A group of Democratic state senators in Maryland is threatening to strip state funding for an immigrant rights group after it called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and condemned the “utilization of US tax dollars to promote the ongoing violence.”
The nine lawmakers who represent Montgomery County — Maryland’s most populous county — said in a statement on Wednesday that the remarks by CASA were “hurtful, divisive, and antisemitic.”
CASA is a Maryland-based advocacy organization that also provides services for the state’s immigrant communities, and it receives millions of dollars from the state and local governments to do that work. The Democratic delegation, whose members sit on influential committees in the state legislature, suggested that it may cease 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.”
The Democrats’ threat follows actions by other state and federal officials urging crackdowns against those supportive of the Palestinian people and critical of Israel’s war on Gaza. Sen. Josh Hawley led a resolution condemning “radical student organizations” protesting on college campuses, while Sen. Tom Cotton called to deport foreign nationals deemed to be in support of Hamas. Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, meanwhile, has opened an investigation into a pro-Palestinian nonprofit, while students and employees across the country have faced professional retaliation for their support of Palestine.
“The systematic targeting and silencing of organizations and individuals advocating for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation needs to stop,” said Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-led justice organization. “It’s particularly shameful for Montgomery County state senators to attempt to silence CASA, an organization fighting on behalf of our immigrant communities, by threatening to withhold their funding.”
The saga in Maryland began with a statement CASA released on Monday, expressing “resolute and steadfast solidarity with the people of Palestine” and calling for an “immediate ceasefire to save all precious life and halt the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.”
The statement, signed by CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres, condemned Hamas’s attack on October 7 and rejected the notion that any violence could justify Israel’s attacks of “terror,” including the targeting of refugee camps and medical and United Nations aid workers.
The group, which was founded by activists who opposed U.S. interference in Latin America, also noted its strong support for decolonization and for Indigenous and historically colonized people. “The Palestinian struggle mirrors our own; with many CASA members fleeing governments and countries wrecked by the damage of US economic and political intervention.”
The organization also posted a series of tweets mirroring the language in the statement, but it deleted both posts on the same day it issued them. Still, CASA faced swift pushback, including from Montgomery County Council Vice President Andrew Friedson, who called the statement “inflammatory and inaccurate” and urged the group to formally retract it.
That same evening, the group posted an apology. “We write to acknowledge that our words have caused hurt,” CASA tweeted. “We have received feedback from our dear and trusted partners, who have expressed their concerns about the impact of our language.”
Torres expressed similar sentiments in an interview with The Intercept, saying that the group feels “horrendous” about hurting Jewish community members, some of whom they have worked with for years.
He said CASA maintains its support for a ceasefire and that the group will have a new statement in the days to come. The group hopes to communicate that it is for peace, that it denounces the killing of civilians by both Hamas and the Israeli government, and that Palestine deserves self-determination, as Israel deserves a democratic state with security.
Torres said he has spoken with some of the senators and believes that they do not want to cut funding for CASA’s basic services, including workforce development and English and computer classes. “I hope that that is not their intention. And I hope that they are going to analyze better the statement they make about that.”
According to CASA’s 2021 tax filings, the group received $4.89 million in government grants and another $11.3 million in government contracts, out of its total $25.7 million in revenue.
In their letter, the senators wrote that they “have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with CASA to support Montgomery County’s values,” and that Hamas represents the antithesis of those values.” They also decried CASA’s “inflammatory posting of a sign that reads ‘From the River to the Sea,'” referring to a picture of a protest sign that CASA had posted on Instagram and later deleted. The slogan, which has become a lightning rod in the political discourse about Israel and Gaza, has long been used by Palestinians to refer to their aspirations for freedom and equality.
The Democrats said CASA — which opened its statement by condemning the Hamas attack — overlooked the militants’ efforts to kill Jews. Their letter made no mention of the over 10,000 Palestinian casualties of Israel’s retaliatory war on Gaza.
In a statement on Thursday, state Delegate Gabriel Acevero shot back against his Senate counterparts, saying he was “disgusted” by the delegation’s threats. “Let me be very clear, I will call out and fight any attempt by any Democrat in Annapolis to target resources for new Americans,” he wrote. “I don’t tolerate xenophobia from Republicans, and I won’t tolerate it from Democrats. I am calling on the Montgomery County Senate Delegation to retract the insensitive letter they authored and rethink how they communicate with our community, and their constituents.”
The nine Maryland Democrats who signed the letter are:
Katie Fry Hester
Update: November 9, 2023, 6:58 p.m. ET
This article was updated to clarify that CASA took down its statement before Montgomery County Council Vice President Andrew Friedson issued his response to it.