About a half-dozen headstones were knocked over at a historic Jewish cemetery in Melrose early Thursday, officials said.
“I am deeply saddened and outraged by this vandalism and potential hate crime,” Mayor Robert J. Dolan said. “Cemeteries are sacred grounds. Any malicious destruction is deeply saddening and must be given the full attention of law enforcement to bring the individuals responsible to account for this horrible act.”
The Netherlands Cemetery, at 40 Linwood Ave., was established in 1859 by members of the Greater Boston Dutch Jewish community. It is the third-oldest Jewish cemetery in Massachusetts, Dolan said in a statement, and about 475 people are buried there.
A witness reported seeing three young males with skateboards kicking over tombstones and then running away around 3 a.m., a statement by city officials said. The witness described the suspects as a slender white male, a slender black male, and a heavy white male wearing glasses.
No graffiti or materials associated with anti-Semitism were found, officials said.
The families of the individuals whose headstones were overturned had not been notified late Thursday, because the markers had to be righted before the inscriptions could be read, said Stan Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which operates the cemetery.
A number of Dutch Jews, including relatives of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, are buried there, he said.
“Obviously, any time a cemetery is vandalized, it’s outrageous in every way,” whether it is a hate crime or vandalism, Dolan said.
The early morning discovery added to “an uptick in behavior that is unacceptable” in Melrose, he said.
Robert Trestan, executive director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, said desecrating a graveyard “profoundly affects” a community.
“Memorials of any kind represent people’s lives and history,” Trestan said. “Assaults in those particular places cause a lot of pain, irrespective of motive.”
The vandalism came nearly a month after the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston was damaged. That act, committed by a high school senior with mental health issues, did not appear to intentionally target the Jewish community. But the Anti-Defamation League reported earlier this year that anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts had jumped dramatically from 2015 to 2016.
Still, both Trestan and Jeremy Burton, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, emphasized that the vandals may not have been targeting any ethnic group.
“When I hear that there’s been vandalism, I immediately go to ‘Is this a part of [the rise in anti-Semitism]?” Burton said. “That’s why it’s so important not to speculate about a motive until we know more information.”
Burton also praised the response of the mayor and police.
Anyone with information on the incident can contact police at 781-665-1212 or call an anonymous tip line at 781-665-8477 (TIPS).