Friday, April 18, 2014
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Europe’s New Jewish Question

NEW YORK – In March 1936, Poland’s Sejm (the lower house of parliament) almost succeeded in outlawing shechita (slaughter according to Jewish law). Only the Polish Constitution prevented an outright ban. Had the majority of legislators gotten their way, many of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews would have gone meatless.

A few days ago, the ghosts of the past returned to the Sejm, when deputies rejected a government bill intended to keep religious slaughter legal. Even many of the bill’s supporters (including Prime Minister Donald Tusk) were concerned not with defending the rights of religious minorities, but rather with protecting meatpacking jobs.

The vote was an assault on freedom of religion that flies in the face of Article 53 of the Polish Constitution, which states that “Freedom of conscience and religion shall be ensured to everyone” and specifies that the “performing of rites” is protected. It was also a slap in the face for Poland’s Jewish community, which has been part of the country’s social landscape for more than a thousand years, and which, despite the Holocaust, has witnessed a remarkable renaissance over the past two decades. Indeed, Poland, with its rich Jewish heritage and history, was believed to be among the most fertile environments for a Jewish revival after the fall of communism.

Yet the Sejm’s decision raises the question: Do Poles really want Jewish life to return to their country? Or do they see Poland’s Jewish legacy only as something that benefits their tourism and food industries?

Not every Jew keeps kosher, and some are vegetarians. Hence, not every Jew relies on kosher meat. But almost every Jew will defend the right of others to live according to Jewish dietary laws. Shechita is an indispensable, non-negotiable part of Jewish religious life.

Today, Poland’s Jewish population numbers only a few thousand. Everyone knows why. That, of course, makes it easier for today’s politicians to ban shechita. Such populist measures are vote winners. The civil rights of small religious minorities do not matter much politically; the perceived rights of animals (and economic motivations) do.

But was this decision really motivated by concern for animal welfare? For some deputies, it undoubtedly was; but others discovered their love of animals only when it seemed popular to do so. As The Economist noted succinctly, “Poland is not a country hitherto known for championing animal rights.” Indeed, it is hypocritical that hunting for sport and unsupervised home slaughtering continue to be permitted, whereas shechita, which is carried out by experienced people according to well-established procedures, is not.

In recent months, Polish politicians became agitated about “ritual slaughter.” Granted, the term sounds archaic; but the Torah is the first systematic legislation that forbids cruelty to animals and mandates that they be treated with consideration and respect. Those who argue that ritual slaughter is “foreign” to Polish culture not only know nothing about their country’s history; they also exploit and reinforce anti-Semitic sentiment.

Poland is not the only place where established religious practices are being questioned. In other Western countries, such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, heated debates about religious slaughter and circumcision have taken place recently.

A year ago, a German judge ruled that religious circumcision was a cruel practice that inflicted bodily harm on boys and was therefore illegal – a view supported by many commentators in the media. But German politicians strove to find a solution that accommodated the concerns of the Jewish and Muslim minorities. They demonstrated real leadership. Within weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government proposed legislation that put religious circumcision on a solid legal basis, with the support of most members of the Bundestag.

In the Netherlands, a covenant was signed that allowed religious slaughter. It received the backing of the legislature, which had previously favored a ban.

Likewise, in Poland, following a Constitutional Court ruling in November 2012 that struck down on technical grounds a provision permitting religious slaughter, the government promised that the practice would remain legal. Yet when legislators voted on the government’s bill earlier this month, following a sometimes-hysterical debate on ritual slaughter in the media, three dozen deputies from Tusk’s Civic Platform, the largest faction in the Sejm, opposed it.

By taking this step, Poland has become the ringleader for those in Europe who want to deny Jewish citizens the right to practice their religion freely. If not halted, such measures could call into question the Jewish presence on the Continent in the longer term. Yet Tusk has ruled out a reversal of the ban, and one of his ministers asked the Jewish and Muslim communities to challenge it before the Constitutional Court.

