As the controversy rages on over the proposed building of a conference center that would desecrate the Jewish Shnipishok cemetery in Vilnius Lithuania, international policy makers are asking themselves what they can do to help.
U.S. Senators, Representatives and Presidents have passed resolutions and legislation directly connected to the ongoing issue of Jewish cemetery desecration in Lithuania.
Pointedly, the passing of the US Senate Resolution S. Res 705 of 2008 was a direct consequence to the building of two apartment buildings on the site of the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery.
In response to the building of these apartments on a site where tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews are buried, the U.S. Senate’s resolution affirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to “the preservation of religious and cultural sites and condemning instances in which these sites are desecrated.”
The resolution censured the Lithuanian government for green-lighting the construction of these buildings on a cemetery and urged them to halt any further development on the site.
This 2008 resolution clearly had an influence on the Lithuanian government, because, in 2009, the Lithuanian government made an agreement with Jewish groups to forbid additional construction on the grounds of the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery, outlawing any digging and excavation.
The internationally welcomed 2008 Senate resolution was followed by legislation that sought to solidify the protection of religious freedom by preserving cemeteries around the world.
In 2014, Representative Grace Meng proposed the US Protect Cemeteries Act (H.R. 4028) which was signed into law by both Congress and the Senate. The legislation was meant to broaden religious freedom provisions and to make them applicable to cemeteries both in the U.S. and abroad.
The legislation affirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting cemeteries internationally and to hold governments and organizations that carry out the desecration of cemeteries responsible. The language of the law considers these actions under the heading of religious persecution that will not be tolerated at home or abroad. The legislation also called for sanctions against parties responsible for the desecration of cemeteries.
Despite the hope that marked the passage of the US Protect Cemeteries Act in 2014, troubling events in 2015 worked in favor of those whose goal was to build on the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery without regard to internationally binding legislation and concerns for human rights.
Turtos bankas purchased the grounds of the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery from a bankrupt Russian company after they realized they were not going to be allowed to build on the site.
When this Russian company failed, Turtos Bankas picked up the property for a song. The state owned Lithuanian bank was determined to go ahead with the development, despite public outcry and internationally binding legislation. Locals who are close to the acton suggest that Turtos Bankas took steps, using its influence to have the area rezoned and to allow the construction.
In January 2020, in a betrayal of faith, Turtos bankas revised the 2009 agreement not to build on the grounds of Shnipishok Jewish cemetery into a form that would allow the building to go ahead with the CPJCE serving as an advisory role allegedly to prevent violations against Jewish law.
Pointedly, a development on a Jewish cemetery is inherently a violation of Jewish law and basic decency, which clearly would preclude any prospect of development on the cemetery grounds.
Additionally, Chief Rabbi Pinchus Goldschmidt head of the Conference of European Rabbis, the senior most authoritative Jewish body in Europe certified that the CPJCE had no authority over any Jewish community or to interpret Jewish law.
In addition, a leading rabbinical court has placed a cease and desist order precluding anyone from participating in the development.
As Turto bankas and those supporting the construction threaten to go ahead with their plans, U.S. lawmakers are considering using their influence to halt the plan.
Further, Secretary Antony Blinken, in the name of newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden, has affirmed that human rights are central to U.S. foreign policy.
In 2008 and in 2014, U.S. leaders took steps that forbade further building on the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery. Additionally, desecrating a Jewish Cemetery clearly fits the OHCHR definition of Antisemitism.
Given the commitment of U.S. leaders to fight Antisemitism and to prevent religious persecution worldwide, expectations are buoyant that U.S. lawmakers will once again invoke their power to prevent the desecration of the Jewish cemetery.