When Holland imposed a ban recently on a type of kosher slaughter, international Jewish leaders worried about far more than the difficulty observant Dutch Jews might face in obtaining rabbinically certified steak or cholent meat.
Noting that such a ban was an early step of Hitler’s Third Reich, some fear the action is part of a growing assault on Jewish life linked to the spread of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe.
The production of kosher meat, known as shechita, has long been illegal in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. And in Switzerland, attempts to lift a century-old ban caused an anti-Semitic backlash earlier this year.
“This is a trend that is very much worrying us,” said Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, who noted that Sweden has also tried unsuccessfully to ban ritual circumcision, the quintessential rite of passage for Jewish males. “We regard this as interference in Jewish religious practices.”
The anti-shechita measures have been driven largely by animal rights groups who maintain the practice is cruel to animals. Kosher law requires that an animal be killed with a single cut of its throat without first being stunned, as in non-kosher slaughtering.
But some fear the measures may gain ground in European governments because of growing anti-Jewish sentiment. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, said in a statement reacting to the Dutch initiative that “they simply don’t want foreigners and they don’t want Jews.”
“The lie that ritual slaughter is cruel simply shows a hatred for Jewish life,” he said.
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, who is currently touring Europe to assess the wave of anti-Semitism, said the bans are the result of activism between animal rights extremists “aided and abetted” by anti-Semitic politicians.
“Sometimes anti-Semites will use this as a vehicle to try to isolate the Jewish community by reaching out to those who are so preoccupied with [animal rights],” said Foxman in an interview from Rome. “The key is whether or not there is a history in that country … what other issues of animal rights have they engaged in to prohibit cruelty? When they begin and end with kosher slaughter, that’s when I become suspect.”
Holland has emerged as the most accommodating of the European nations who have scrutinized shechita. Its ban involved only older, heavier bulls — not cows or other animals — and was prompted by concerns that the thicker skin on such animals requires multiple strokes of the knife, which can cause pain in the animal.
This month, after meetings with members of the Dutch Jewish community, government officials worked out an arrangement allowing for the slaughter of such animals, Dutch consular officials informed representatives of the Jewish Community Relations Council in a New York meeting. JCRC leaders praised the Dutch government as “responsive to the needs of the Jewish community in Holland.”
In Switzerland, however, where Jews have seen a backlash related to Holocaust restitution efforts, the government earlier this year not only resisted efforts to rescind its 100-year-old ban on shechita but considered a resolution banning the import of kosher meat.
The Swiss Animal Association had called for a national referendum that would ask Swiss citizens whether kosher meat should be barred.
A poll said 76 percent of the population would have supported the ban, and debate on the subject prompted the government to abandon discussion of lifting the ban. Meanwhile, Swiss Jewish leaders received hate mail.
Jewish leaders increasingly are concerned that the anti-shechita movement is a harbinger of an assault on other religious practices.
Rabbi Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Norway, noted that during the initial debate in that country, where shechita has been banned since the 1930s, a parliamentarian noted that if Jews didn’t like it, “let them go somewhere else.”
“It’s ominous,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the kashrut administrator for the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher-certifying organization in the world. “This kind of legislation in Europe has to be understood in the context of European history. A person would have to be extremely naive not to think that this is linked to anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Genack said there was no serious movement to ban shechita in the United States, which has a thriving animal rights activist movement.
“The Humane Slaughter Act, passed in the late 1960s, designates kosher as a humane means of slaughter,” he said. “If the animal is killed in a steady stroke, it becomes insensate almost immediately. When the animal is stunned, you can see signs of pain significantly higher. So kosher slaughter may be more humane.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.