Polish-Jewish relations: The real victim of the ritual slaughter controversy

By Gosia Szymańska Weiss/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: The plenary hall of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament. The Sejm on July 12 rejected a reinstatement of the legality of religious slaughter. Credit: Boston9 via Wikimedia Commons.

The world of Polish-Jewish relations is confronting a crisis over kosher slaughter of animals. Both kosher and Muslim halal slaughtering rules forbid stunning the animal beforehand. Under Polish law, however, such stunning is mandatory. The Polish Constitutional Court recently struck down an exemption from that law for kosher and halal slaughter on a legal technicality. Last month the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament, failed to reinstate the exemption.

Jews in the United States and Israel reacted quickly to the Sejm vote. Misinformation about the roots of the legislation as well as a negative knee-jerk reaction based on certain perceptions—or misperceptions—of Poland’s history led many to the hasty conclusion that Poland today is no different than it was in the 1930s, when anti-kosher-slaughter legislation was part of a broad assault on Jewish rights.

Poles, on the other hand, seemed surprised by the criticism, and their reactions ranged from defensiveness to outright anti-Semitic rhetoric. The office of Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, received an unprecedented number of anti-Semitic letters, emails, and phone calls. While anti-Semitism was not the root cause of the controversy over ritual slaughter, it has reared its ugly head once the Sejm vote became a matter of public debate.

The kosher slaughter issue needs to be settled in favor of religious freedom, and reports from Poland suggest that this is likely to happen. But a positive resolution may prove no more than a Pyrrhic victory, since the tenor of the discussion has reopened old wounds in Polish-Jewish relations. The bleeding needs to stop before decades of efforts to heal this important relationship unravel. All sides must realize that once this particular controversy is resolved, the relationship between Poles and Jews will continue, and everyone has an interest in strengthening it.

Click photo to download. Caption: The office of Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich (pictured), has received an unprecedented number of anti-Semitic letters, emails, and phone calls due to the ritual slaughter controversy. Credit: Slav via Wikimedia Commons.

As a Polish Jew living in the United States, I have dedicated my work over the years to creating space between the images of horror associated with Poland’s World War II history and the bright, hope-filled scenes of modern times. I have witnessed the building of remarkable bridges of understanding through my work with the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Polish-Jewish Exchange program—work that AJC had the foresight to launch more than twenty years ago. We cannot go backward. How we conduct our dialogue now will shape the quality of the relationship moving forward.

An understanding of the facts is key to progress in Polish-Jewish relations. Poland legalized kosher slaughter in 1997 with the passage of a law regulating the relationship between the State and the Jewish community. The Animal Protection Act, also passed in 1997, rendered slaughter without stunning illegal, but included an exemption for ritual slaughter. In 2002, this exemption was removed, leaving the Animal Protection Act and the kosher slaughter law in conflict. To resolve it, the Polish Minister of Agriculture, by decree, announced an exemption for ritual slaughter. It remained in effect until 2011, when Poland’s Constitutional Court—in an action brought by the country’s strong animal rights lobby—overturned the minister’s decree, but did not resolve the underlying conflict of laws. Following the court’s ruling, the government sought to protect religious freedom and the interest of farmers who produce kosher and halal meat for export by introducing the bill that would reinstate the ritual slaughter exemption.

The Sejm voted 222-178 against the exemption, as a dissident minority faction of the governing party joined with the opposition party to defeat the government initiative. Anti-Semitic sentiments were nowhere publicly expressed in the discussions leading up to the vote. The most plausible explanation for the Parliament’s action is the political weakness of Prime Minister Donald Tusk—not anti-Semitism.

The controversy now rests again with the Polish Constitutional Court, which eventually will have to reconcile the conflict between the animal rights legislation and the law that regulates Poland’s relationship with the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, both Jews and Poles have work to do. World Jewry must remember that it is 2013: Poland is a free and democratic country, a member of the European Union, with a strong civil society, which engages in lively public discussion. It is a friend of Israel and of the Jewish people. We must not alienate Poles and harm long-term Jewish interests by insinuating that there is a serious problem of anti-Semitism in the country.

Gosia Szymańska Weiss

Similarly, the Polish people need to better appreciate the historical context of Jewish sensitivities to matters affecting religious freedom, and must also take the recent anti-Semitic outbursts as a wake-up call. Polish-Jewish cooperation, the protection of Jewish heritage in Poland, and the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland since the collapse of Communism, while impressive, are far from complete.

At stake is not merely ritual slaughter, but the future of Polish-Jewish relations.

Gosia Szymańska Weiss is Assistant Director, International Relations, in the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles Region.

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Posted on August 15, 2013 and filed under Jewish Life, Opinion, World.