Tackling the banning of brit milah and shechita
“The threat comes and goes in pretty much every country within the European Union,” Yohan Benizri tells the SA Jewish Report. “This is why the World Jewish Congress (WJC) has adopted a resolution at its executive committee meeting in September calling on governments to be very sensitive to this issue and to express the fact that it would be unacceptable to curb religious liberties in a way that would not be according to the rule of law.”
Benizri, an international trade lawyer, is president of the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organisations and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress. He was in town to attend the fourth annual WJC National Community Directors’ Forum, held for the first time in this country.
“The message that the WJC is sending is that any attempts to ban shechita or brit milah, would be completely unacceptable,” he stresses.
He says there are many different levels at which such moves could be challenged. Firstly, there is the traditional court appeal that exists in many European countries. One step-up is the Luxembourg courts for European countries and if all else fails, one could approach the European Court of Human Rights.
“In Belgium we’re trying all available options because the country has recently passed two laws, in the northern and southern regions, banning shechita indirectly by imposing stunning of animals before they’re put to death (contrary to Jewish ritual slaughter).
There is a transition period of two years before it is enforced and we’re trying to leverage this period to attack the laws based on their unconstitutional nature and also based on European law arguments,” he states.
For now, it is possible to get kosher meat from other regions of the country or import it from outside. “The problem is that the rationale for pushing for those laws, was animal welfare which of course the Jewish tradition does not oppose, but rather promotes.
“If you’re saying that animal welfare is the reason you’re banning meat that has been religiously slaughtered, then the argument doesn’t end at the borders and the next step is to have meat imports being banned as well if they were not stunned prior to putting them to death – there are more and more calls for that.”
Another issue with saying that one can still import meat, he says, is that the more countries that ban shechita, the less convincing the argument is. “It will become impossible and economically unviable for Jews to procure kosher meat in Belgium.”
The irony is that the laws of shechita are based on the humane treatment of animals, not only during religious slaughter, but there are “very strict” laws that regulate how they should be treated during their lifetimes, Benizri notes.
“The entire chain of the (non-kosher) meat industry does not meet those standards,” he adds, “and so when people point their fingers at us saying those are barbaric type of rituals, it’s adding insult to injury.
“We’re seen as opposing animal welfare whereas the Jewish tradition was probably the first to recognise animal welfare.”
Notwithstanding these considerations, Benizri feels that the crux of the argument is not about science, it’s about respecting the right of Jews to live a life as normal citizens in Europe.
“People say that Jews are an integral part of society and of course they are – they’re a model of integration in most European countries, if not all of them. If you say: ‘We’re not going to allow this particular tradition of yours’, you’re basically telling Jews that they are not welcome in your country anymore.”
In Switzerland, shechita has been outlawed for decades. In Denmark it is also outlawed, despite the fact that there was never any shechita there. Both rely on importing kosher meat, making the observance of kashrut potentially prohibitively expensive.
As for brit milah, there are attempts to outlaw it in some European countries, notably Denmark. “In fact, the narrative is going to be more and more about mutilation and whether there’s a difference between brit milah and excision,” Benizri predicts.
In addition to calls for the outlaw of brit milah, there have been appeals to make it symbolic. A month ago, a report was published by a bioethics committee in Belgium on the issue.
“They stopped short of proposing to outlaw the practice, but they did say that it was mutilation. That is already a step too far for us,” says Benizri.
“The crux of the matter is not to label this practice – an integral part of our identity as Jews – as barbaric or mutilation. It would be terrible to feel that my own country would not allow me to do what I feel is best and what my father thought was best and what my grandfather thought was best.”
Should the practice be outlawed, would Jews perform it in secret? “Jews typically have not done that,” says Benizri, “instead favouring those countries that allow for religious freedoms to be exercised.
“With such a symbolic measure that affects the identity of every Jew in Belgium, I fear it will drive Jews away from the country. The same is true in Denmark and other countries in Europe and this is why the issue has been taken up by the WJC as a very significant and important one.”
The same is true for the regional European Jewish Congress (EJC) which has been pushing very hard to have those laws completely set aside.
While the primary responsibility rests with the Jewish communities of each country, the EJC and the WJC provide “incredible” support with regard to resources to enable them to defend their rights, he says. The Jewish community in Belgium, for instance, initially favoured discussions with the government requesting that long-existing exceptions in the law should remain.
However, with the introduction of the laws, “we took it upon ourselves to hire lawyers and to defend our rights before the courts, in respecting the rule of law. This is really our main message: We don’t want an exception to the law.
“We want the law to be adequate and proportionate, while respecting the religious rights of the Jewish people.”
As for the WJC, its resolutions signify its commitment to helping local Jewish communities facing these issues and entering into political discussions with heads of state and others to explain the position of the world Jewish community.