The United States Senate has passed, by unanimous consent, legislation that seeks to protect cemeteries abroad from vandalism and desecration. Agudath Israel of America is applauding passage of the bill, which was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator James Risch (R-ID). The measure has already been approved by the House of Representatives, where it was sponsored by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY), and is now headed to the President’s desk for signature.
Specifically, the legislation would include “desecration of cemeteries” among the violations of religious liberty to which the provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act apply. Under that law, such violations are to be taken into consideration by the U.S. Government when developing American foreign policy toward a country, and the President may take various steps, including punitive sanctions, against governments that deny exercise of religious freedom.
“While the legislation rightly applies to all cemeteries and to members of all faiths, it has a particular resonance within the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director. “It goes without saying that the pain and tragic reality of the continuing desecration – particularly in Eastern Europe, where cemeteries are the lone vestiges of a once vibrant, but now decimated, Jewish life – penetrate to the very core of the Jewish soul.”
“Also, these acts of desecration, which have been documented in numerous countries throughout the world, are stark reminders that the scourge of anti-Semitism remains a danger and a threat – a reality which has been borne out by the ugly expressions of hate and violence against Jews these past several weeks. This outbreak of unabashed anti-Semitism may, in turn, result in even more desecration of cemeteries, synagogues and other Jewish holy places.”
Recognition of cemetery desecration as a violation of religious liberty would, in effect, bring it within the scope of actions that constitute “religious persecution.” As such, it is a subject that is to be included in the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, and that will come within the purview of the Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
For many decades, representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community – including the late revered Agudath Israel leaders Rabbi Moshe Sherer and Rabbi Chaskel Besser – have encouraged the U.S. government, and governments abroad, to take meaningful steps to protect these sacred places. Several prominent Jewish organizations and activists have made this issue, and passage of this legislation, a priority.
“We are confident that this provision will be an effective mechanism in helping to protect foreign cemeteries against vandalism and desecration,” observed Rabbi Cohen. “Our heartfelt thanks goes out to Senators Cardin and Risch, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN); as well as to Representative Meng and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY).”