Last month, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kara McDonald addressed the expert meeting on combatting anti-Semitism in relation to the Biden administration’s intended work in this area. As Ms. McDonald herself admits, their approach is similar to that of recent administrations, as they adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. It was the comments made about Jewish life in the present, however, not the past, that I felt was most remarkable.
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State made the obvious and applaudable statement that “the viability of Jewish communities is threatened in a different way through enacted or contemplated bans in some countries on ritual slaughter and male circumcision.” Beyond the real, but potentially more politically and easily recognizable, the threat of forgetting the past, here we have an open statement that another threat to Jewish life is looming large. There is almost no value in remembering the past if a country and its politicians don’t allow its Jewish population to live their life in the present.
To live in the present means to allow freedom of religion and religious practice. In December last year, the European Court of Justice ruled that the ban made in Belgium against allowing shechita — the religious and humane method of slaughtering animals and poultry for food in accordance with Jewish law — was justified in European law. The ruling not only puts the value on animal life over human life but also drastically curtails the lengths that the Belgian Jewish community can go to freely practice and live their everyday religious lives. As said in Ms. McDonald’s speech, “such measures have the effect of making it difficult if not impossible for Jews to practice their faith.” Limiting access to kosher meat and its production and banning our essential religious practices such as brit milah (male circumcision) does indeed make Jewish life “impossible” to live. They are core and central to Jewish living. And so, if they are banned, then so too is the act of living as a Jew. You cannot separate one from the other. Religious practice is what it means to live as a Jew, so it must be clear that any bans or limits are on Jewish life itself. Europe promises liberty and freedom to all, but the recent actions by the courts in countries across the continent speak to the exact opposite.
My role as a religious leader is not to say the easy and comfortable thing. In these moments, where I can see the threats to Jewish life in the present and even more so in the future, I must speak out. The ceremonies in which I took part last month for International Holocaust Remembrance Day were important and touching. But as I look around just a month later, I see that more needs to be done than ceremonies remembering the past. Based in Europe, I am involved in the struggles of this region to balance their belief in religious freedom with the laws allowing its practice. The speech by Ms. McDonald is so important because it recognizes that overcoming anti-Semitism means acknowledging the past, but creating a possibility for its future, too. In order to get to this future, countries must allow their Jewish population to live and practice their religion in the present. If they do not, as the trend seems to be going, then they will cut off the hope for this future and their actions will be ones we learn about as another mistake of the past.
Europe must take notice of America and its actions, in fully allowing its Jewish population to freely practice their religion. This is the only way a country can guarantee the safety and continuation of its religious groups. We need to see positive action that reinforces religious life and practice, not just empty words. The “exodus” that Ms. McDonald predicts is not hyperbole, but reality. Many Jews have left their European home countries in the last decade, as they no longer feel welcome there. This is due to a rise in anti-Semitic acts, but also the limits on their religious freedom. Jews leaving Europe is a sign of wider intolerance, where religious practice is suppressed, and freedom is at risk. I sincerely hope the political leaders of Europe hear what is being said and done in America for the freedom of all people and follow in their path.
Now is the time for action over words. In recognizing that the only path to a strong Jewish future is to allow a country’s Jews to live fully and freely in the present, leaders must act in a way to ensure its viability. The commendable speech from the deputy assistant secretary of state shows that strong political leaders can make these positive actions for religious freedom if they truly understand what is at stake. Jewish life and practice are one and the same, meaning the Jewish present and future are inextricably linked. I have hope that this understanding can be achieved in Europe too, where Jewish life can continue to grow and flourish.