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ICE is forcing Muslims to eat pork. My fellow Orthodox Jews: This is our fight!

In another dehumanizing episode for detained migrants, it’s been reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been feeding pork to Muslims held in a Florida detention center seeking to move to the United States to improve their lives.

While most people should be outraged at such detestable behavior, Orthodox Jews in particular should be reeling upon hearing about this. Just like eating halal is not a choice for our Muslim brothers and sisters, for us, eating kosher is not voluntary; it’s who we are and as necessary as the oxygen we need for sustenance.

If I ever discovered that I was fed pork, it would take me years to get over it. Many Haredi Jews in Rockland County have actually had this experience, and can attest to it firsthand. In 2009, a prominent butcher was discovered to have sold meat from animals that had not been slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut. People felt betrayed and dehumanized.

A Holocaust survivor, after discovering that he had eaten from that butcher, almost had a heart attack. He explained that during the Holocaust, he starved for days rather than eat not kosher food. He survived on tiny portions of bread and potatoes.

To me, Muslim migrants being fed pork highlights the plight of migrants to the U.S. and the desperate need for immigration reform. But it’s more than that. I, too, am an immigrant — and I come from a country that has a similar disregard for religious liberties as a fundamental tenet of human dignity.

I have painful memories from my childhood growing up in Switzerland, where the prohibition on shechita – the kosher way to butcher an animal — was obvious to me even at a young age. The Swiss government banned ritual slaughter in 1894, and since that time, all kosher beef and poultry has to be imported into Switzerland.

This makes kosher meat much more expensive in Switzerland than anywhere else with a large Orthodox Jewish population. Since we are a large family, this put considerable strain on my parents’ financial resources. Swiss law allows a limited amount of meat to be brought into the country per person. So once a month, my family would pack into a van and travel to a store located right across the Swiss border with France. We would purchase a large amount of meat and make a few trips back and forth across the border to bring it home. Each time we would take along the amount of meat that is legally allowed per person.

I still remember the border guards’ disdainful looks every time we would come back into Switzerland. Even at ten years old, I had a deep sense of shame. I felt as if I was a second-class citizen in my own country.

Recently, the European Court of Justice has been hearing arguments on the legality of a similar ban on ritual slaughter implemented by the Belgian government. Such a ban affects both Jews and Muslims, whose meat has to be killed in a specific way in order to be eaten.

With the European Court of Justice’s decision looming, the Muslim World League issued a joint statement with the Conference of European Rabbis. Aside from the ban’s impact on the quality of life for Muslims and Jews alike, they questioned the motivations behind it:

“The first such ban on religious methods of animal slaughter for food occurred in Switzerland as a response to Jews fleeing the pogroms of Russia during the nineteenth century. Similar bans were introduced in the lead up to World War II, marginalizing Jewish communities across Europe.”

The unity of Muslim and Jewish leaders on this issue in Europe should spur Orthodox Jews to stand up for our Muslims brethren in detention centers. More than that: We Orthodox Jews must be at the forefront of protesting ICE’s abuse of Muslim migrants’ human rights and religious liberty.

Who like us can commiserate with the horrible feelings associated with transgressing religious dietary laws? Who like us know the xenophobia associated with denials of religious liberty, and the pain of being forced to choose between liberty and religion?

In standing up for our Muslim brothers and sisters in detention centers, we stand up for ourselves, and our own liberties. But more importantly, if not us, who will speak for them?

Rabbi Eliezer Brand is a Talmudic researcher and teacher and resides in Brooklyn with his wife, son and two daughters.


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