Kosher Slaughter, Circumcision and Jews' Religious Freedom | Opinion

Among the tenets most central to the practice of Judaism are kosher religious slaughter (shechita) and circumcision (brit milah). Both are based on our history throughout the millennia and have been codified in Jewish law. The first references to the practice of kashrut, or kosher dietary practices, appear in the biblical book of Deuteronomy. And some 4,000 years ago, Genesis tells us, G-d directed Abraham to be circumcised, creating the founding covenant with the Jewish people.

During times of dispersal, exile, persecution and discrimination—right down to the present—the ability to carry out the biblical injunctions to engage in these practices has served to hold the Jewish community together and has contributed greatly to shaping its collective identity.

In recent years however, there have been attempts—some of which have been successful—to curb the right of Jews in Europe to observe these obligations. Animal rights groups and anti-circumcision activists are lobbying throughout the continent, pressing parliaments and governments to ban shechita and brit milah.

Circumcision, the first right of passage for Jewish males, is a practice observed and venerated down through the generations by religious and secular Jews alike. From Moses to Einstein to untold millions of others, it is the act that ensures the continuity of our people.

The first intent of kosher ritual slaughter is to act in a humane way toward animals. Those who perform these acts are highly trained and specifically instructed to avoid inflicting undue suffering. The stunning of animals, which normally precedes non-kosher slaughter, is prohibited precisely because of the uncertainty of whether or not the animal would be suffering.

In 2014, Denmark banned non-sedated slaughter. Finland's Animal Protection Act demands stunning as well, with an exception for concurrent sedation and religious slaughter—which, again, is contrary to the very laws of shechita. Sweden's law banning religious slaughter goes back to 1937 and makes no exception for those who do not allow for either stunning or sedation. Last year, Belgium's Flanders region followed its Walloon region in adopting decrees that require electric stunning.

Belgian officials are quick to note that the import of kosher meat is permissible, which seems to accomplish two negatives: It places an undue burden on its Jewish communities and effectively says, "let this be some other country's problem, not ours."

In 2018, the Belgian Jewish community brought the prohibition of shechita in Flanders to the Belgian Constitutional Court, which in turn submitted the case in 2019 to the European Court of Justice in order to clarify EU law on the matter.

Despite an opinion issued by the Court's Advocate General Gerard Hogan, which stated that the Flanders law flies in the face of EU laws regarding religious freedom, countries are at this time still permitted to massively impinge on religious slaughter requirements. The case is now back before the Belgian courts.

Synagogue in the Netherlands
Synagogue in the Netherlands KOEN VAN WEEL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

To make matters worse, and in a blatant display of hypocrisy, the Court's decision allows an exception for hunting: "the Court points out that cultural and sporting events result at most in a marginal production of meat, which is not economically significant. Consequently, such events cannot be understood as a food production activity."

Indeed, if food production is the measure by which this is being judged, the total production of kosher meat on an annual basis in Europe is infinitesimal. And as for hunting, many might be forgiven for thinking this was supposed to be all about the humane treatment of animals.

Five years ago, then-United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt issued a report on his visit to Denmark. Speaking about the ban on shechita and the growing public opposition to brit milah, Bielefeldt said, "In order to find out what actually matters religiously to various communities, the culture of trustful communication between state authorities and religious communities is crucial and should be further cherished." He recommended that the Danish government reconsider its ban on ritual slaughter without requiring stunning.

But this discussion is not only about decrees and legislation, or even about the rights of states to declare this or that practice legal (or not). It is about the fundamental right of religious freedom—and beyond that, the long-term sustainability of Jewish communities across Europe.

These are unwelcome challenges for Europe's Jewish communities and another step on the anti-Semitism ladder. When the Holocaust ended 76 years ago, most of the storied Jewish communities of Europe had been decimated. Reconstituting the Jewish place in Europe has been a tenuous affair, but it has occurred in places that had been given up for lost. That even tiny communities can celebrate our biblical tradition of brit milah, or that those who seek to live by our laws of kashrut are able to do so, have been hallmarks of that communal rehabilitation. Without guarantees to maintain these practices, what kind of future is in store for those communities affected by decrees that transgress these fundamental religious obligations?

The Jewish communities of Europe are not seeking to force our laws and traditions onto others. Whether it be for Jews or other religious minorities, where is the sensitivity to their freedom to observe religious practices that, in fact, predate by millennia the modern European states that have enacted such odious bans?

Modern democracies should not be bartering away religious freedom. Protecting it, rather, should be their first priority. The European Union and its member states need to revisit this issue, make exceptions for those who seek to observe their religion without interference and ensure, at the same time, the future of its Jewish communities, only decades removed from near extinction.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B'nai B'rith International. As the organization's top executive officer, Mariaschin directs and supervises B'nai B'rith programs, activities and staff around the world.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.