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!

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