Give Polish Jewry a kosher choice


Remember “Had Gadya”? What satisfaction when, onto the scene of carnage, walks the Holy One of Blessing, and destroys the angel of death that slew the butcher that killed the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid. And what relief! But only momentarily. For where are we in this lineup of violence? It is forever, for us, the question of what am I, now, an angel of death or the little white kid that daddy bought for two zuzim? And can I be both? And do I have to be either?

To be human is to be aware of one’s own morality. To be able to act morally, we must have the freedom to choose to do or not to do so, which demands we have the freedom to reject morality. Without that freedom, we are but tools in other people’s hands. 

In the recent debate on the Polish government’s decree de-legalizing shechitah, or kosher ritual slaughter, we hear strident voices from many sides. Some say the only motivation for the decision was to prevent needless animal suffering. Other voices argue that skillfully performed shechitah causes the animal less pain than all the other feasible methods of killing it. Others still express discontent, outrage or fear, due to the fact that discontinuing kosher slaughter effectively makes it impossible for observant Polish Jews to eat meat altogether.

I do not know which is worse: a shochet’s knife to the throat, or a killing machine in a meat plant. I know that, kosher or not, slaughterhouses are cruel places, where overworked butchers have to do their quota of killing, and helpless animals experience horror and pain. While I realize that Poland cannot, for reasons of its largely agriculture-based economy, its traditions and customs, opt out of mass production and consumption of meat, I would like government experts to conduct an inquiry into all killing of animals — not just the preparation of kosher meat — to ensure that animals’ deaths can become less traumatic than they are now. As important is an inquiry into how these animals live before they find their deaths in Polish slaughterhouses. I imagine a national commission, made up of Muslim leaders, Progressive Jewish leadership, Orthodox rabbinate, philosophers and ethicists, as well as animal behaviorists and farm engineers, working together to design ways to lessen the severity of pain we inflict on livestock as it is reared, handled and killed. 

Once a viable system is designed and a door is opened about kosher (and halal) slaughter, it may be easier to open it for all slaughter. So what I imagine as a solution now is a law that would keep wholesale butchering for export markets outlawed, but would ensure that Polish faith communities that require kosher (or halal) meat are enabled to butcher the chickens, the calves, the cows and the kids whose meat they want to eat. In other words, I want a law that, while keeping the ban on mass killing for foreign markets, would ensure the existence in Poland of slaughterhouses producing meats for local communities and provide for this meat’s fair distribution. 

My current choices don’t really give me a choice. Could the sages of our government work with our rabbis to devise a law that would return to Polish Jews the freedom currently enjoyed, at least potentially, by non-Jewish Poles, of pondering in meat shops the decision of whether to participate, with just a flick of my credit card, the animal hecatomb people have carried on since Noah and the flood, or refusing to do it? For Jews to be able to exercise such a choice, the meat bought or rejected must be kosher meat. 

We are a complex people. We embrace our diversity. Given the freedom to choose, some of us will want to go and butcher that kid that they can buy for two zuzim. Some will let it live. Some will focus on whether the kid can live a life where it is treated with care and regard for its needs, and whether it dies as painless and humane a death as possible. Some will flicker between choices, depending on a myriad of reasons why. Even though I hold with one of these choices only, I respect them all. After all, only the Knower of Secrets, the Holy One of Blessing, knows what lies deep at the root of our choices and how we arrive at our decisions. And it is only when He, the final player in the “Had Gadya” we sing here on Earth, says so, will the world break up the cycle of violence. In the meantime, each Polish Jew should be granted the freedom to choose for herself or himself whether they will or will not become, by virtue of buying their meat or refusing it, the halef — an instrument that transforms life into death.


Dr. Joanna Auron is a new board member of Beit Polska, the Poland-wide Progressive Jewish umbrella organization of Jews affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. She lives and works in Poland.

Poles ban kosher slaughter


In their Krakow home, Anna Makowka Kwapisiewicz and her husband, Piotr, skim through an online article about Poland’s recent ban on kosher slaughter.

What they find even more disturbing than the actual news are the comments posted by other readers.

Hundreds of comments calling on Jews to leave Poland have appeared beneath news articles in the days since the country’s parliament defeated a bill that would have reversed a ban on kosher slaughter, or shechitah, first imposed in January.

“The ban is bad enough because it’s the result of disinformation, but it opened the door to anti-Semitism that’s very evident in these comments,” said Piotr, who with his wife is a founding member of Czulent, an association of young Krakow Jews.

