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Memo to Belgium: A country that wants Jews doesn’t ban kosher meat

Right before the end of Hanukkah, a holiday that celebrates the right to religious freedom, the European Court of Justice reminded us that this right is very much in peril. Earlier today, the Court upheld Belgium’s effective ban on ritual slaughter, ruling that it does not violate the European Union’s promise of religious freedom. It’s a ruling that will hurt not just Jews. It will deeply impact the viability of Jewish and Muslim life in Belgium and Europe.

I know this because I have lived in a country with a ban on ritual slaughter. I grew up in Switzerland, which banned shechita in 1894. As a result, for the last 126 years, all kosher meat in Switzerland has had to be imported.

This put a large strain on my family’s finances, to say the least. Kosher meat is already pricey. In order to feed our large Orthodox family, my parents would take us across the French border every month, where we would purchase enough kosher meat to last us till the next trip.

I will never forget the disdain in the eyes of border patrol agents each time we crossed. And I felt ashamed of their contempt. It was as if I was a second-class citizen in my own country.

When I grew up, I learned that this feeling in me, that I didn’t belong, was not an accident, but was actually the goal of the law. Part of the Swiss motivation for banning shechita was to stem Russian Jewish immigration in the late 19th century.

Because here’s the truth: You don’t ban Jewish ritual sacrifice if you want Jews to live and thrive in your country.

Since the passage of Belgium’s effective ban on religious slaughter, meat prices in have skyrocketed. But the problem is more than dollars and cents; it’s the message it conveys: You aren’t welcome here. The message I received loud and clear as a child.

Then there’s the message conveyed by the fact that these bans are spreading. For Swiss Jews who have had to rely on meat from France, the European Court of Justice’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent. Would it be a stretch to imagine that France, and other neighboring nations, will be the next to ban ritual slaughter now that the high court has given them the green light?

These laws are a slippery slope to making life for Jews and Muslims in Europe near-impossible.

Of course, it’s not just Europe. Muslims are under attack all over the world, from Uighur concentration camps in China to European countries implementing bans on religious garb and exacerbating the refugee crisis. While the European Union pretends to be a paragon of virtue, they have allowed draconian and bigoted laws to stand.

These laws are clearly intended to make religious people uncomfortable and discourage them from coming to Europe.

Just look at the original motivation of the ban on ritual slaughter. It was explicitly designed to curb Muslim immigration into the country. So in an unprecedented move, before the decision came down, the Muslim World League issued a joint statement with the Conference of European Rabbis. Together they questioned the motivations and noted the history:

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.

Outlawing religious practices has long been a tool of xenophobia, antisemitism, and racism. Banning shechita is merely bigotry disguised as animal rights activism. Jews were the target historically, and now we are the collateral damage in Europe’s war against Muslims.

We must stand together to oppose this bigotry.

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


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