21 August 2013 www.thejewishweek.com
Warsaw — No matter the outcome of the current controversy over the Polish Parliament’s attempt to ban ritual slaughter — Jews and Muslims might end up losing the right to kill animals according to their respective religious traditions — the issue has symbolic and practical value both for Poland’s small Jewish community and for Jews in other countries.
Shechita directly affects only a small number of Polish Jews, the halachically observant part of the country’s post-communist Jewish revival. Yet the move by the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, to retain the country’s ban on ritual slaughter has served as a reminder of the precarious position of the minority Jewish community in a majority Catholic land.
A government-sponsored bill, which would maintain an earlier exemption of ritual slaughter from the ban on slaughtering animals without stunning them first, was defeated, due to sizable defections from the ranks of the ruling party. (Jewish laws of shechita prevent stunning; the concept is to slaughter the animal quickly by knife so as to prevent prolonged suffering.)
Anti-Semitism was not a motive in the parliamentary debate, yet legislators showed a breathtaking indifference to the impact the law will have on the everyday lives of religious Polish Jews and Muslims. The main motive of the ban was animal welfare, with disgusting videos of slaughter, often of unclear origin, serving to bolster the argument. Unfortunately, lawmakers were largely unresponsive to the tireless efforts of Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who spent days on end in Parliament in an attempt to explain and convince.
On the Internet, however, the climate grew vicious. When Rabbi Schudrich stated something that seemed obvious — that if the ban is maintained he will no longer be able to perform his functions and therefore will have to resign — his words were misreported as “threatening to leave.”
Until the Sejm vote, the legal situation was unclear, with legal experts and government spokespeople assuring that the ban, effective since Jan. 1, in fact does not affect slaughter “for the internal needs” of the Jewish community. It was only once the government bill failed that the crisis became real. Of the more than 3,300 posts that appeared online in reaction to the rabbi’s statement, only six expressed regret; the others were overjoyed at this “good riddance” and some expressed the hope that “he will take all the other kikes with him.”
The controversy has, to some degree, isolated the American-born rabbi who has played a major role in the Jewish renaissance here for two decades. For reasons of internal Jewish politics, EJA, a Chabad-dominated European organization, has called for the rabbi’s resignation, and some intellectual leaders of Poland’s Progressive and secular Jewish community have been lukewarm in their support for the Orthodox rabbi or outright antagonistic.
For Jews outside of Poland, any attempt to restrict Jewish life or practice brings fears of renewed anti-Semitism in a country once home to the world’s largest Jewish population, where for years before the Holocaust acts of anti-Semitism were condoned by the Church and political leaders, and where, under German occupation in World War II, the death camps were located.
Attempts to ban shechita have a long and shameful history. During the interwar period, after an initial failure, a law was eventually passed which would have outlawed shechita as of 1942. It was an explicit move to make life difficult for Jews and therefore stimulate their emigration, even if animal welfare arguments were also used.
Article 35 of the current Polish Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and exercise of religion. But a 2002 law on prevention of cruelty to animals forbade slaughter without pre-stunning the animal. An exception to the law was made for so-called “household slaughter” conducted in farmsteads for the needs of the families. A subsequent regulation by the minister of justice exempted ritual slaughter from that ban, but in 2012 that regulation was determined by the courts to be unconstitutional. Furthermore, this year a binding EU regulation banned slaughter without stunning, while allowing member states to request exemptions for ritual slaughter.
Poland failed to file for such an exemption. Since 2004, the ritual slaughter of animals for export grew, and Poland was one of the largest exporters of kosher meat to Israel and of halal meat to several Muslim countries, including Turkey, Egypt and Iran. As the scale of the industry grew, animal rights activists mounted a campaign against it, asserting that animals were treated inhumanely in slaughterhouses.
In Poland in particular the animal rights argument is rank hypocrisy. Hunting — in other words, inflicting suffering to animals for pleasure — remains legal. So does homestead slaughter, routinely performed without any stunning at all, and without any concern for the suffering of the animal.
The debate over the Sejm’s recent anti-shechita bill was stunningly ill informed. Apart from the untrue allegation that shechita is particularly, and possibly intentionally, cruel, it was incorrectly argued that shechita is banned in the U.S. It was also widely alleged that the Jewish community, or the chief rabbi, makes a fortune out of granting hekshers, or kosher supervision certificates. Not even when the U.S. ambassador denied the ban allegation, and the chief rabbi stated that certificates are given for free, were these arguments withdrawn, nor did their proponents apologize.
Last month, the Government Legislation Center, an advisory body, declared itself unable to give an opinion on whether the implicit guarantees of the legality of shechita are still binding, given the unequivocal opinion of the Sejm on slaughter without stunning. Thus the matter will have to go to the Constitutional Court, a process that will take months. The Jewish community, the Peasant Party (representing meat industry interests) and the EJA have all announced they will appeal to the court.
The ongoing debate about the right of minority religious communities to freely practice their traditions will be closely watched in other European countries, where ritual slaughter also is subject to possible restriction.
Konstanty Gebert, a veteran journalist and Jewish community activist in Poland, is former editor of the monthly Midrasz magazine and author of ten books.