Europe’s beef with Jews and Muslims

JAN 05, 2021

Europe has finally figured out how to rid itself of all those pesky Jews and Muslims: take away their chicken soup, their shawarma and all their other traditional meaty dishes — then, pass the popcorn, and watch as the exodus begins.

The act of culinary expulsion, draped as an animal rights initiative, came to a head last month, while much of the world was fretting over COVID or just digging into their holiday hams and roasts. So, let’s recap.

On Dec. 17, the European Court of Justice upheld a new decree in the Flanders section of Belgium, mirroring one in Wallonia, that strike at longstanding Jewish and Muslim traditions. The decrees effectively outlaw the kind of ritual slaughter that Jews and Muslims have practiced for centuries.

Religious authorities maintain that ritual slaughter is designed to minimize the suffering of animals when killed. Belgian policymakers say they know better. So much of Belgium will now require animals, without exception, to be stunned before slaughter, in keeping with the EU’s preference. That added step will render the meat forbidden under rules of kashrut and halal.

The EU court was not persuaded by the harshness of that outcome. By limiting government interference to just “one aspect” of religiously proscribed slaughter, the court found the Belgian decrees “allow a fair balance to be struck between the importance attached to animal welfare and the freedom of Jewish and Muslim believers to manifest their religion.” And, if the new mandate means communities in Belgium can no longer produce meat legally that complies with their religious principles, the court noted they are still free to import it.

Fine, but at what cost?

A butcher inside the Kasap Mehmet butchery in a street near the Annasr Mosque on January 13, 2014, in Vilvoorde, Belgium. (Virginie NGUYEN HOANG/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Nor was the court troubled by the idea that its own animal welfare law does not require animals killed through hunting, recreational fishing, sporting and “cultural events” — a likely reference to bullfighting, Spain’s national past-time — be stunned first to minimize the creatures’ pain. Those events, the court wrote, “result at most in a marginal production of meat or animal products.”

“Secondly,’’ it continued, “if the concepts of ‘hunting’ and ‘recreational fishing’ are not to be rendered meaningless, it cannot be argued that those activities are capable of being carried out in respect of animals which have been stunned beforehand.”

Dismayed by the decision, Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel’s Ambassador to Belgium, told reporters that tolerance and diversity were “empty words in the eyes of some Europeans.” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the head of the European Jewish Association, called it a “sad day for European Jewry.”

I, too, have seen this movie before.

My family keeps kosher, and I remember hearing stories about Europe before World War II, from my Viennese-born mother and Swiss-born cousin, Benjamin Blech, a prominent rabbi in New York.

Benny’s father, Benzion, was a big reason why my mother’s immediate family made it out of Europe in 1938. But Benzion was so busy taking care of everyone else that he and his own family did not flee until 1941. By the time they left, they ended up on the notorious Navemar, a freighter that normally had room for 15 passengers but left Seville with 1,100 souls stuffed aboard for a hellish journey.

The Switzerland my cousins fled was not as ugly as Germany, but it was not free of anti-Semitism either. Kosher slaughter was off-limits and Benny and his sister recall their father going to great lengths as the local rabbi to ensure the community had food.

“A ‘shochet’ means ritual slaughterer,” Benny explained when I called, “and very often, it goes together with being a rabbi, especially in communities where there was no one else around to do that. The rabbi would also learn to slaughter animals in accordance with ritual, and, yes, my father was a shochet, unbeknownst to the Swiss government. One of my earliest childhood memories was my father going down to the cellar and slaughtering chickens, so people could eat.”

“The reason you did chickens,” he said, “was it was possible for my father to smuggle in chickens.” Larger animals were a non-starter.

This time around, Europe’s restraints on ritual slaughter have also taken aim at Muslims. “It’s God’s sense of humor to bring us together this way,” Benny quipped.

As someone who likes vegetarian fare, it’s not my stomach that worries me. I just consider it shameful to keep some groups, but not others, from being able to feed their families. I would object less if Belgium decided it loved animals enough to ban all meat or tax it across-the-board. Instead, it is targeting the diet of two non-Christian groups that barely equal 5% of its population. European outrage would be better directed at those who kill animals for sport, not those doing it to survive.

Cowan is a longtime reporter, formerly with the New York Times.


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