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Md. congressional delegation must renounce antisemitism here and abroad | GUEST COMMENTARY

Growing up in Baltimore, I did not experience any antisemitism, but in recent years I have — overtly. In my job as a political consultant, for example, one Maryland leader unabashedly told me that, despite my successful record helping clients win tough races, henceforth my only value in politics would be soliciting donations from wealthy Jews.

In an offensive manner, he informed me of his failure to pry substantial money from Jewish donors, and told me that, unless I used my Jewish network for his financial gain, he would obstruct my political work in Maryland. When I informed other political leaders of the incident, they told me I must grow thicker skin and ignore such comments if I wanted to continue working in Maryland’s political arena.

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Jewish colleagues on both sides of the political aisle say they are experiencing similar incidents, such as exclusion from important political meetings because they are repeatedly scheduled for the Jewish Sabbath or holy days like Yom Kippur, despite months of advance scheduling time.

Fortunately, most in the Maryland political arena are not antisemitic and do demonstrate open-mindedness. Yet the growing trend of antisemitism, in and out of Maryland politics, is cause for concern. We should be disturbed by reports indicating a 135% increase in antisemitic incidents in Maryland last year, while a national study showed that almost 75% of college students in America view antisemitism on campus as a serious problem, with some students hiding their Jewishness to feel safer.

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Maryland’s leaders in Washington should not only stand up against local antisemitism, such as the swastikas painted in an Anne Arundel public school bathroom two years ago or on Jewish graves in a Dundalk cemetery recently, but against antisemitism wherever it is displayed. In fact, an important opportunity exists now to oppose antisemitism and the violation of religious freedom currently being demonstrated in Lithuania.

Tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews settled in Baltimore between the late 1800s and the Holocaust era, though they did not forget their heritage abroad. My maternal grandfather’s family was among them, coming to Baltimore in 1905. Today, there are roughly 100 descendants here who have not forgotten the ancestors buried in Lithuania and deserving of dignity and respect.

Recently, the Lithuanian government refused to allow American Jews to conduct traditional prayers at the graves of ancestors buried in the Shnipishok Cemetery in Vilnius; disallowed the restoration and replacements of tombstones destroyed or damaged by the Nazis, including those of renowned Jewish rabbis, authors and community leaders; and denied permission to construct a protective fence around the perimeter of the 500-year-old cemetery to prevent further desecration and destruction.

As 97% of Jews in Lithuania were murdered or fled from the Nazis, the Holocaust largely decimated those who would have been responsible to preserve the cemetery. The 2014 U.S. Protect Cemeteries Act also identifies desecration of religious cemeteries around the world as a violation of religious freedom and obligates the U.S. to preserve holy burial grounds. Furthermore, the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad tasks the U.S. government with helping to preserve cemeteries abroad that are associated with the cultural heritage of Americans. And, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, desecration of religious cemeteries violates human rights, and “governments have an obligation to protect such sacred spaces.”

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Yet while Lithuania continues to violate a 2000 agreement with the United States that should protect the Jewish cemetery, the Biden administration has been noticeably silent, also disregarding a 2008 U.S. Senate Resolution, the U.S. Congress’ Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2019 and other legislation that supports the protection of the 50,000 Jewish graves in the Shnipishok Cemetery.

Tens of thousands of individuals and a coalition of more than 60 human rights and Jewish organizations are calling upon Maryland’s delegation in Washington to renounce antisemitism, human rights violations and religious intolerance in Lithuania. In particular, Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen are powerful members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with the ability to stand up for what is right, in Maryland, Lithuania and anywhere in the world. During this week of Hanukkah celebrations in particular, when we commemorate overcoming ancient oppressors and rededicating a sacred temple, I truly hope they will.

Chevy Weiss (chevy.maryland@gmail.com) is a Maryland political consultant.

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