The relationship between Central and Eastern European countries and the Jewish people has always been characterized by both triumph and tragedy. In recent years, it has been strengthening, especially in Poland. Encouraging developments have taken place, such as the construction of a new state-of-the-art Jewish Museum in Warsaw.

A few months ago, I participated in the March of the Living at Auschwitz. Many Jews with European roots who now live in America or Israel were in attendance. As usual, it was a bittersweet experience. For my part, and for many years now, I have tried to highlight the sweet.

But now I am left wondering: Can the Jewish renaissance in the heart of Europe continue if essential elements of Jewish life are declared illegal? Or will Europe’s leaders stand up for the civil rights of their Jewish compatriots?

As Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, recently remarked, one cannot be proud of the Jews of yesterday and tell the Jews of today that their religious practices are no longer welcome. The Jewish heritage is part of Europe’s heritage. It should be protected, not restricted.

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  1. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    "Had the majority of legislators gotten their way, many of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews would have gone meatless."

    That is of course nonsense. Modern people, religious or not, don"t have to adhere to ancient quack digesting rules. And it is actually good to be vegetarian.

  2. CommentedDaniel Gurevich

    Let's turn this argument on its head. Since there are so many poor starving people in this world, it's obscene to use baked goods in barbaric religious ceremonies to "eat" the "body" of "God." Let's ban the Catholic mass. I'm sure some wino can use the wine too. How do you like that?

  3. CommentedCynthia Beatt

    Ronald S. Lauder is unfortunately a contributor who all too often couches his articles primarily in accusations of antisemitism and attempts to erase differences between criticism of Israel for their treatment of the Palestinians or certain Jewish religious practices that seem outdated or cruel to some people and real racism directed towards Jews. At the same time he himself throws in a bit of racism directed at Muslims and, of course, the 'left' who, according to him, work hand in hand (see his ridiculous article on Sweden three years ago)..
    It is tiring to continually read these blindly biased articles and posts and comments which reveal a self-obsessive world view. If anything would drive people to antisemitic sentiments, it is precisely this refusal to understand degrees of racism in different contexts and the inability to avoid connecting everything to the Holocaust.
    All forms of racism must be properly understood. That does not mean any should be accepted. There is an enormous difference between criticism of Israel's policies and hatred of Jews and the more Mr. Lauder tries to insist they are identical, which is insulting, the fewer friends he will win for Jewish communities in any country.

  4. CommentedJim Dwyer

    Slightly off topic, but medically unnecessary Circumcision is clearly an assault against a defenceless child imho. How anyone supports the practice at all is simply astonishing to me. I have no problems though with Jewish folk killing cows anyway they like-But why not give adult jewish boys the option to be cut or not! The answer would most likely be short and sweet I suspect in 95% of cases. The German parliament decision boggles except that they obviously did not want to encourage accusations of anti-semiticism being levelled. But I think the braver decision would have been to ban the practice as being prehistoric.

  5. Portrait of Christopher T. Mahoney

    CommentedChristopher T. Mahoney

    Europe sought to solve the Jewish problem by liquidating six million and the deporting the residue onto Palestine. Now they want them to leave Palestine because they are not Palestinian. That's exactly what the US did with the Cherokees. You want a homeland?

  6. CommentedAbe Bird

    Why the Europeans are so scared of the cow's pain? Do they appreciate the cow more than a Jew (regarding the way that the European butchered the Jews)? Why they think that killing a cow in their way is less painful to the cow than the Jewish kosher way? I suggest taking 2 Europeans and kill each of them with the 2 butchering disciplines and ask them later what was nicer and painless to them!
    Thanks!

  7. CommentedPawel Smietanka

    Dear Mr. Lauder,

    I do not fully agree with your article that the new legislation shows that Poles disregard civil rights of the Jewish. The ban of shechita also known as ritual slaughter is not an assault on freedom of religion in Poland but a mere protection of animals from unjustified suffering. There are a couple of reasons why I believe so.

