A bill sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) that would make the desecration of cemeteries overseas a violation of religious freedom punishable by sanctions was passed last week in the House and now goes to the Senate.
The legislation would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include vandalizing of cemeteries as one of several crimes against freedom of religion.
Under the law, the United States can impose penalties on countries that obstruct religious freedom. Those include cutting foreign aid, public condemnation, canceling official visits, imposing trade sanctions and prohibiting import and export agreements.
The problem of cemetery desecration, especially in European countries, was brought to Meng’s attention by several Queens Jewish leaders, among them Rabbi Avrahom Hecht, of Kew Gardens, who presides over the Hatikvah Russian Jewish Center at the Kew Gardens Synagogue.
“Passing of this bill in the House is just wonderful,” Hecht said. “We believe that every person is special, including their remains, and we are very appreciative of Meng’s efforts.”
Hecht, who is also president of the Queens Board of Rabbis, said he has relatives buried in Poland and that now one of his uncles is raising money for a fence to protect a cemetery there.
Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) says passage of the bill is very important because “in many cases, that’s all that’s left of Jewish identity overseas.”
Lancman added that such action is warranted and necessary because of the global rise in anti-Semitism, especially in Poland.
“We need to suffocate any gasp of air of anti-Semitism,” he said.
The councilman believes it’s a very important statement on the part of the United States to add the amendment. “Adding cemetery desecration to the law’s list is very worthwhile,” Lancman said.
Although there is no similar federal legislation, most states have their own laws on desecrating religious cemeteries. In New York, it is often treated as a hate crime.
Andrew Schultz, director of the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, headquartered in White Plains, called the passage of the House bill “wonderful news, especially after recent attacks in France and Belgium.” His group has been involved in dealing with past desecration at the Bayside Cemetery, a Jewish burial ground in Ozone Park.
One of the most recent cases there was in 2011 when vandals broke into mausoleums and human remains were thrown around. The cemetery is owned by an Upper West Side synagogue and dates back to the 1840s.
Although he called the crime there vandalism, not an anti-Semitic attack, Schultz said it’s still a hate crime “and we need to send a message to the perpetrators.”
He added that he believes cemetery desecration in the United States is not a public epidemic, but that groups must take preventative action such as erecting fences and keeping up the property.
“Ninety percent of what we deal with is due to a demographic shift, so we’re vigilant,” Schultz said, pointing to Jewish residents moving out of neighborhoods but their cemeteries remain, often neglected.
In proposing the legislation, Meng said it would combat religiously motivated vandalism of cemeteries “and also prevent developers from building over cemeteries, a new and emerging threat in places where there are no Jewish communities left to protect burial grounds.”
She noted that the billl’s passage would have a significant impact on Jews in this country and around the world “since many have ancestors buried in their families’ homelands. In many cases, there are few relatives left ... to protect and preserve the graves, so it’s important that there be laws to protect the graveyards there.”
The bill has no sponsor yet in the Senate, but Meng’s aide, Jordan Goldes, said Tuesday she is talking to several Senate offices and anticipates one will be introduced imminently.