Dozens Of Gravestones Vandalised In Jewish Cemetery In Slovakia

In a Jewish cemetery in Namestovo, Slovakia, at least 59 gravestones and monuments were vandalised on the 16th of December 2019. With 22 gravestones vandalised in the northern Slovakian town of Rajec in mid-December, this is the second such incident to occur within the country. Its perpetrators unknown, local police officers have opened a criminal investigation looking into the desecration of the tombstones. It is further unclear if the two events were connected. 


As noted by the Jerusalem Post, “inactive Jewish cemeteries often attract vagrants because they are often located outside urban centres and out of sight of law enforcement.” Karol Kurtílík, who heads the civic association Pamätaj (Remember), is responsible for restoring and taking care of the cemetery and added to this sentiment. He spoke of the rarity of such acts, claiming that “such [a] terrible act of vandalism is something that ha[d]n’t happen[ed] even during [the] Second World War,”. Since the systematic murder of local Jewish communities during World War II, non-Jewish Slovakians had been overseeing the cemetery for decades through Pamätaj, beginning its renovation in 2010 after its neglect during the second half of the 18th century. 


The Jerusalem Post continued, suggesting that “some incidents of vandalism have been attributed to drunks and drug users and are not always deemed hate crimes.” However, The Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia asked all “decent citizens of Slovakia not to remain silent.” The World Jewish Congress and the local Slovakian police supported this notion, condemning the attack and calling the crime “monstrous.” Despite the infrequency of such events, with the Jewish communities of Slovakia being largely spared from “overly aggressive expressions of anti-Semitism,”, international organisations such as The World Jewish Congress have expressed their appreciation for local authorities investigating the attack with the severity it calls for. Local groups and organisations have also offered to gather funds to aid Pamätaj in the restoration of the damaged gravestones which are estimated to cost around US$55,700. 


This act of vandalism, however, is not limited to Slovakia. According to a statement by The World Jewish Congress, “it has become sadly clear that in the climate of xenophobia and hatred spiralling across Europe, every minority community is indeed a potential target for malicious attack,” as gravestones were damaged and found covered with anti-Semitic graffiti in France, Denmark, and the United Kingdom from October to December 2019. These incidents have incited identical responses: investigation by regional authorities, criticism from both local and international Jewish communities and organisations, alongside promises by European leaders to invest in education against hate speech and racism. Yet, a recent survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that about one in four Europeans “harbour pernicious and pervasive attitudes toward Jews,” where anti-Semitism has especially risen in Central Europe.  


This is considered an issue by 50 per cent of European Union citizens, particularly in France and Sweden, however, only 20 per cent acknowledge it as a problem in Slovakia, as shown by the Eurobarometer report. This was a survey conducted within a sample of 28,000 Europeans as the European council declared a fight against anti-Semitism on 6 December 2018. Additionally, 36 per cent of Europeans, especially the Germans and Swedes, believe that anti-Semitism has increased, whilst only 15 per cent of Slovakians share the same opinion, with 58 per cent believing that anti-Semitism trends have not changed. The adoption of an indifferent attitude, if taken to extremes, could potentially create detrimental environments threatening the lives of Jewish communities in Europe, echoing anti-Semitic attitudes during World War II. 


Historically, anti-Semitic programs had dominated Slovak politics, with nationalistic, agrarian, religious, and fascist groups at the forefront of such campaigns. Upon declaration of the First Slovak Republic on 14 March 1939, the Slovak government implemented numerous anti-Jewish decrees that adversely impacted their socio-economic standings and participation. The First Slovak Republic was the only non-occupied German satellite state to willingly deport 57,628 Jewish citizens to Germany in exchange for 500 Reichsmarks per person from 25 March to 20 October 1942. It was through this program that Slovakia’s Jewish population experienced a significant reduction. Numbering at around 5,000 people, Slovakia’s Jewish community is currently one of the smallest in Europe according to the Central Union of Jewish Communities in Bratislava. It was only in the lead up to and creation of the modern Slovak Republic in 1993 that the Jewish community found more support within the state. The Museum of Jewish Culture opened on 20 May 1993, followed by the renewal of services at synagogues and liturgy during Jewish festivals, as well as the promotion of Jewish institutions such as the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities. 


