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Vandals damage 100 headstones at Jewish cemetery, police say

By Dalila-Johari Paul CNN

(CNN) -- Tensions remain high in Jewish communities across the United States as police in Missouri are investigating vandalism at a historic Jewish cemetery.

Vandals toppled and damaged about 100 headstones at the St. Louis area's Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the past week, police said Monday. University City police didn't release further details about when the vandalism happened, but they said officers first responded to a report about the damage at about 8:30 a.m. Monday.

The report of the vandalism came on the same day that the White House denounced a spate of recent bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country, including 11 threats that were reported Monday.

Police are reviewing security camera footage in the areas surrounding the cemetery but would not say if they considered the vandalism to be a hate crime, according to CNN affiliate KTVI-TV.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens tweeted Monday night that he was "disgusted to hear about the senseless act of desecration at the cemetery in University City."

"We must fight acts of intolerance and hate," the tweet reads.

In a statement posted on Facebook, Greitens called the damage a "cowardly" and "despicable act of what appears to be anti-Semitic vandalism."

On Facebook, the cemetery thanked the Chesed Shel Emeth Society families for their patience: "We are assessing the locations and damage and will post names that are affected as soon as we are able. Many monuments are facing down and we won't be able to read the names and see if there is any damage until we lift the stones. We want to minimize further damage and need to take the proper precautions."

Jewish community on edge

Regardless of the motive for the vandalism, the cemetery is sacred ground, said Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League of St. Louis.

"There's a difference here between intent and impact. The intent may have been one thing, but the impact is huge on the Jewish community," she told KTVI. "This is where your loved ones come to be safe in perpetuity."

Aroesty said while St. Louis was not targeted in bomb threats reported at Jewish Community Centers across the country Monday morning, the St. Louis Jewish community received similar threats last month.

"The level of tension in the Jewish community is pretty high," she told the TV station.

The land where the cemetery is located was purchased in 1893 by a group of Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Jewish Centers the target of more bomb threats

The investigation into the cemetery break-in comes as 11 phoned-in bomb threats were reported by various Jewish centers across the country Monday morning, according to the JCC Association of North America.

From the start of the year through Monday, 69 bomb threats have made to 54 Jewish centers in the United States and Canada, said David Posner, the association's director of strategic performance.

No bombs were found, and no one was injured in connection with the threats, according to the organization, which is working with law enforcement and the FBI to investigate the calls.

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement: "While ADL does not have any information at this time to indicate the presence of any actual bombs at any of the institutions threatened, the threats themselves are alarming, disruptive, and must always been taken seriously."

White House response to anti-Semitism criticized

Before the White House denounced the bomb threats Monday, the Trump administration faced criticism that it had not sufficiently rebuked acts of anti-Semitism that have occurred nationwide since the election.

During a news conference last week, President Donald Trump was less clear about his position on the matter. When asked directly by a reporter for a Jewish publication about the rise in anti-Semitic threats, Trump told the reporter to sit down, called the question insulting and responded by defending himself in hyperbolic terms.

"So here's the story folks: No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism. The least racist person. In fact, we did very well relative to other people running as a Republican."

The White House also faced criticism on International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month when it omitted any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism in a statement marking the day.

White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks explained to CNN the statement omitted references to Jews because "despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered."

CNN's Dani Stewart, Artemis Moshtaghian and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.

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