    First, the ban only prohibits ritual slaughter of animals. The new legislation does not forbid trade of meat that comes from animals slaughtered according to Torah. Kosher meat will still be available on shops’ shelves. It will just not be produced by Polish slaughterhouses. Thus, the Jewish in Poland would not go meatless as you feared.

    Second, the ritual slaughter causes lots of suffering to animals. The agony of an animal slaughtered according to shechita may last couple minutes. Many readers may not know it, but in shechita animals’s throat is cut and the animal bleeds out until it dies. On industrial scale the process is sped up by hanging the animal upside down. As a result, the content of animal’s stomach rushes into its mouth causing suffocation. In addition, the claim that shechita is carried out by experienced people according to well-established procedures may not always hold. The slaughtering is done on massive scale and procedures are often not fully satisfied. It happens that a single cut is not enough. The butcher needs to correct the cut, which in practice means that he needs to go with his knife over a fresh wound. We can only imagine how much suffering it causes to animals.

    Third, the freedom of religion cannot be used to justify immoral behaviour. According to European standards and values, it is immoral to cause extra suffering to animals. The fact that people eat meat does not imply that animals may do anything for us. They do have a well-developed nervous system and they do suffer pain in their own way. If animals are treated badly, they suffer. From the moral point of view, we should do anything to restrict the amount of pain that animals suffer because of us. The ban of shechita in Poland is a result of the Polish realising it. In many other European countries, e.g. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Sweden, the shechita is forbidden too, which you forgot to mention leaving by the reader the impression that Poland is the only country in Europe to do so. Even if Poland is not a country hitherto known for championing animal rights, as the Economist put it, the Polish should be given the right to undo the mistakes of mistreatment the animals in the past.

    In the past lots of Polish citizens used to be Jews. Before the WWII, the Jewish community used to be an integral part of Polish society. The war and socialism that followed the end of the war have changed a lot. I cannot say that nowadays the Polish society is very tolerant towards different religions, which in my opinion has to do with years of isolation that the Polish used to live in. However, there are lots of positive developments going on in Poland. Maybe, you would like to attend the Jewish culture festival that takes place annually in Cracow or the annual festival of music, theatre, film, literature and visual arts in Warsaw that is just about to start. Maybe, participation in those events will show you how the Poles embrace the rebirth of Jewish culture. Maybe, you will realise that the Polish society is very much expecting the return of Jewish life. I strongly believe that you will.

    Kind regards,

    Pawel Smietanka

  8. CommentedPawel Smietanka

    Dear Mr. Lauder,

    I do not fully agree with your article that the new legislation shows that Poles disregard civil rights of the Jewish. The ban of shechita also known as ritual slaughter is not an assault on freedom of religion in Poland but a mere protection of animals from unjustified suffering. There are a couple of reasons why I believe so.

    First, the ban only prohibits ritual slaughter of animals. The new legislation does not forbid trade of meat that comes from animals slaughtered according to Torah. Kosher meat will still be available on shops’ shelves. It will just not be produced by Polish slaughterhouses. Thus, the Jewish in Poland would not go meatless as you feared.

    Second, the ritual slaughter causes lots of suffering to animals. The agony of an animal slaughtered according to shechita may last couple minutes. Many readers may not know it, but in shechita animals’s throat is cut and the animal bleeds out until it dies. On industrial scale the process is sped up by hanging the animal upside down. As a result, the content of animal’s stomach rushes into its mouth causing suffocation. In addition, the claim that shechita is carried out by experienced people according to well-established procedures may not always hold. The slaughtering is done on massive scale and procedures are often not fully satisfied. It happens that a single cut is not enough. The butcher needs to correct the cut, which in practice means that he needs to go with his knife over a fresh wound. We can only imagine how much suffering it causes to animals.

