The European Union is failing Jews. My kids go to a primary school in Belgium guarded by the army, the police, security professionals, and armoured double-doors.
When they walk home, they encounter painted swastikas. They hear people chanting “war against Jews.” If they turn on the TV, they might see antisemitic parades as in the Flemish town of Aalst and hear about Jews murdered in Europe for being Jews, in Paris, Toulouse, and Brussels. They can hear me talking about a current Belgian Minister of Justice who spoke about the “Jewish lobby”.
Thankfully, many European politicians and public officials say the right things and demonstrate the best of intentions.
Over the past few years, the EU has done much to protect and promote Judaism. In speech after speech, EU leaders have underlined how only a Europe with Jews can fulfil the goal of a liberal, tolerant multi-ethnic and multinational Europe. Brussels has condemned antisemitism and Holocaust revisionism, poured millions of euros into improving security of synagogues and Jewish schools, and celebrated Jewish contributions to the continent.
Even so, the trend is alarming. Europe’s Jewish communities are shrinking and do not feel welcome or safe in Europe. In addition to facing antisemitism and the ever-present threat of anti-Jewish terrorism, a shocking and disappointing recent ruling by Europe’s highest court adds to their fears that normal Jewish life is under siege.
In a decision last month, the European Court of Justice ruled that Member States could ban the production of kosher meat (shehita) based on animal welfare considerations, as two Belgian regions most recently did.
The Court of Justice of the European Union seems to think that the EU law was drafted to allow such a horrible outcome based on animal welfare considerations. The Court ruled as if religion had to be opposed to animal welfare and as if those specific bans contributed significantly to animal welfare. Both of those assumptions are wrong.
Since biblical times, Jewish law prohibits animals from performing any work on Shabbat and prohibits certain practices because they would induce undue stress to the animals. Shehita, itself, is meant to cause the least pain to the animal. So let us be clear: most of us defend both animal welfare and the supply of kosher meat. It is unacceptable to portray Jews as less humane than other Europeans.
While a multi-millennial practice that concerns an insignificant proportion of animals is banned, little, if anything, is done in Europe to enhance animal welfare. The ban does not lead to fewer animals bred solely to end up on our plates. The ban does not extend their lives or alleviate the burden and stress endured by those animals in industrial farms, during transport, and while in line in a slaughterhouse.
No, the Court of Justice of the European Union, in its ruling in December, did not advance animal welfare. It only made the continuity of Jewish life even more uncertain in EU.
The Court said that troubling the peaceful life of religious minorities, Jewish and Muslim, was justified by the pretext of animal welfare. At the same time, the court implicitly acknowledged that it is fine to kill animals for fun (hunting, recreational fishing activities, or during cultural or sporting events).
It pushed the hypocrisy to new heights, saying that Jews could, for now, still get kosher food elsewhere, in places surely not as civilized, inside or outside the European Union. This insulting solution is not exactly eating “local” or “affordable”, nor is it ecologically sound, or sustainable, or pandemic-proof.
Legally, there are many issues with the Court of Justice’s reasoning. It is contradictory, inconsistent, and violates the separation of Church and State. This is not just a legal matter, but a matter of justice. It is about who we want to be as Europeans.
We can pursue noble causes, such as animal welfare, without compromising our core values. Current European law failed to achieve true respect for freedom of religion – but the law can be changed. If a law that is on the books today can be interpreted to make Jewish life more difficult than it already is, then European authorities should table new legislative proposals to set the record straight and preserve Jewish life in Europe.
After all, European Jews have the same challenges and hopes as all other Europeans but on top of those, however, we still have to be concerned about the physical security of our children and hatred they may experience. In many countries, European Jews still have to bear the costs of their basic physical security, just because they happen to be Jews. Some of those problems are very difficult to tackle, but securing the supply of kosher food and the protection of religious practices is not.
Ideally, the EU should create a more robust framework to protect religious freedoms. At the very least it must address the threatening future that the Court of Justice drew for Jews in the EU: one in which the supply of kosher food can be reduced at will, and where Jews must suffer an additional burden while they only seek to contribute, just as all other Europeans, as much as they can, to a brighter common European future.