Thursday, January 10, 2019

Belgium Waffles

I found myself responding both wistfully and angrily to the news that Belgium, a country once known for its liberality and its tolerance, has outlawed traditional Jewish slaughter in its two largest regions …and no less so because the move seems motivated more by anti-Muslim sentiment (traditional Muslim slaughter was also outlawed) than by any specific interest in making Jewish life difficult or untenable, let alone by any real sympathy for animals. Indeed, the kindness-to-animals thing is entirely unconvincing, the issue specifically having to do with Jewish law (and Muslim law too apparently) requiring that animals being killed for their meat be both perfectly healthy and completely conscious when they are killed, thus precluding the common practice of stunning animals into unconsciousness before slaughter. But, at least as far as anyone can tell with any degree of certainty, animals that are dispatched by a trained shochet or the Muslim equivalent of one do die painlessly and instantly. So how can this be a serious animal-rights issue? The Belgian law also effectively outlaws traditional Hindu and Sikh methods of slaughter. 

Yes, it’s true that the kosher Jews of Belgium will be allowed to import kosher meat from other countries, notably from neighboring France where there is a large kosher meat industry. And it’s also true that the new law for the moment leaves the region surrounding Brussels unaffected. (It is surely just a matter of time before kosher slaughter is outlawed in the entire country, however, as the Jews of Brussels surely understand.) But none of those details makes any difference really, because hiding behind the laws is a basic attitudinal contempt for religion that preferences unproven—and, by most accounts, unprovable—theories about the inner lives of animals over the spiritual and religious needs of human beings. (Just for the record, our nation’s Human Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 specifically declared the Jewish method of slaughter to be the functional equivalent of stunning. For an interesting piece published a few years ago in The Guardian to the effect that stunning animals before slaughter is actually the inhumane way to go, click here. For a more elaborate setting forth of that same argument, click here.)
The ban is hardly something the Belgians themselves dreamed up.  Indeed, the European Union itself, wholly unconcerned with the spiritual needs of non-Christians, actually requires pre-slaughter stunning and merely allows nations to make religious exceptions. Belgium used to, now no longer will. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Slovenia already do not. (Of course, the EU wouldn’t ever say that it is preferencing Christians over non-Christians. But if laws adversely affect Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus…so who else actually is there in any of the lands of the EU who will be left unaffected by this kind of legislation other than Christians and people with no professed faith at all?)

There is also a commercial aspect to the ban: Antwerp, the capital of Flanders and a city with a Jewish population of over 20,000, is also the center of a thriving kosher meat industry, an industry that will now have to close its doors and terminate the employment of the people who work there. The story of one such factory—whose owner fired all his employees in advance of moving the operation to Hungary—was told in an essay by Cnaan Lipshitz published the other day on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website. (Click here to see the essay.) No doubt other factories and businesses will follow suit. None of this seems to matter to the authorities, however, who are hiding their complete lack of interest in protecting the rights of Jews behind a fig leaf of protecting the rights of animals.
I don’t profess to have an expert’s opinion regarding the issue of stunning, only to see clearly that the matter is largely undecided by people who do have a right to an opinion and that there are serious scientists who feel that stunning itself is the crueler choice. But the real issue here doesn’t have to do with animals or even with the laws of kosher (or halal) slaughter as much as it has to do with a creeping, and not that slowly creeping either, sense in the world—and particularly in Europe—that religious ritual in general, and Jewish ritual in particular, is something for secular governments to regulate.

A few years ago, I wrote two letters about the efforts in some quarters both at home and abroad to outlaw circumcision. (To revisit those letters, click here and here.) Those efforts have yielded some success in terms of public opinion, but there is still no country in the world that currently outlaws the circumcision of infant boys as a matter of law. Still, there are instances of countries enacting legislation that governs the practice itself. Australia, for example, does not permit doctors (or anyone) to circumcise babies in public hospitals, only in a private setting. (That really makes no sense at all—if it is permissible to do something at all, why should it not be permissible to do it in public?) Germany, not entirely unreasonably, only allows non-physicians to perform circumcisions on babies under the age of six months. Sweden, a bit excessively but also not entirely unreasonably, requires a doctor or nurse to be present during a circumcision (although not that the ritual itself be performed by a doctor or a nurse), and mandates the use of some sort of anesthetic to dull the infant’s pain. South Africa has outlawed circumcision for all boys under the age of sixteen other than for religious reasons. (That doesn’t affect the Jewish community, obviously. But it’s still an interesting detail that also makes little sense. If a practice is harmful, then why should it be allowed at all? And if it is not harmful, then why should it be denied to any?) 