    Third, the freedom of religion cannot be used to justify immoral behaviour. According to European standards and values, it is immoral to cause extra suffering to animals. The fact that people eat meat does not imply that animals may do anything for us. They do have a well-developed nervous system and they do suffer pain in their own way. If animals are treated badly, they suffer. From the moral point of view, we should do anything to restrict the amount of pain that animals suffer because of us. The ban of shechita in Poland is a result of the Polish realising it. In many other European countries, e.g. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Sweden, the shechita is forbidden too, which you forgot to mention leaving by the reader the impression that Poland is the only country in Europe to do so. Even if Poland is not a country hitherto known for championing animal rights, as the Economist put it, the Polish should be given the right to undo the mistakes of mistreatment the animals in the past.

    In the past lots of Polish citizens used to be Jews. Before the WWII, the Jewish community used to be an integral part of Polish society. The war and socialism that followed the end of the war have changed a lot. I cannot say that nowadays the Polish society is very tolerant towards different religions, which in my opinion has to do with years of isolation that the Polish used to live in. However, there are lots of positive developments going on in Poland. Maybe, you would like to attend the Jewish culture festival that takes place annually in Cracow or the annual festival of music, theatre, film, literature and visual arts in Warsaw that is just about to start. Maybe, participation in those events will show you how the Poles embrace the rebirth of Jewish culture. Maybe, you will realise that the Polish society is very much expecting the return of Jewish life. I strongly believe that you will.

    Kind regards,

    Pawel Smietanka

  9. CommentedRenata Davidson

    This is all nonsense. The whole story is about cruelty against animals and not at all about Jews or any other religion (I guess Muslims are on the same boat - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual_slaughter). If it was for our pleasure only, probably it would be easier to leave things as they are. We have serious problems with farmers, who depend on this kind of service, but Poles are ready and willing to make what is right when it comes to animals' rights. Taking about "ghost of the past" is pure demagogy. Placing the whole case in a political or even disgusting racial context is even worst example of the same "virtue". It has nothing to do with our constitution. You are still free to practise your religion however you like and whenever you like, you just need to get the meet from somewhere else. We are not obliged by law to provide this kind of amendments to any religion or group, and even if we were, the laws can and should be changed, because the world and human attitude, awarness about animal suffering is also changing. I'm surprised to see such article authored by the experienced diplomat.

  10. CommentedGeorgina Coroneos

    Are you sure it's about being Jewish....? I think slaughtering animals for religious reasons is outrageous. I don't even believe we should be eating animals. Are you sure that it's not because a lot of people perceive ritualistic slaughtering as....barbaric? The idea of bringing in a little goat and then put it on the alter and then stabbing it in the neck for God.... sends shivers up my spine. I feel guilty every time I pass a MacDonald. I'm prepared to pay more in order to buy free range eggs. Are you REALLY so sure it's all about YOU and not about THE ANIMALS???? Just asking.

    1. CommentedDaniel Gurevich

      You've obviously never been to a chicken farm. They find a spot in the back of the barn and lie on top of each other. They like the body heat. Free range eggs is one of the funnier things marketed to weak-minded people.

    2. CommentedAbe Bird

      Slaughtering animals is not for religious reasons but for food. The way of slaughtering relies on religious laws. Its a small difference, but a difference.

  11. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    I applaud Mr. Lauder for his insight that I think cuts through political rhetoric and academic sophistry like a laser beam.

    While meat is not universally needed, it can be very much the case for say pregnant women, where I understand, complete absence of red meat can lead to a much higher incidence of premature breaking of the placenta leading to miscarriage.

    But in any case, when one speaks of animal rights as those of humans, it should immediately dawn that there is no "correct" way to kill a human in order to eat one. As such, I would propose this simple litmus test:

    Seek the ban of all animal slaughter -- or know that your attitude is simply bigotry against Muslims and Jews whatever the academic sophistry.

    The history of ritual slaughter bans in pre-WWII Europe on this issue, particularly those of Poland and Nazi Germany, should indeed at least induce one to do a little soul searching.

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