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Kosher, halal, defended at EU

BRUSSELS — European Union officials in Brussels invited Jewish and Muslim community leaders to discuss meat production, in what some of the guests characterized as progress toward ensuring religious freedom.

The event, which was convened by the EU’s point person for fighting anti-Semitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, included Jews and Muslims concerned about a two-pronged attack on their traditional methods for slaughtering animals for food that has resulted in bans in some countries.

About 30 EU officials and about 20 community leaders were present.

“We’ve had sessions before at the EU where advocates defended shechitah,” the Hebrew word for the Jewish ritual slaughter, says Rabbi Menachem Margolin, who heads the Brussels-based European Jewish Association.

The Oct. 20 event, he says, “was the first designed to give us a platform, rather than to just have us come and state our case alongside people with the opposite view.”

Animal rights activists oppose shechitah and zabiha, the Muslim method for slaughtering animals for food, because both methods preclude stunning before the animal’s necks are cut. Advocates of the religious ritual say they result in no greater suffering to animals than mechanized slaughter methods with higher malfunction rates that leave stunned animals suffering.

In recent years, opposition to shechitah and zabiha has widened as right-wing parties began adopting this stance as part of their commitment to reducing the presence in society of Islam, and in some cases also Judaism.

When Jewish community leaders challenged recent bans in two of Belgium’s three states at the Court of the European Union, the court dealt them a major defeat when it upheld the bans in a 2021 ruling that Israel’s ambassador to Belgium called “catastrophic and a blow to Jewish life in Europe.”

The ruling added Belgium to a roster of EU countries where ritual slaughter is illegal, including Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Slovenia.

In 2011, the Netherlands briefly joined the list, but the Dutch Senate reversed the ban in 2012, citing freedom of worship.

Poland also outlawed ritual slaughter in 2013, but has since scaled back the ban to include only meat for export.

“While all of this was happening, EU officials, who are not shy about criticizing individual member states on some issues, have basically ignored our pleas for intervention on the meat issue,” Margolin says.

“The fact that the EU has finally decided to create an event centered on defending religious slaughter, or at least hearing the case for it, is an encouraging first step on a path that needs to lead to legislation enshrining minorities’ rights to continue to exercise their religious freedoms.”

The office of von Schnurbein, who in 2015 became the first European Commission coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, has stayed out of the debate on shechitah for most of her tenure.

But she has become increasingly outspoken on the issue since the bans in Belgium, which were initiated by a right-wing party and advanced by a socialist party.

In January, she said during an EU meeting that the bans risk painting Jews and Muslim minorities as “medieval.”

“The fact that Katharina was an initiator of this event is also significant because it correctly frames the debate on banning shechitah in the discussion on anti-Semitism,” Margolin says.

Von Schnurbein did not respond to a request for comment.

Shimon Cohen, director of the British-Jewish advocacy group Shechitah UK, also referenced the connection between anti-Semitism and bans on religious slaughter during his speech at the event last week.

Cohen noted that the first ban on shechitah in Europe occurred in Switzerland in the 19th century to make the country less hospitable to Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia.

The Nazis, too, enacted a ban on kosher slaughter early on, said Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy charged with monitoring anti-Semitism abroad, in her speech at the conference.

She said the US recognizes the importance of allowing ritual slaughter and urged European lawmakers to include exemptions for religious groups in any legislation about meat production.

In his comments at the conference, Cohen argued that existing laws about religious freedom are not enough to ensure that shechitah remains legal.

Shechitah is a positive practical action as part of our faith. So too, would kneeling be for Christians, and the idea of banning kneeling would be impossible. I would hope that this meeting can be the first step toward ensuring there should be no provision allowed within European Union law to ban shechitah.”

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