The Senate unanimously passed a bill last week intended to protect overseas cemeteries.
The bill, introduced by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and James Reisch (R-Id.) is an amendment to the International Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1998, which requires the United States to impose sanctions on governments supporting religious persecution and limit diplomatic relations with them.
The amendment’s text recognizes the “spiritual, cultural, and historical significance [of burial sites] to many religious and ethnic groups” and that their desecration “constitute[s] an assault on the fundamental right to freedom of religion, and [is] especially egregious when sponsored or tolerated by the local or national governments in the countries in which such offenses occur.”
“Freedom of religion requires respect for those practicing their faith alone as well as in community with others,” said Sen. Cardin in a statement explaining the connection of the amendment to the original act. “It also requires protection for those who identify as members of a religious community [and] for the symbols of the community.”
Although the bill is equally applicable to any gravesite, it is particularly aimed at curbing the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.
“We hope that the bill will give us moral persuasion,” said Dr. Bernard Fryshman of the Conference of Academicians for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries, who was active in the bill’s introduction and passage. “The world is very different today, and America can do more with moral authority than with might; we hope that this bill gives us that authority.”
Fryshman said that in his work to preserve cemeteries in Lithuania and Belarus he encountered ambivalence from local governments in preventing desecration, since they felt that the United States, and certainly their own national governments, did not stand firmly against such desecration. He expressed his hope that this legislation will send a message that the issue actually is “being taken seriously.”
Commenting on the condition of Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, said that; “Some are bad and others are worse.”
“It is a very difficult issue to deal with,” he went on, “as each cemetery is controlled by local authorities and not the national government. “The United States has been trying for years to work on the problem; hopefully this bill will help American diplomatic representatives speak about it more openly when overseas and push embassies to do more.”
Rabbi Shlomo Besser, former director of the International Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Memorial Sites and Rav of Khal Bnei Chaim Yisrael on Manhattan’s West Side, concurred with the gravity of the situation in Eastern Europe.
“Every year an average of two cemeteries simply disappear due to a combination of erosion, natural plant growth, vandalism, and local construction,” he said.
“Every beis hachaim is a different story,” Rabbi Besser said. “Since the local governments are in charge, a lot depends on the attitude of the mayor of each village.”
Rabbi Besser said that work usually begins with erecting a gate around the area so local residents can see and respect the borders of the cemetery. After restoring monuments, organizations try to maintain a system to assure that the sites are respected. This process can take four to five years and significant funding.
As to how much impact the legislation will have, Rabbi Bleich took a wait-and-see approach.
“How much impact it will have on the ground?” Rabbi Besser said. “We will have to see. But it is definitely a step in the right direction.”