The Jewish Fight for Religious Liberty Is Global

It may lie across the pond, but American Jews nonetheless should be concerned about the steady erosion of religious liberty in the UK and throughout Europe. The American Jewish community must stand up for European Jews, both to ensure the preservation of a Jewish presence in Europe for years to come, and to protect themselves from a coming onslaught against religious liberty here in America.

Following its slow but steady re-establishment post 1945, the Jewish population in Europe has declined in recent decades. A once-significant population of 3.8 million European Jews has fallen precipitously to just 1.4 million today, predominantly due to emigration to the United States and Israel. A large part of this mass flight can be attributed to the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe. A mere three generations after the Holocaust, Jewish life in Europe once again is under threat, whether in the UK — where the national human rights institution recently launched a formal investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party — or in Germany — where the government’s anti-Semitism commissioner recently warned Jews against wearing kippot in public.

Shechita, the Jewish method of ritual slaughter necessary for kosher meat, is another practice that has been outlawed in several European countries and that is endangered in others. One of the most humane methods of slaughtering animals for food, shechita ensures a near-painless and almost instantaneous death for the animal. It thereby upholds the Jewish commandment of tza’ar ba’alei chayim — refraining from causing suffering to animals.

But in January of this year, several regional parliaments in Belgium introduced prohibitions on the slaughter of animals that have not been pre-stunned. Pre-stunning animals contradicts the Jewish prohibition on animal suffering and renders the meat non-kosher. And shechita is already banned outright in countries including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland.

The banning of shechita is deeply worrying. One need look no further than to Europe preceding the Holocaust to see this. Rather than being a purely moral or scientific proposition, the banning of religious practice has long been used as a tool to send a message to Jews that they are not welcome in Europe. The first European country to ban shechita was Switzerland, in 1894, in what was seen at the time as a concerted effort to expel Jews from the country. One of the first acts of the Nazi regime when it came to power in 1939 was to introduce a ban on kosher slaughter in Germany.

Religious liberty in the UK is loosely protected by Article 9 of the Human Rights Act. Passed in 1998, it in effect enshrined in British law the protections in the European Convention on Human Rights. Unlike in the United States, the absence of a codified, written constitution in the UK means that the sitting government has a great deal of control over issues that are (in theory) depoliticized in other countries. While Americans can rely on constitutional protections from government infringement on religious liberty and practice, for instance, UK residents are less protected, more exposed to the whims of political decision-makers.

The recent issue of food labeling in the UK provides an example of such whims, and the dangerous places to which they might lead. In 2018, for instance, the UK Labour Party proposed the introduction of separate labeling for meat from animals slaughtered without stunning, specifically through shechita and dhabihah (Islamic slaughter). The specific labeling of meat products as “not stunned” implies that kosher meat comes from a non-humane process, implying that Jews and Muslims are irresponsible about the welfare of animals. In the increasingly hot European tinderbox of anti-Semitism, labeling might enhance anti-Jewish antagonism and lead to more direct infringements on religious liberty, such as an outright ban on kosher slaughter. Should the Labour Party take control of the government, the enacting of such policy proposals would put the future of religious slaughter of animals in the UK at risk.

The steady erosion of religious liberties overseas is by no means confined to the issue of religious slaughter of animals. But outlawing religious animal slaughter is setting a precedent for banning religious practices, potentially making it extremely difficult for observant Jews to continue to lead religious lives in Europe.

In February 2018, for instance, Iceland’s Progressive Party proposed criminalizing the ritual circumcision of boys. The bill quickly gained traction in the UK and across Europe. While the policy eventually was stymied by sustained opposition from religious communities across Europe, it should serve as a stark warning as to the growing threat to religious liberties, particularly if power reaches the hands of those who seek to undermine the Jewish community in their country.

Amid the current climate of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, any attempt to erode the religious liberty of individuals, and hinder the ability of communities to fulfill their religious obligations, must be resisted.

American Jews should be concerned not only about the future of European Jews, but with the prospects for living a healthy traditional life in America. The complexion of U.S. politics has begun to more closely reflect that of the UK, with the Democratic Party increasingly resembling the Labour Party’s socialist and progressive agenda, including rising levels of anti-traditionalist sentiment, and anti-Israel sentiment as well. American Jews therefore should guard against the adoption of policies threatening even the more expansive American notion of religious liberty. While there is no federal law in the U.S. that explicitly prohibits circumcision, for instance, the ability of individual states to implement bans remains a threat. Indeed, in 2011, a proposal to limit circumcision was very nearly placed on the ballot in San Francisco. In southern California, animal rights activists have been trying to use the court system to ban shechita, sometimes successfully via court injunction.

It is therefore unfortunate that American Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League do not seem to be addressing threats to religious liberty with sufficient thoroughness and foresight. While they have supported European Jewish slaughter and circumcision rights, the AJC and ADL also have decided to stand on the opposite side of religious liberty battles here in America. Both filed legal briefs on the wrong side of the issue when Christians have been involved in high-profile cases.

The defense of religious liberty for European Jews is only possible when we defend religious liberty for all, especially at a time when the anti-religious forces in both countries are starting to resemble each other more closely than in the past. The defense of religious liberty in Europe will be undermined if its greatest American defenders uproot it at home on this side of the Atlantic.

This piece was co-authored by Angus Taylor and Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin. Angus Taylor is a student at the University of Warwick in the UK, as well as an intern at the Tikvah Fund. Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin is president of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and a resident of Teaneck, NJ. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University's James Madison Program. He is also a Chaplain in the New Jersey Army National Guard with the rank of Captain, and the President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. He lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and two daughters.
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