None of these laws just mentioned is especially onerous in terms of its detail. But the real point here is whether the secular governments of secular states can embrace the notion that Jewish people—and the faithful, for that matter, of all religions—should be left free to pursue their own spiritual path without the unwanted and untoward interference of others. Making sure rituals that involve surgical procedures, even as minor as one as circumcision, are performed in a sanitary setting by people who are certified to know what they are doing doesn’t offend me at all. Why should it? Guaranteeing the safety of the citizenry is precisely what I do think of as the primary job of the government. But a clear line should always be drawn between enacting regulations that seek to make safe the populace and enacting laws that are aimed, no matter how many fig leaves their proponents don to avoid being labelled anti-Semites or worse, to make it impossible to live a traditional Jewish life…which certainly includes circumcising baby boys and eating kosher-slaughtered meat.

The brouhaha that seems periodically to surface about the traditional, but in the end not requisite, practice of metzitzah b’feh as a postlude to circumcision—the specific ritual features the circumciser sucking a bit of blood out of the baby’s wound with his mouth—is an excellent example of something that I feel should be regulated by law. The practice is unhygienic, puts the baby and the mohel—the circumciser—both at risk (although not to the same degree, obviously), and is absolutely not requisite despite the claims of those on the extreme right of the Jewish religious world to the contrary. (For a detailed, but endlessly interesting history of the whole controversy by Cantor Philip Sherman, a popular mohel in the New York region, click here. The essay is long, but also fascinating and quite well done.) But even here the issue on the table should be the simple question of whether this is or isn’t dangerous for the public—in this case for the baby and the mohel—and the law should reflect the answer to that question. Just for the record, there simply isn’t any requisite or indispensable Jewish ritual that involves the serious risk of harm to the individual undertaking it.

I couldn’t agree more that animals should be slaughtered in a humane way that involves as little discomfort or pain as possible. The Torah itself says as much by outlawing, and unequivocally, doing anything at all that causes pain to animals. Given the fact that many who have studied the matter think that the precise way to slaughter causing as little discomfort or pain as possible is to follow the Jewish laws relating to the slaughter of animals for food, I have to conclude that legislation outlawing kosher shechitah must be rooted in a different set of interests entirely. And I think my readers will all know in what soil that set of interests is rooted.

Jews have lived in Europe for millennia. There have been good times and bad, ups and downs, periods of acceptance and of the most catastrophic horrors. But I always imagined there would be a future for the Jews of Europe. Part of me still thinks that. And yet…as laws are enacted that basically say to the Jewish community that the government—that very institution that functions in a democracy as the embodiment of the national will—that the government doesn’t really care if you can or can’t live here, if you stay or go, if you survive as an intact community or vanish into the woodwork without retaining even vestigial allegiance to the rituals of your people’s faith, then maybe the time really has come to go. Would I stay on in a country that showed begrudging tolerance to the principle of religious freedom but which failed actually to extend religious freedom to its citizenry? Not if I had a choice I wouldn’t!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Heroes Slipping Away

Slowly, they’re all slipping away. I noted with interest and with regret the death the other day at age 112 of Richard Overton, the oldest living American veteran of World War II. He had an amazing story, actually: the grandson of slaves from Tennessee who grew up in Texas suffering the petty indignities routinely visited upon black people in the South during the first decades of the twentieth century, he was present at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima and so personally witnessed some of the most important events that took place in the Pacific theater of war and lived to tell the tale. There’s something very compelling to me in that story, something suggestive of the kind of heroic patriotism that would lead a man to volunteer for military service in the defense of his nation even despite the degree to which he personally had suffered from the racism that was at that time an endemic part of life for black Americans, and particularly in the South. For more about his life, click here.


Almost twenty years Richard Overton’s junior, Simcha Rotem also died last week. Rotem, born Szymon Ratajzer and known by the nom-de-guerre Kazik when he participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943, was its last living survivor. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was so deeply engrained in my consciousness when I was a child that it’s almost surprising to me to recall that I was born a decade after it was brutally and decisively put down by Poland’s German occupiers. It was the sole example my father would bring up again and again as proof positive that the Jews of Europe did not just go to the slaughter like sheep in an abattoir, and I must have heard at least some of the stories connected with the uprising hundreds of times. As a result, Leon Uris’s book, Mila 18, was the first full-length novel I read about the Shoah—before, even, I read The Last of the Just—and is in some ways the literary foundation stone upon which rests my sense of myself as some kind of survivor after-the-fact: my father’s people came from a small town just outside Warsaw called Nowy Dwor and met the exact same fate as the Jews of nearby Warsaw. Published when I was eight years old, Mila 18 was only a former bestseller by the time I got to it. But that didn’t matter to me at all, as neither have done the various accounts published more recently documenting resistance by Jewish communities and individuals throughout occupied Europe—effectively putting to rest my father’s sense that Warsaw was our single effort, quixotic at best but more than real, to defy the Germans and prevent our own annihilation: none has meaningfully diminished the place the Warsaw Uprising occupies in my own Jewish consciousness. (For more on Jewish resistance during the Shoah, I recommend Doreen Rappaport’s book, Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, published in 2012 and still widely available.)  In the world of my childhood, Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization who served as the leader of the uprising and who died at Mila 18 at age twenty-four, was the hero of all heroes.
To say that the uprising was a failure is almost to say nothing at all. German losses were seventeen dead (all but one killed in action) and ninety-three injured (including sixty members of the SS). Jewish losses were on a different scale entirely and were staggering: 13,000 killed in the course of the uprising and the remaining 56,000 residents of the ghetto deported immediately to Treblinka or Majdanek and murdered in those places upon arrival.

