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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December 2003, 10:51 GMT
Desecration of the dead
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

There are widespread fears of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the UK. But it's not just the living being targeted - very often it's the dead.

Plashet cemetery in east London
Destruction at Plashet cemetery
At the entrance to Jewish plot in Chatham in north Kent, there is a remembrance stone for the victims of the Holocaust.

The family who erected the monument included the words "to all victims of persecution", reminding those who see it that prejudice comes in many forms.

But while the monument stands, 21 gravestones lie flat. Subsidence is not to blame. These stones were deliberately and systematically knocked over, one at a time, on the night of 20 and 21 November.

Gabriel Lancaster, chairman of the community's burials committee, wants to get on with repairs and ease the minds of families.

But the stones, now covered with the debris of winter, must remain in situ because regulations require modifications to prevent such desecration happening again.

"There are a number of other faiths and communities in this cemetery - Sikhs, Chinese, Muslim and of course Christian," says Mr Lancaster.

"I've been around all of them. None of them have been touched in the way our plot was. It clearly indicates a racist intent."

Safe from harm

The Medway is one of most important places for Anglo-Jewish history; it has long been a gateway to the UK for the Jewish traders and families who have fled persecution in eastern Europe.

Mr Lancaster has himself uncovered a reference to families given protection in Rochester in 1180.
All they have done is upset people - there's no real thought gone into what they did other than to try and antagonise people
Gabriel Lancaster

Today the Jewish community is small - perhaps only 40 individuals and families - and the pretty synagogue lies at its heart.

Throughout this history, says Mr Lancaster, the community has suffered little to no anti-Semitism. This time he believes it has been targeted.

"This was quite deliberate - they must have taken some time to do it.

"This is the first really nasty attack we have ever had. It sounds trite, but it's mindless vandalism," he says.

"All they have done is upset people - there's no real thought gone into what they did other than, I suppose, to try and antagonise people."

Kent Police are treating the incident as racially motivated but say they are keeping an open mind.

Local residents speculate that rather than racism, it could have been drunken teenagers.

But even if racism isn't to blame, it's certainly been a local talking point after the far-right British National Party unsuccessfully put up candidates in the 2003 council elections.

Year of desecrations

Figures compiled by the Jewish Community Security Trust (CST) reveal there have been seven cemetery desecrations this year.

Chatham Synagogue
Detail of the memorial window
In July swastikas were daubed on 11 gravestones in Southampton.

The worst incident of the year came two months earlier when almost 600 gravestones were toppled, vandalised or broken in east London's Plashet cemetery. Prosecutions relating to that incident are continuing.

"We've recorded 110 cemetery desecrations over 13 years. Where there have been arrests, it has often been teenage boys," says Mike Whine, of the CST.

On the other hand, some of these incidents have clearly been the work of organised gangs using pick axes and hammers. "You can't just topple over a stone that may weigh half a tonne."

While anti-Semitism has long been linked to tensions in the Middle East, Mr Whine says it is "an evolving virus" coming from different sources.

The CST says incidents linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than British far-right activity have risen, including the daubing of a synagogue with the name of the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

A similar finding by EU-sponsored monitors has blown up into a huge row amid accusations that the European Commission sat on the report for nine months (EU pressed on anti-Semitism study, 26 November).

Closer to home

Back in Rochester, however, Gabriel Lancaster's 10 years as chairman of the local Racial Equality Council, and his continuing inter-faith work, has led him to his own conclusions.

"It's a hard job and an uphill task. But there's a built-in racist attitude among the British. It's a general thing."

And he does not feel very optimistic about combating racism, a feeling reinforced earlier this year when he heard sixth formers making overwhelmingly negative and stereotypical comments about asylum seekers at a conference.

"Every time there has been an issue with refugees in this country - right back to the Huguenots - the indigenous population has rejected them. The treatment of today's asylum seekers is very much related to wider attitudes towards minorities and building understanding."

Work continues

But the gravestones will be repaired, he says, and he and others will continue their work to foster alliances.

And at the Chatham Memorial Synagogue, the heart of the community, there is plenty of evidence that bigots don't always have the loudest voices.

Inside, there is a beautiful stained glass memorial to the Holocaust. It radiates white and gold light, hope driving out the purple and black names of the death camps.

The idea was conceived by Hilary Halpern, a member of the community; the design and delicate glass work was completed by Sharif Amin, a Muslim.

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