Swastika in Heritage Square Park sparks concern

Is last week's vandalism downtown an isolated incident or part of a more serious problem?

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WALLA WALLA - One of the community's most diverse public gathering spaces was defaced with an anti-Semitic symbol a week ago after someone burned a left-facing swastika into the grass at Heritage Square Park.

The dead patch of grass, as well as what appeared to be a wad of wet toilet paper splattered on a piece of nearby artwork depicting the Torah, was discovered by a visitor to the downtown Walla Walla park last Saturday, officials said.

The artwork has been cleaned and the section of sod replaced. But many in the community have been left wondering who did this and whether it's reflective of a sincere and growing anti-Semitic sentiment.

"Nobody really knows what to do with it," said Walla Walla resident Jeanne McMenemy, the art director and production artist for the Heritage Square mural known as "Windows on the Past."

Though historically uncommon in the community, the anti-Semitism is one of several such acts in the last roughly four months. Walla Walla police haven't characterized the individual acts as targeted hate crimes. But they've come at a time when vandalism overall seems to have become more destructive, and other vandalism has taken place against Jewish facilities across the state.

How many isolated incidents must take place and how much time must pass between them before they make a trend has members of Congregation Beth Israel and its non-Jewish supporters curious.

"I think that it's really difficult to know from just the few incidents there have been," McMenemy said. "But I'm worried that it's part of a pattern."

A rock hurled through the tall rectangular window inside the prayer space at Congregation Beth Israel last May was the start, she said.

"Maybe it was just someone throwing rocks. Maybe this was a one-time incident, too," she said. "You can keep saying that until all of a sudden you notice this is a pattern - that there's some group at work here. I don't know if there is or not."

Surveillance cameras pointed at the park were reportedly unable to capture clear images of what happened at Heritage Square that weekend because of the trees blocking the view.

Located on a stretch of Main Street between Colville and Spokane streets, the park is a cozy nook between the retail buildings that house Pete's Ski Shop and La Colombina. With a picnic shelter and playground equipment off downtown's main artery, the park attracts everyone from workday lunch-breakers to parents with wee ones to night owls wandering downtown.

For the last seven years, the spot has been the focus of a major artistic undertaking by ArtWalla and designed to reflect the heritage of a community rich with diversity. Built into the sandstone facade of the dismantled and re-assembled 1902 Odd Fellows Temple are depictions of historic and contemporary photos from more than 20 ethnic and cultural groups who lived in Walla Walla from 1850 to 1950.

The depiction of the Torah that was struck with the wet tissue paper was roughly two columns over from where the swastika was burned into the grass.

Police spokesman Tim Bennett said cases of anti-Semitic vandalism are still too few and far between to point to a movement against the congregation or its members.

He acknowledged that some acts of vandalism have been exceedingly destructive in recent months. The devastation to about 15 trees and the city's flower beds in early August at Pioneer Park are one example. Bennett said that kind of destruction is rare.

But Joan Schille, park maintenance supervisor for the Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Department, said some acts at local parks have reached a new level of offensiveness. Damage has moved beyond tipped over trash cans and plugged toilets.

She said the parks department has received cleanup calls for puddles of urine left in the kiddie tunnels of the playground equipment. This on top of the constant battles with carvings in the picnic tables, cigarette butts left for cleanup and the war against graffiti - with the permanent marker as the new medium.

Schille said it's hard to tell if the wadded-up tissue paper thrown on the image of the Torah was purposefully meant to coincide with the toxins poured on the grass into the shape of the swastika.

But there's one more coincidence that's too eerie for McMenemy, who's not a member of the Congregation but is of Jewish heritage.

Earlier in the summer someone somehow made their way high enough onto the mural to scribble a mustache on the portrait of a woman in the piece. Whether knowingly or not, the mustache was drawn on the picture of Marion Bauer. A composer and co-founder of the American Music Center in New York, Bauer's roots are traced to Walla Walla, where in 1882 she was born to a prominent Jewish family.

McMenemy said the panel had to be returned to the foundry for repairs. It had only been back a short time when the latest vandalism occurred.

Concern about the defacement may be further infused by recent acts of vandalism against Jewish facilities in other parts of the state, said Congregation Beth Israel President Noah Leavitt.

A little more than a week ago, the Northwest Yeshiva High School, Washington's only Jewish high school, on Mercer Island, was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas and references to gas chambers. In August, a sign at the Kehilat HaMashiach Synagogue in the Spokane Valley was painted with a red swastika.

"You just don't really have that number of incidents in this short period of time," Leavitt said. "There's something different about that."

He wrestles with the possible cause, wondering if increasing attacks - whether to synagogues, mosques, parks or art - may be connected to more stress in the world. Less control over anger.

Whether this is just another isolated incident or a signal of a trend, he believes the act is not only an offense to the Jewish community, but to Walla Walla's sense of acceptance.

"I think people in town need to say, ‘We're not a place where we want swastikas,'" Leavitt said.

"When something happens in a space that is about us being a mixed bag of folks able to live together with some sort of civility, it's wrong."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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