Just a few days before the uprising was decisively ended by German forces, there was a successful attempt to rescue some few of the Ghetto’s defenders. That this was attempted at all is amazing enough, but more amazing still is that the operation was successful and allowed many of the escapees to carry the struggle forward, adopting the techniques of guerilla warfare to harass and occasionally kill German soldiers and eventually joining forces with the Poles who launched the “other” Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944. And one of the organizers of this almost miraculous flight from certain death was Simcha Rotem, called Kazik, who died last week and was the last survivor of the fighters who participated in the uprising.
Kazik was a boy of eighteen in 1942. He was already a survivor, though, even then: several family members and his brother were killed when a German bomb fell on his family’s home a few years earlier. There are other names to mention as well. Mordechai Anielewicz was the commander of the Jewish Fighting Force inside the ghetto, for example, but there was also Yitzchak Zuckerman serving as the organization’s commander on the Gentile side of the barrier that defined the ghetto. And, in fact, it was as courier between Anielewicz and Zuckerman that Kazik made his greatest and more daring contribution to the effort to resist the German effort to kill every Jew in Poland. His adventures are both terrifying and remarkable to relate. He was stuck for a while on the Gentile side and had to try repeatedly to re-enter the ghetto. Eventually, he succeeded by wading through the sewers that even the Germans couldn’t figure out how to close. And then his moment of true greatness came as the final destruction of the ghetto was almost upon them all, and he was able—because he was so familiar with the Warsaw sewer system—to bring Zivia Lubetkin, one of the last surviving leaders of the uprising, and about eighty others to safety first in Gentile Warsaw and then, soon after that, in the forests surrounding the city. He himself spent the rest of the war helping Jews in hiding and then eventually participating in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. And then, after the war, he devoted himself to service on two different fronts: one, as a member of Nakam, the group devoted to exacting extra-legal vengeance on surviving Nazi war criminals, and the other as a member of Bricha, the group devoted to helping Jews immigrate to Mandatory Palestine despite the best efforts of the British to keep Jews out of their own homeland even after the Shoah deprived them of any other place to call home.

Although Kazik—who as Simcha Rotem ended up, of all things, as the manager of an Israeli supermarket chain until his retirement in 1986—was the sole remaining fighter when he died, there is still one single person left alive who was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto for as long as it existed: Aliza Vitis-Shomron was twelve years old in 1942 and somehow managed to survive after helping the cause along by distributing various kinds of leaflets in the ghetto before finally managing to escape.
When I was a boy growing up in Forest Hills, the survivor community was entirely different than it is today. For one thing, the survivors I knew as a boy were all young people—the parents, not the grandparents or great-grandparents, of my friends from elementary school. The word “survivor” itself was not in use back then, however, and I don’t believe I can recall any of my friend’s European parents using that word ever to describe themselves. They were far too interested in moving forward, in establishing a foothold in America, in learning to speak unaccented American English (a challenge successfully met only by some), in relegating the horrors of their own past to the swirling mists of history and living in the clear light of a safe, secure present. That people didn’t wish to speak about the past was a given in most households. I accepted that back then, never finding the nerve to ask even people I knew well about their personal stories. Almost the people in that category that I remember from my childhood are gone from the world now, though, and, although some contributed videotaped interviews to the Spielberg Holocaust Archive, most took their stories with them when they departed this world.

But at least I knew these people personally, whereas the great challenge in the future is going to be finding a way to raise up a new generation whose contact with Shoah survivors will either be minimal or non-existent. It’s already too late to meet anyone who belonged to the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, just as it is also impossible now to meet an American veteran who fought in the First World War.  (The last living person to have served in the Allied Armed Forces died last November at age 110.) This happens, of course, to all historical events: the last living veteran of the Union Army who saw combat in the Civil War, James Hard, died in 1953…yet the Civil War is not only remembered by historians but remains completely alive in our national consciousness as one of the defining events in the history of the republic. Can we do the same for the Shoah as the survivors—and particularly people like Simcha Rotem who were eye-witnesses to events like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—fade from the scene? That is the question that Rotem’s death challenged me to ask and which I invite you all to join me in the wake of his passing now also to ponder.