Caring for the deceased is an essential tenet in Judaism. From the time of death, the body is carefully watched over, and it is buried within 24 hours to begin the period of mourning.
According to Jewish law, graves and sanctity of cemeteries should be devoutly preserved. Therefore, a Jewish cemetery desecration represents profound disrespect to the deceased and Jewish communities.
Antisemitism has been responsible for cases of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, including headstones spray-painted with Nazi symbols and slogans. These are clear hate crimes and are blatant examples of Antisemitism. They are not, however, the only form of Antisemitic desecration of Jewish cemeteries.
Building on Jewish Cemeteries Is Antisemitism
The threat of building on the site of Jewish cemeteries is an aggressive action that disregards Jewish law. It is an attack against Jewish communities and shows a profound disrespect for the deceased. Unfortunately, many graveyards, both Jewish and non-Jewish are currently being threatened in Europe.
People who support these plans of destroying cemeteries may insist they do not intend disrespect, but they rarely show concern when Jewish communities protest against these building proposals. According to Jewish law, using a cemetery for any purpose other than as a resting place for the deceased is forbidden.
The Shnipishok Jewish cemetery Is Under Threat Once Again
Currently, in Vilnius Lithuania, the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery is under threat from the proposed development of a convention center.
International activists are leading the call to protect the cemetery and working to enforce legal mechanisms that would prevent the conference center from being developed.
Before World War II, the leader of Lithuanian Jewry, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodinsky was successful in preventing the Polish government from building a sports palace on the grounds of the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery. However, this respite before the devastation of the Holocaust, did not last.
After the war, during the Russian occupation, the Jewish tombstones were desecrated and used for building materials, resulting in the development of the Sports Palace. To this day, the skeletal remains of many Jews are trapped in the Sports Palace without any markers identifying them.
International outrage against the Shnipishok Jewish cemetery continued. In the early 2000s, the Lithuanian government allowed the construction of two apartment buildings on the grounds. Following international protests, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning the building on the Jewish cemetery, demanding that Lithuania cease any further development on the site.
A Renewed Threat to the Snipishok Jewish Cemetery
It seemed that finally, the buried in the Snipishok Jewish cemetery had achieved peace. However the issue of building on the cemetery was revived, this time through the purchase of the cemetery property from a bankrupt Russian entity in 2015, by Turto bankas.
Undeterred by the 2009 U.S. Senate resolution to halt all new development in the cemetery, Turto bankas worked to rezone the property and legislation to make a development permissible.
The prospect of building on the Snipishok Jewish cemetery has been called outrageous. It violates not only the 2009 U.S. Senate resolution but also the U.S. Protect Cemeteries Act (H.R. 4028) passed by Congress and the Senate in 2014 to make the desecration of cemeteries a violation of religious liberty. This respective law was intended to be applied internationally, to cases like the proposed desecration of the Shnipishok cemetery in Lithuania.
Preventing the Desecration
Turto bankas has defended its decision by claiming that it was going to proceed with the construction of the conference center in partnership with the CPJCE (a London Jewish committee). The CPJCE misrepresented itself as a Jewish authority that would ensure that Jewish law was not violated. However, in 2020 Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt of the Congress of European Rabbis declared that the CPJCE had no authority to represent any Jewish community and that developing a conference center on the cemetery was a violation of Jewish law and desecration of the cemetery.
Additionally, the law office of Hadad, Roth and Shenar submitted a copy of a Rabbinical Court Order barring the conference center development and precluding anyone from participating in the development.
Respect for the buried is an important principal in the Jewish law, and fighting against this insidious form of Antisemitism is the task of all good people everywhere.