2021 has been an alarming year for European Jews. In May, there was an escalation in anti-Semitism as violence erupted in the Middle East. Synagogues in Germany have been vandalized and Israeli flags burned.
Similar anti-Semitic incidents have been seen elsewhere and online threats have increased. Another dangerous trend has been the rise of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories during the pandemic. The story that Jews benefited financially from the crisis continues to spread on social media.
Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have pledged to fight anti-Semitic content, but more needs to be done. A Paris appeals court ruled last week that Twitter must disclose details of the human and technical resources it employs to moderate hate speech, upholding an earlier ruling in favor of the Union of Jewish Students of France and other NGOs.
European governments and organizations have also stepped up the fight against anti-Semitism with new initiatives. The Council of Europe, made up of 47 states, has published a detailed recommendation on preventing and combating antisemitism. The European Commission, meanwhile, presented its strategy to combat anti-Semitism and promote Jewish life (2021-2030), including funding to protect Jewish communities. The 27 EU member states are expected to adopt national strategies against antisemitism by the end of 2022.
Jewish religious practice in question
Although Europe is increasingly united in the fight against different forms of anti-Semitism, the picture is sketchy when it comes to a key element of Jewish religious practice: shechitah, Where religious butcher. European animal welfare rules require stunning before slaughter but allow countries to set their own regulations regarding “slaughter in accordance with religious rituals”.
Most European countries place no restrictions on ritual slaughter or provide exemptions to preserve religious freedom. However, a dozen countries have banned the practice without prior stunning. Jewish (and Muslim) groups are concerned about what they see as a growing threat to religious freedom. The situation is changing, as religious groups and animal rights activists look to the courts to support their respective positions.
Following a legal challenge by Jewish and Muslim associations to a decree prohibiting ritual slaughter in Belgium, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2020 that governments are permitted to ban the practice of ritual slaughter in order to promote the animal wellbeing. In its reasoning, the Court specifies that “the legislator is part of an evolving societal and legislative context, which is characterized by a growing awareness of the issue of animal welfare”.
Last October, in a case brought by animal rights groups, Greece’s highest court ruled against religious slaughter, saying the government should regulate the practice in a way that ensures both the welfare being animal and religious freedom.
Recent court rulings have sparked heated debate in European Jewish communities about how to protect religious rites in an increasingly secular environment. Further legal challenges are not unlikely. However, given that European law allows states to establish their own rules on shechitahthe future of Jewish religious practice is first and foremost a political – and societal – issue.
It is therefore high time to have an informed debate on the meaning of religious practices in the context of freedom of religion. As governments prepare national strategies to combat antisemitism, they should take the opportunity to discuss the issue of religious rites and the possible consequences of restricting them.
For example, a common rationale for ritual slaughter bans is that kosher meat can still be imported. But that argument is losing steam as more and more European countries introduce bans. Decision makers must take into account the small number of animals involved. In Belgium, for example, only around 700 animals are killed according to shechitah periods each year.
Xenophobic and anti-immigration motivations also manifest themselves in opposition to religious practices. As Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the European Conference of Rabbis, recently told the Council of Europe, “Much of the anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe today is in fact also anti-Semitic; Jews are the collateral damage “.
Asking European Jewish citizens to compromise important religious rites that their ancestors practiced on this continent for more than 2,000 years would be seen as a sign that Jewish customs, once again, are not welcome here.
In 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unequivocally supported Brit Milah (religious circumcision of boys) after a local court made the practice a criminal offence. Following his lead, the Bundestag passed a law that same year making it clear that religious circumcision was legal, reversing the court’s previous ban.
Merkel’s decision was undoubtedly influenced by Germany’s historical responsibility towards the Jews. But his decisive action was also guided by the firm conviction that when we protect the human rights of minorities, including religious ones, we safeguard democracy.
Diversity and the protection of minorities are part of our common European identity, and the Jewish people have made an immeasurable contribution to our cultural heritage. If European leaders really want to promote Jewish life, they must protect Jewish traditions and rituals.
Daniel Höltgen is the Council of Europe’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Anti-Muslim and Other Forms of Religious Intolerance and Hate Crimes.
The views expressed by the author are his own and do not purport to reflect the position of the Council of Europe as a whole or of its leadership.