The shechitah ban and ensuing anti-Semitic outbursts come as painful reminders that despite years of government-led projects celebrating Jewish tradition, Poland still has a long way to go to become a place “where minorities feel at home and not just guests,” as Anna put it.

“There’s a view that Poland is a paradise for Jews,” Anna said. “But now everyone sees there’s no paradise and Poland is a country like all others. It needs to work on tolerance during difficult times, when populism and nationalism flourish throughout Europe.”

In January, a constitutional court, responding to a petition filed by animal welfare activists, outlawed religious slaughter in Poland. A law that would have reinstated shechitah was rejected by the Sjem, the Polish parliament, on July 12 by a vote of 222-178.

On July 16, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he had no plans to reintroduce legislation to lift the ban.

The Polish ban is not the first time a European country has put animal welfare concerns above the religious freedom of its Jewish and Muslim minorities.

In 2011, a large majority of the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a bill banning the practice, but it was scrapped by the Dutch Senate. Laws banning kosher slaughter also are on the books in Norway, Switzerland, Latvia, Sweden and Iceland.

The view of Poland as something of a Jewish paradise has been bolstered by initiatives such as Warsaw’s ambitious $100 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews and Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, a weeklong affair that attracts tens of thousands of participants — projects carried out with significant government support. Poland also is seen as a robust Israeli ally.

But the government has lagged on other issues of Jewish concern, like Holocaust restitution. It is the sole European country that does not offer private property restitution to survivors and their heirs.

Poland also has shown a worrying indifference to instances of anti-Semitism.

Last month, a prosecutor in the northern city of Bialystok called swastikas “symbols of prosperity” in explaining the refusal to investigate the painting of Nazi symbols on municipal property. Earlier that month, a Polish official said the courts were “powerless” to stop a declaredly anti-Semitic political party from running in elections.

In April, a survey found that 44 percent of 1,250 Warsaw teenagers polled said they would rather not have Jewish neighbors. More than 60 percent said they did not want Jewish spouses.

A year ago, Jonathan Orenstein, director of the Krakow Jewish Community Center, said in an interview that “there’s no better place to be Jewish” than Poland. Interviewed again this week, the New York-born Orenstein sounded less upbeat.

“For the first time in my 11 years in Poland, I feel that things are going backward,” he said.

Poland is home to some 25,000 Muslims, according to a 2010 U.S. government estimate, and a Jewish population of approximately 40,000, according to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the country’s American-born chief rabbi.

But Jews and Muslims are not the only ones affected by the ban, which has shut down the country’s robust export industry of kosher and halal meat. Estimates place the value of the ritual slaughter industry at more than $500 million.

“Yet the talk in media and online was about how the Jews should not be allowed to make money off the misery of animals,” said Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. “This kind of talk created a very uncomfortable feeling.”

The ban has created a rift as well within the Jewish community. In the wake of the parliamentary vote last week, the director of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, called on Schudrich to resign. Representatives of two other European Jewish groups also said in interviews that they were dissatisfied with Schudrich’s performance in connection with the July 12 vote.

Schudrich said that Margolin’s words constituted “unwarranted hate,” adding that he had been in contact with the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis about the issue. Schudrich has said he would resign if the bill is not reversed.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler, the Chabad movement’s emissary to Warsaw, said he believes this will happen because “there is enormous interest and good will toward Jews in Poland.”

Back in Krakow, Anna and Piotr are less certain.

“We are certainly working to make this happen through education and the struggle against intolerance, but there are no guarantees,” Anna said. “Not in Poland or anywhere else.”

Jewish groups plan strategy to counter ban on ritual slaughter


Jewish organizations met to discuss taking political and legal action against proposed legislation to ban kosher slaughter in Holland.

Participants at the meeting Wednesday called by the European Jewish Congress included Shechita UK, prominent members of the Dutch community and the European Conference of Rabbis, according to the EJC.

Among the steps they decided on were legal action; lobbying members of the Dutch Senate, which still must ratify the legislation before it becomes law; and seeking an independent renowned expert to assert that kosher slaughter is equally humane, if not more so, than most other means of slaughter.

Under a bill passed by the lower house of the Dutch Parliament at the end of June, animals are required to be stunned before slaughter. Both Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter must be performed while the animal is fully conscious. The Dutch Senate is expected to take up the measure before the end of the year.

