Editor’s note: This story, originally published at 3:14 p.m. Nov. 14, was updated at 10:23 a.m. Nov. 15 to include information about a Nov. 14 letter issued by 19 Jewish members of the Maryland General Assembly. It was also updated at 4:03 p.m. Nov. 15 to add comments from the ACLU of Maryland.
The executive director of a Montgomery County-based immigrants’ rights group is apologizing after the county’s entire General Assembly Senate delegation issued a letter criticizing the organization’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, which the officials called “hurtful, divisive, and antisemitic” and suggested reevaluating the amount of funding the organization receives from the state. On Tuesday, 19 Jewish General Assembly delegates and senators issued a separate letter expressing disappointment with CASA’s Nov. 6 statement.
There have been demonstrations of support as well, including a press release distributed Wednesday by the ACLU of Maryland supporting “CASA and their fundamental First Amendment right to issue statements of public concern in the public forum.”
“I want to profoundly apologize to the Jewish community in Montgomery County and beyond,” CASA executive director Gustavo Torres told MoCo360 in an interview Friday. “We were not experts on this [crisis], and members of the Jewish community have been educating me.”
CASA’s statement, posted Nov. 6 on X (formerly Twitter) and as a press release, supported Palestinians in “the struggle for decolonization” and affirmed “the rights of Indigenous peoples and historically colonized nations to reclaim their land.”
In a letter released Nov. 8, all nine Montgomery County-based senators condemned CASA’s statement.
“[The statement] reflects a complete lack of understanding of the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, the indigenous roots of the Jewish people, and the long and painful history of antisemitism in its myriad forms,” the letter said in part. “Collectively and individually, we have worked in partnership with CASA to provide much-needed services to our immigrant communities here in Montgomery County and throughout Maryland. We have provided CASA with millions of taxpayer dollars intended to support our new Americans and help provide them with necessities and shelter … it is for these reasons that we are particularly hurt and dismayed to see the statements and the postings on the CASA social media sites.”
The initial statement issued by CASA on Nov. 6 on X and its subsequent thread have since been deleted. It has also been removed from CASA’s website. MoCo360 viewed screenshots of the deleted thread on X and on Montgomery Perspective. The statement also said:
“CASA stands in resolute and steadfast solidarity with the people of Palestine in their relentless fight for freedom. We stand shoulder to shoulder with countless Black and brown freedom activists from around the world. We specifically condemn the utilization of U.S. tax dollars to promote the ongoing violence. We call for an immediate ceasefire to save all precious life and halt the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.”
It concluded with the charge to “free Palestine NOW!”
Blowback was swift, and CASA later offered an apology on the evening of Nov. 6.
“We write to acknowledge that our words have caused hurt,” CASA wrote in a X post at 8:50 p.m. on Nov. 6. “We have received feedback from our dear and trusted partners, who have expressed their concerns about the impact of our language.”
The statement was also publicly criticized by multiple Montgomery County Councilmembers, including Council Vice President Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1), who told MoCo360 in an interview Nov. 7 that CASA’s apology is a “step in the right direction,” but also said it’s “not adequate to repair the hurt that’s been caused.”
Members of the Senate delegation who spoke to MoCo360 shared Friedson’s sentiment, with some going as far as to say there’s no way to repair the relationship.
“I’m not sure what the consequences will be, but CASA’s actions are inexcusable,” said Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Dist. 17), who is Jewish. “It’s unforgivable, and I choose my words carefully. It doesn’t matter if [Torres] says ‘I’m sorry’ 10 times. I cannot forgive statements that essentially say he wants to murder my people. It’s not OK.”
Torres said he was “very sorry” to hear that some officials felt that the relationship was beyond fixing.
“We will do whatever is necessary to repair these relationships,” Torres said. “We want to apologize not only with words but actions. The trust we broke was with wonderful people we worked with for a long time.”
Torres said 30,000 individuals come to the CASA office annually to receive information and resources from finding affordable housing to accessing food to learning how to become a citizen. He said the relationship with elected officials and other organizations has been vital in accomplishing these goals.
Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Dist. 19), who is head of the delegation, said the letter isn’t saying that the General Assembly would outright pull funding from CASA. However, Kramer said, he has concerns that if CASA is using state funding for political activities, the General Assembly should consider funding other groups that support immigrants instead.
“The question is: Are those taxpayer dollars being committed for those purposes, or are they being utilized for political statements and political events?” Kramer said. “If that’s the case, CASA needs to focus on its mission and its purpose or job, or we may seriously need to look at finding other mechanisms for getting funding to our immigrant community.”
Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Dist. 14) expressed similar sentiments.
“I think it’s very important that we don’t lose sight of making sure that we do all we can for the communities that CASA serves,” Zucker said “I just think that CASA has been distracted in their mission.”
Torres said he would agree to an audit of CASA’s books, but that he can confidently say the organization is not using state money to fund political causes.
“The senators and people who are requesting [accountability] right now are not our enemies,” Torres said. “They are friends who are very, very upset with us.”
Ten percent of the population of Montgomery County is Jewish, and there has been scrutiny and at times criticism of organizations’ statements on the conflict. In October, Montgomery County Public Schools faced backlash by some Jewish groups and members of the community who called the school system’s response to the war “inadequate.”
Torres said the organization is taking time to work with Jewish community members and organizations before it puts out another statement and that he “deeply values” the long-time relationship CASA has had with Jewish stakeholders. He said the goal is to “promote unity and peace,” and that he is also engaging the Palestinian community.
“The crisis that is facing both sides is the killing of human beings. The attack by Hamas on Israel was an attack against humanity, killing 1,400 people,” Torres said. “It is horrendous. That is something that we totally reject and condemn.”.
Torres said the organization is also upset by the loss of civilian Palestinians in the war, which is why CASA made its initial statement. The Washington Post reported Monday that more than 11,100 Palestinian civilians have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7–4,609 of whom were children. Torres said CASA has had a history of “standing against injustice and violence against innocent people” throughout its existence.
“We believe that the response from Israel is totally unacceptable because it’s impacting civil society,” Torres said. “We believe that it’s very important to recognize and celebrate the right for Israel to exist… but also the right for Palestine to have self-determination. We are calling for peace and unity and to recognize humanity in all of this.”
Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Dist. 39), who represents Montgomery County in the Maryland General Assembly, criticized the delegation’s letter on his personal Facebook page on Nov. 9, Montgomery Perspective first reported.
“You can disagree with someone’s policy position but targeting funding for new American communities over it is xenophobic. That letter needs to be retracted,” Acevero wrote.
Acevero did not respond to requests for comment from MoCo360.
Acevero has joined calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. He was a leader of a Nov. 5 rally in Rockville advocating for a ceasefire and has issued statements on social media supporting Palestinian freedom.
Montgomery Perspective first reported that on the same personal Facebook page, Acevero posted “Free Palestine” and condemned “genocide happening in Gaza.”
Kramer said the idea that the senators’ letter is an attack on CASA’s First Amendment rights is a mischaracterization, and that the delegation does not intend on trying to eliminate funding to support the immigrant community in the state budget.
“Everybody’s entitled to their position,” Kramer said. “Whatever their sentiment may be, whether it’s rooted in ignorance or not, they are entitled to share their sentiment. It is a question of taxpayer dollars and if those taxpayer dollars are being misused.”