The decision by the European Union’s highest court to uphold a de facto ban on shechitah in most of Belgium is only the latest chapter in a dark and disturbing part of European history. Again, and again, under the guise of protecting animals, European countries have denied a minority of one its most basic religious liberties, and the civilized world has remained silent.
In 1893, Switzerland banned the slaughter of animals without prior stunning, an anti-Semitic law that continues to prevent shechitah of animals, and forces the local Jewish community to import kosher meat to this very day.
According to the classic textbook Witness to History, during the early years of the Nazi regime, the Jews suffered professional, economic, and social restrictions, but religious observances were not targeted. The Nazis focused primarily on attacking the Jews as a race, not as a religious group. There was, however, one law that did specifically target religious Jews soon after the Nazis’ rise to power: the ban on ritual slaughter, which they passed as early as on April 1933.
In February 1936, the Polish Sejm [lower house of the parliament], in an almost unanimous vote, prohibited shechitah. The real motivation behind the bill could be found in the statement of Deputy Dudzinski of the Sejm: “We desire to plunge a knife into the vital nerve of Polish Jewry and to make their lives unbearable.”
While severe pressure eventually forced the Polish government to allow limited slaughter, this was not enough to satisfy the basic needs of Polish Jewry. On October 26, 1939, shortly after the Germans invaded Poland, shechitah was abolished entirely.
In recent years, attempts, with various degrees of success, were made to curtail or eliminate shechitah in a number of European countries. The 2017 Belgian law that struck religious exemptions to the nation’s requirement that animals be electronically stunned before slaughter, was surely the most serious.
Only a few short months ago, Jewish and Muslim community advocates were encouraged by an opinion delivered by the EU Court of Justice’s advocate general recommending that the Belgian law ran afoul of protections for religious freedom set out by EU legislators in the past and they hoped that the panel of judges would rule along the lines suggested.
Thursday’s ruling, however, not only supported Belgium’s ban, it explicitly gave license for other member states to follow suit, sending a very alarming message not only about the fate of shechitah in Antwerp’s large Jewish community, but about the religious liberties of Jews throughout the European Union. This isn’t merely a matter of putting animals before humans. It is about countries that claim to be democracies using alleged concerns about animal welfare as an excuse to trample on the rights of a minority.
In one of his essays on the fast day of the Tenth of Teves, which Klal Yisrael will observe this Friday, Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, points out that when the Navi calls upon us to “set yourself memorials, establish for yourself bitter lamentations” (Yirmiyahu 31:20), he did not assume that the grief for the past that was buried with Yerushalayim, and the longing for the future that will rise for us anew only with the rebirth of Yerushalayim, would disappear. He knew that no future era could estrange us from these emotions.
But when our fast days were enacted, it was also understood that these emotions would not always remain totally alive and present for our conscience. For why would we otherwise need memorials, if there were no danger of forgetting?
Clearly, these days of public mourning “are intended to reawaken grief that is still within us but that has become dormant, and to strengthen, nurture and interpret these sentiments for us. But they also intend to reach those individuals whom life has robbed of these feelings and alienated from this mentality, and to lead them back to the attitudes and the frame of mind in which our sorrow is rooted,” writes Rav Hirsch.
The news from the EU is only the latest reminder that we are Jews in exile, and how much we have to daven so as to merit our homecoming.