The bill was put forward by the Animal Rights Party, which claims that stunning before slaughter causes less pain to the animal. The Jewish and Muslim communities have a year to prove otherwise or the law will go into effect.

“The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is extremely clear on the protection of religious freedom, especially when weighed against the protection of animals,” said Albert Guigui, the chief rabbi of Belgium.

Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, said the Jewish community is united and has a plan of action that will be implemented to fight a “tremendous battle ahead.”

“This law will not provide a mere inconvenience to the Jews of Holland, it could severely curtail Jewish life on the whole continent of Europe, and we need to act accordingly to this threat,” he said.

Some 40,000 Jews and about 1 million Muslims live in the country.

Proposed Dutch ban on ritual slaughter is unfair, ill advised


Animal rights or Jewish rites? That is the question this week before the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch parliament, as it considers a bill that effectively would prohibit shechitah, the Jewish ritual slaughter of animals.

According to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, in 1674 the first Ashkenazi Jew who settled in The Hague was a kosher butcher. Well over three centuries later the Dutch parliament, seated in The Hague, may soon send all the kosher butchers packing.

The minuscule Party for the Animals has introduced a bill to ban animal slaughter without prior stunning. While the proposal is in the spirit of defending animal rights and does not represent any anti-Jewish intent, the brunt would be borne by the Dutch Jewish community of nearly 50,000 people.

Such an unjust result should not surprise anyone, since the premise of the bill itself is unjust. Jewish law commands humane treatment of animals, and several scientific studies have shown that shechitah is indeed humane. According to a 2004 peer-reviewed paper, “Physiological Insights Into Shechita,” by Dr. Stuart Rosen of Imperial College in London, “shechitah is a painless and humane method of animal slaughter.”

Given the general use of stunning in non-ritual slaughter in the Netherlands and the wide acceptance of anesthetic stunning as permissible for Muslim ritual slaughter, the proposed law would be a de facto ban only on Jewish ritual slaughter, which does not allow for stunning under any condition.

The Party for the Animals says that “The European Court of Human Rights has determined that forbidding unanaesthetised ritual slaughter does not contravene the right to freedom of religion.” This argument oversimplifies the specific issues and narrow applicability of the Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France case, which concerned the demand of a haredi Orthodox Jewish group for a shechitah facility separate from the existing facility in France under the supervision of the chief rabbi of France when the possibility existed of importing meat from a slaughterhouse of the same haredi Orthodox group in Belgium.

In other words, the party claims that banning shechitah in the Netherlands would not infringe on religious freedom if kosher meat can be imported from Belgium.

This line of reasoning leads to two obvious and disturbing questions that Dutch parliamentarians should ask themselves: May we indirectly discriminate against Dutch Jews as long as Belgium does not do the same? How available would fresh kosher meat be to Dutch Jews if all European countries were to adopt the position that it could be imported from a neighboring country?

It is a safe assumption that approval in the Netherlands would encourage animal rights activists to promote similar measures in other European parliaments. The potential for a domino effect should not be underestimated. According to a Belgian animal rights group, a 2006 poll showed that 72 percent of Belgians supported a ban on ritual slaughter without prior stunning.

Switzerland provides a vivid example of the power of European animal rights groups. In 2002, the Swiss government tried to do the right thing and remove the ban on shechitah that had been in place since 1893. The reaction of animal rights groups was fast and furious. They launched a campaign to ban even the import of kosher meat (using the same popular referendum process that in 2010 led to a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland.)

Faced with increasing popular support for the anti-import campaign, the Swiss Jewish community itself urged the government to back off and settle for a reaffirmation of the status quo. They rightly feared ending up with no kosher meat at all.

Aside from the potential practical consequences, the Dutch bill’s adoption would indirectly, but indisputably, convey a message of intolerance for traditional Judaism and for those who observe Jewish dietary laws. Dutch Jews, regardless of their observance of dietary laws, would be made to feel as second-class citizens.

In the 1581 Act of Abjuration, the Dutch declared independence from Spain, demanding “some degree of liberty, particularly relating to religion.” The practice of religious tolerance made the Netherlands a magnet for oppressed Jews from elsewhere in Europe.

Members of today’s Dutch parliament should be guided by their founding fathers’ championing of religious freedom, the Dutch tradition of religious tolerance and a commitment not to forsake that first kosher butcher who came to The Hague.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author most recently of “Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype.”)

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