Recently, Slovakia, the 2019 Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-office, gathered government officials and civil society representatives in Bratislava to discuss methods to combat anti-Semitism. Panels discussed topics including the security of Jewish communities and individuals, the role of education the media, and the civil society in addressing anti-Semitism. Christina Finch, head of Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), reported on the completion of the ODIHR’s multi-year project, “Turning Words into Action to Address Anti-Semitism”. Further Senator Ben Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, implored leaders to adopt a “plan of action to address violence and discrimination across the OSCE region.” 


Despite increased awareness encouraged by governments, organisations, and Jewish communities, progress in combating anti-Semitism over the past decade has slowed according to Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Chair-in-Office’s Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism. He points to recent surveys that highlight how “over a third [of Jews] are reluctant to wear anything in public that would identify them as being Jewish.” Though Rabbi Baker recognised how the “OSCE has been in the forefront of the struggle” for years, he also observed that the “general climate has worsened, with growing racist and populist movements, a coarsening of public discourse in the easy ability of social media to amplify anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.”


In this, Rabbi Baker is not alone, as head of Pamätaj, Karol Kurtílík, suggests that anti-Semitism is “spreading through fake news and online conspiracy theories.” Moreover, neo-Nazi groups in several countries appear to be gaining attention as their marches and rallies intentionally pass by Jewish sites or are held during important Holocaust-era anniversaries. Following this, Senator Cardin claims that “political leaders…are fostering a permissive environment of hate.” This was seen during the 2019 conference in Bratislava where remarks by Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Neissl and Hungarian State Secretary Szabolcs Takacs negatively portrayed Muslims, refugees, and migrants as sources of anti-Semitism. This comes as Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, has largely remained silent in regards to anti-Semitic messages propagated by Jobbik, a Hungarian political party with radical origins. 


Although civil society speakers present at the conference condemned Hungary for expressing “tactical rhetoric that without being blatantly anti-Semitic still manages to put anti-Semitic messages out there,” the comment by Neissl and Takacs reveals the possible consequences – in this case of Islamophobia – of giving such politicians a platform to voice their opinions. Others observed how “countries that have a terrible record with their Jewish communities, where Jewish communities [have faced] some of the most complicated struggle[s] today, are able to say ‘everything is [all right] in my country.” This, in turn, indicates the possible insufficiencies of intergovernmental conferences. 


Thus, many speakers noted the importance of universally adopting a singular definition of anti-Semitism, as put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It is only once the problem has been clearly defined, that countries may hope to achieve their agenda against anti-Semitism. Previously, The World Jewish Congress realised that the adoption of the definition is not enough, that “national parliaments need to recognise the importance of applying the definition systematically to yield as an effective tool for law enforcement.” Therefore, the utilisation of this definition may better supplement the conferences, and vice versa – enabling countries to better “adopt, encode, and enforce” laws against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism as suggested by The World Jewish Congress.


In addition to the working definition of anti-Semitism, governments could align their laws with the policy guide entitled, ‘Addressing anti-Semitism through Education – Guidelines for Policymakers,’ as developed and launched by UNESCO and the OCSE on 4 June 2018. This would encourage governments and international organisations to see the necessity of providing adequate resources and education to combat hatred to provide security to Jewish communities and marginalised groups. Legislatively, “all forms and expressions of neo-Nazism, xenophobia, and intolerance…have to be condemned,” according to The World Jewish Congress. For instance, marches by extremist groups should be banned. Moreover, governments and internet service providers should be wary of the media sites they are funding; only granting licenses for television and radio broadcasting and supporting social media and news sites that do not propagate hate material. As shown by the incidents at the conference, however, a series of checks and balances need to be introduced in regards to politicians and governments who blatantly enact their own agendas. Here, non-politically affiliated organisations, both local and international, can be important in ensuring governments act upon the agreements promised at such conferences, as well as bringing perpetrators of vandalism, crime, and hate speech to justice. 


The issue of anti-Semitism is a complex one, requiring the enactment of numerous legal, educational, preventative frameworks according to a country’s pre-existing framework, alongside the cooperation of organisations both governmental and civil, and local and international. However, each of these practices influences and supplement the other, and it is therefore in all of these possible responses to the issue that countries may hopefully begin to better combat anti-Semitism.