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Attacks Against Cultural Heritage Abroad Raise Questions at Home

by Melissa (YoungJae) Koo

Just about a month after the attack at Charlie Hebdo journal and a deadly shooting at a kosher supermarket in Paris, five teenagers are detained in France for desecrating as many as 250 gravestones in a cemetery in a rural town in eastern France, where many Jews are buried. This incident again calls to mind concerns about violations against art and cultural property and the increasing anti-Semitism in France and elsewhere. According to Professor Richard Weisberg, the Walter Floersheimer Professor of Constitutional Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a White House appointee to the Commission on the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, the recent troubling desecration event in France has been on the Commission’s radar. It is one of many desecrations of Jewish sites in Europe that have historically happened in Central and Eastern Europe. Although it is not clear whether the motivation of the grave desecration was based on anti-Semitism, the commission has assumed that anti-Semitic sentiment was a major driving force in the actions, Professor Weisberg stated.

Weisberg indicated that the act of vandalism is punishable by criminal law; however, he added that although France as well as the rest of Europe needs to further educate younger generations, there is always a possibility of anti-Semitic incidents happening time to time. To counter other future similar acts, the Commission on the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad has been supporting maintenance of sites like graveyards even if there is no desecration, if the sites are important to American constituents. The Commission also has been working with European governments and private groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to educate people to prevent desecration.

In addition, Weisberg’s recent article “Even in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, France’s Jews are living in peace” in the New York Daily News points out the overreaction of media, especially in the U.S., toward anti-Semitism in Europe. Weisberg mentioned that despite sometimes being criticized, French government officials “stand[] in solidarity with [their] Jewish population.” The French government has expressed vocal and politically courageous statements in support of the Jewish community as well as abhorrence toward such anti-Semitic incidents, both on national and local level. Indeed, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls went on record to address his citizens after the January attacks in Paris to underscore that “[a] Jew who leaves France is a piece of France that is gone” to discourage an exodus. The French government’s support of the Jewish community and outcry over destruction of cultural patrimony respond to ongoing issues with extreme right winged, old forms of anti-Semitism in France. In a similar fervent fashion, the French President François Holland has criticized recent ISIS attacks against cultural institutions such as the Tunis museum, attacked by gunmen on March 18 that left 23 people dead, among them 19 tourists from different nations.

Hate crimes that resulted in desecration of a burial place in France also run parallel to the recent extremists’ attacks on cultural sites in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere. As the world leaders denounce such acts, attacks against museums, cemeteries, and cultural properties that affect culture heritage and people in the community, sadly, continue.

*** The author wants to express special thanks to Professor Richard Weisberg for his time and kindness during the interview.

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About the Author: Melissa (YoungJae) Koo, Legal Intern with Center for Art Law, is a third year student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, concentrating in Intellectual Property law, especially art and fashion law. She can be reached at