“Chilling”: Maryland lawmakers threaten to cut aid to immigrants because group criticized Israel

More than 50 organizations and Jewish activists have banded together to express solidarity with an immigrant rights group after nine Democratic state senators in Maryland threatened to withdraw state funding due to the group’s calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

CASA, the Maryland-based immigrants’ rights organization, issued a statement earlier this month saying that they stand “in resolute and steadfast solidarity with the people of Palestine in their relentless fight for freedom.” The organization condemned “the utilization of US tax dollars to promote the ongoing violence” and called for “an immediate ceasefire” to stop “the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.”

“Their message is clear – we support immigrants and refugees, as long as you agree with our Israel politics.”

But after their statement was released, nine lawmakers who represent Montgomery County, issued a response saying they were “deeply disappointed” by CASA’s statement and its lack of acknowledging “the long and painful history of antisemitism in its myriad forms.” As a result, the Montgomery County Senate Delegation proposed the potential of withdrawing state support for the organization.

“This might be an appropriate time to reevaluate the state’s mechanism for providing financial aid and support to our immigrant community,” the senators wrote. “More specifically, we must ensure that public funds are not being used to promote antisemitism and Jewish hate.”

Dozens of organizations signed a letter demanding that the senators retract their public letter which “explicitly threatens” the immigration rights non-profit by stating that they intend to “re-evaluate” their legislative funding. 

“While your threat targets CASA directly, it also threatens thousands of immigrants and low-income communities that rely on CASA’s safety net and advocacy services,” the letter said. “And your statement further sends a ‘chilling effect’ to the growing (and now even majority) number of Americans who want the genocidal attacks on Gaza to stop and have been expressing sentiments similar to those in CASA’s tweet.”

About two-thirds of the group’s funding comes from local, state and federal governments. CASA received $4.89 million in government grants and another $11.3 million in government contracts, out of its total $25.7 million in revenue according to its 2021 tax filings, The Intercept reported

CASA has served Maryland with critical programs and services for more than 35 years,  Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA de Maryland, told Salon

“When they first arrive to the area, many immigrants first stop at a CASA office,” Torres said. “They can find community – and they seek English classes, legal services, health services and a job.”

Torres has had discussions with many of the senators who signed the letter and described them as being “positive.”

“I called these legislators, whom we have worked alongside with for so long, so I can personally apologize to them and tell them that I am learning a lot,” he added.

The Arab American Institute was one of the groups that signed the letter in support of CASA. The two organizations have been allies on immigration issues and have worked together for several years, James Zogby, the institute’s president, told Salon.

“I was troubled by the fact that the statement they issued caused someone to attack them and not only attack them, but threatening to suspend their funding would put thousands of people at risk of not having the services that they provide,” Zogby said.

This is part of a “growing sense of intolerance and impunity” where some groups supportive of Israel feel that they can be “punitive” to those who are not as supportive as them and that is “disturbing,” he added. It creates a type of “intolerance that silences discussion,” which is “dangerous.”

“There was nothing antisemitic in it,” Zogby said about CASA’s statement. “It was critical of what Israel is doing, and if we get to a point where the very real problem of antisemitism – which is a serious issue that has to be addressed – is conflated with criticism of Israel, we do damage to the real fight against antisemitism and we create a situation where Israel becomes beyond reproach.”

The ACLU of Maryland also put out a statement “firmly” supporting CASA and their right to issue statements of public concern.

“It would be both wrong and unconstitutional for the Montgomery County Senate Delegation, or any government officials, to act on threats to punish CASA based on their protected political speech,” the ACLU wrote

At the end of their statement, they said that if any “retaliatory action” is taken to defund the essential services that CASA provides to the immigrant community, the ACLU “will respond accordingly.”

Jewish organizers and activists who have worked closely with CASA for years supporting Maryland’s immigrant communities also put out a letter calling out elected officials.

“We are outraged that elected officials are weaponizing Jewish pain in the wake of the recent atrocities by Hamas to attack and undermine CASA in response to its tweets criticizing Israel and calling for a ceasefire,” their letter said. “To be clear: As Jews, there was nothing in CASA’s statements that we found to be antisemitic or hateful.”

Rabbi Ariana Katz, who signed the letter, told Salon she was “horrified” at the way Jewish organizations and elected officials are punishing CASA for their statement in solidarity with Palestinians impacted by this “heinous war.” 

“These individuals, organizations, and elected officials are not only punishing CASA for their statement which was, in our view, not antisemitic or the other accusations, they are threatening any other organization that receives foundational or governmental support with speaking out against the actions of the Israeli government,” Katz said.

Criticism of the Israeli government is “not antisemitic and anti-Zionism is not antisemitic,” Katz added. However, in the last several years there have been growing efforts to “silence voices” that are speaking out against Israel’s actions. 

“I grieve with CASA and my Jewish community [about] the horrific violence in Israel on October 7 and share deepest prayers for all hostages to be returned home,” Katz said. “I am humiliated by this institutional Jewish response to an organization that has done incredible work for immigrants and refugees. Their message is clear – we support immigrants and refugees, as long as you agree with our Israel politics. The weaponizing of antisemitism weakens the actual fight against antisemitism.”

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CASA has since pulled its original social media postings and acknowledged that their words “have caused hurt” through a public apology they issued on Thursday. 

“We wholeheartedly regret not reaching out to allies and communities grieving the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas in Israel when it occurred,” the letter said. “In the weeks since then, we should have done deeper work to understand the crisis and the ways in which language is understood by people much closer to the situation. We grieve for all innocent lives lost in this latest conflict, no matter their faith or ethnic identity.”

But one of their private donors, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which helped build two major CASA offices – the Multicultural Center and Baltimore Center – announced that it was pulling $150,000 in promised donations.

The foundation has provided CASA with more than $5 million in grant funding and supported them for more than 15 years. However, they said they were “deeply disturbed by the offensive and antisemitic statement” that CASA released and had “additional concerns” leading them to make the decision to direct funds to another nonprofit committed to serving refugees and asylum seekers in Maryland.

Weinberg stated that future grant requests from the immigrants’ rights organization would not be considered “unless and until the organization demonstrates a genuine understanding of the harm that it has caused.”

On Tuesday, 19 Jewish members of the General Assembly reiterated a similar sentiment in a statement they sent to CASA, saying they “believe more intentional actions are needed.”

But at least five senators that Torres has spoken with have told him that they accept his apology and that “it is time to move forward.” 

“I shared with them all the internal work we need to do, including receiving the necessary training, so that these messaging mistakes don’t happen again,” Torres said. They heard my apology.”

The fact that CASA is willing to take the “extra step in the direction of reconciliation is commendable,” but if it is not “enough of a submission” then that is “dangerous,” Zogby said.

When the senators label CASA’s statement as “divisive,” what truly seems divisive is the threat posed to a group like CASA, which actively engages in important work and expresses solidarity with the struggles of Black and Brown communities, he added.

If these attacks on young people and progressives persist, exemplified by cases like CASA’s – where governance power was wielded to threaten funding cuts – and similar efforts to defeat progressive members for expressing mild support for justice for Palestinians continue, “the rupture, it’s going to cause within the Democratic coalition will be irreparable,” Zogby said.

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