Jews and society in general can be ignored or forgiven. In any high-profile, shocking situation, walking the fine line between knee-jerk reaction and fact-based conclusion is never easy, and the Chesed Shel Emeth case brings home that truth once again.

The ADL’s platform for dealing with increased anti-Semitism remains a good plan of action: tolerance, vigilance and effective law enforcement. When the next incident arises, as it most certainly will, let us keep our  emotions in check and wait until all the facts are in. But never give up the unending struggle for equality and against bigotry.