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Pence, in visit here, condemns anti-Jewish vandalism

Pence, in visit here, condemns anti-Jewish vandalism

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Updated at 11 a.m. Thursday to report that investigators still going through surveillance video in the area, but no other progress. 

UNIVERSITY CITY • Standing on the flatbed of a truck parked at the Jewish cemetery here where more than 150 headstones were knocked over and damaged, Vice President Mike Pence strongly condemned the act on Wednesday but praised the community for coming together to support cleanup efforts.

“There is no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism,” Pence said.

Relaying words of gratitude from President Donald Trump, Pence also told volunteers who turned out to help clean up the site that they showed the heart of the state and the nation.

“I must tell you, people of Missouri are inspiring the nation by your love and care for this place,” he said. “You make us all proud.”

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens joined Pence at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City and denounced the “vile act of desecration” he said was painful for many families.

“We come together today to let those families know that we’re going to make sure that we preserve the blessed memories of their parents, grandparents and their great grandparents,” he said.

Greitens told the crowd of volunteers that, in a phone call, Trump had lauded the residents of Missouri for their response to the vandalism at the cemetery.

“He asked me, on his behalf, to personally thank all of you. Thank you for standing up in the fight against anti-Semitism,” Greitens said.

“And he said thank you for showing the people of the world that what happened here the other night is not who America is. It’s not who Missouri is. This is who Missouri is,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of hundreds who also had come out to help with the cemetery cleanup.

Trump has been criticized for an initially muted response to a spate of recent threats against Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions around the country. That came after controversy over a White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month that failed to mention the Jewish people, the primary victims of the Holocaust. The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect issued a brutal statement against the administration on both issues Tuesday.

Trump ultimately issued a stronger condemnation of the recent threats. Some critics alleged it was too little too late.

At the cemetery, a total of 154 headstones were found toppled on Monday. About nine were damaged, and a few of the oldest marble headstones were beyond repair.

University City police Detective Sgt. Michael Davis said Thursday that there isn't anything new in the investigation. He said investigators were still going over hours of surveillance video to try to find the people who knocked over the gravestones.

Detective Lt. Fredrick Lemons II said Tuesday that "there was nothing to determine it was any type of hate crime."

Cemetery President Alan Simon said he hoped the thousands of dollars raised by various religious and lay groups would help replace those headstones. Hillel and Chabad at Washington University are joining other donors, including Muslim groups and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, in raising money to help the cemetery.

Pence’s unannounced visit to the cemetery came after a visit to Fabick Cat in Fenton, where he gave a speech primarily on the administration’s economic agenda.

After starting by talking at length about the University City cemetery and the fight against anti-Semitism, he gave a more boilerplate economic speech, hitting familiar themes — the need for lower taxes, fewer regulations and repeal of the health law known as Obamacare — while touting Trump as a friend to business.

Speaking to the small businesses in particular, Pence said: “President Trump is your biggest fan.” He touted Fabick Cat as “a true American success story” and a prime example of the kind of business that will be aided by the Trump administration’s policies. The 1,100-employee company, which sells and services Caterpillar equipment, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

In their visit to the cemetery, Pence and Greitens received resounding applause at many points. But one volunteer said she was disappointed the vice president was there.

“To bring Mr. Pence here was a horrible insult,” said Overland resident Jeanine Molloff, who said she had many family members buried at the cemetery.

“I will not let the Trump administration flip the script,” she added, saying she believed Trump “placated to Nazis” during his candidacy and presidency.

While hundreds of people with rakes, rags, plastic bags and cleaning solution showed up to help out at the cemetery, others, such as University City native Sandy Kaplan, were at the cemetery to check on family plots.

Kaplan stood elated near the undamaged headstone of her late uncle. Another uncle and two sets of grandparents are also buried at the cemetery.

In addition to marveling at discovering her family’s resting places unharmed, Kaplan celebrated the number of people coming to show support of the Jewish community. At one point a line stretched from the cemetery entrance to the corner of Olive Boulevard and Hanley Road.

“It’s really special. It’s community. That’s what we have to hold on to,” Kaplan said, adding she hoped younger generations would revere their ancestors as older people have.

Threats to Jewish communities and Muslims resonated in talks many at the cemetery expressed. Though hateful rhetoric persists, some said they felt that the outpouring of support demonstrated being unified not by race or religion but by being American.

“I think as Americans who are united by the constitution of the United States, we should stand against any hate, any act of vandalism because hate has no religion, no color, no age, no gender, nothing,” said Imam Djilali Kacem. “It’s just something that we should just be against, and it shows that we are Americans more than anything else. That’s why we’re here today,”

Dozens of Muslims from area mosques aided in cleanup efforts. One carried sign that read “Palestinian Muslim here to help.”

At one point Greitens embraced Imam Mufti Asif Umar, and the two exchanged words briefly. The religious leader said he assured the governor that the St. Louis Muslim community stood in solidarity with the Jewish community. He said Greitens thanked him for his support.

University City councilman Rod Jennings said he began drafting a hate crime proposal in November spurred by national events. He said he planned to present his resolution, which would set up a hate crime offenders registry, at a council meeting Monday.

Activist Marc Daniels thanked Pence personally for paying respects to Jews at the former concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, earlier this week, saying he hoped the administration would help weed out hate in the country.

Daniels, of Springfield and the creator of Weed Out Hate, gave Pence a kippah, or yarmulke, with Trump’s and Pence’s names on top and a prayer inside: “Grassroots prayer Muslims, Christians and Jews weeding out hate together.”

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