By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
This past week, Jewish ritual observance has come under attack in both Belgium and Norway. While there is nothing suggesting the respective moves against shechita (kosher slaughter) in Belgium and brit milah (Jewish circumcision) in Norway were coordinated, both speak to an ingrained tendency in Europe that dismisses these core requirements for Jews as no more and no less than cruelty of a particularly Jewish sort.
The environment committee of the parliament in Wallonia—a French-speaking region accounting for more than half of Belgium’s territory and a third of its population—voted unanimously May 8 to ban shechita on the grounds that the practice involves cruelty to animals; the decision will take effect in September 2019. On the same day, the annual convention of Norway’s Progress Party—a libertarian, anti-immigration party that is a partner in the country’s ruling coalition—passed a resolution urging a government ban on ritual circumcision for boys under age 16, on the grounds that what is involved here is a violation of human rights. Jews, as is well-known, circumcise their sons eight days after birth, in accordance with the biblical covenant between God and the patriarch Abraham.
You may say these developments are about many things. You might even make the case that anti-Semitism is a minor factor here. There are many more Muslims than there are Jews in Belgium, Norway and pretty much every other country in Western Europe—and they, too, circumcise their sons for religious reasons and consume ritually slaughtered halal meat. That certainly explains why right-wing populists like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party have made halal slaughter a primary focus of their broader campaign against what they see as social acceptance of Islamic sharia law-based rites.
What this interpretation ignores, however, is that the problem of encroaching Islamism within European-Muslim communities is a relatively recent one. I would argue it first became distinctly visible in 1989, when the Iranian regime issued a fatwa for the killing of the British author Salman Rushdie over his novel satirizing the Quran, “The Satanic Verses.” By contrast, for more than a century, anti-Semites have demonized Jewish rites with the same enthusiasm as their Church forebears.
One of the first acts of the Nazis after they came to power in Germany in 1933 was to ban shechita. The famous Nazi propaganda film “Der Ewige Jude” (“The Eternal Jew”) portrayed shechita as a gruesome Jewish celebration of animal suffering.
Nor was the revulsion at shechita confined to Germany. Associates of Arnold Leese, a reasonably prominent British fascist during the 1930s, often said Leese’s violent anti-Semitism was intimately connected to his love of animals (he served with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps during World War I) and hence, his distaste for the kosher method of slaughter. I doubt this sentiment was Leese’s alone.
Despite this frankly creepy history, contemporary advocates of the shechita and brit milah bans angrily deny they are motivated by anti-Semitism—in much the same way, and for the same reasons, that anti-Zionists present the cause of eliminating Israel as a legitimate human rights campaign. It is, of course, tiresome for them to have to deal with the charge of anti-Semitism every time they take aim at Jews as a collective, so they flip the equation by depicting themselves as victims of a malicious reputational smear.
The sad thing is, this approach often works. It feeds into the sentiments of those segments of the European public who regard anti-Semitism as a censorship tool—preventing them from protecting animals, babies, national reputations unfairly soiled during World War II and the right to condemn Israel for alleged human rights abuses.
To their great credit, Europe’s often-cautious Jewish leaders have rarely failed to condemn the anti-ritual campaign in the strongest of terms. Back in 2012, when 600 German doctors signed a letter to a prominent newspaper advocating a ban on circumcision, Charlotte Knobloch, then leader of the German-Jewish community, wondered aloud “whether this country still wants us.” When the Wallonia committee announced its ban on shechita last week, Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, called on “legislators to step back from the brink of the greatest assault on Jewish religious rights in Belgium since the Nazi occupation of the country in World War II.”
It may sound like bombast, but it isn’t. For 2,000 years in the diaspora, Jewish identity was preserved by adherence to these religious commands. This, in turn, bred the resentment of supersessionist Church theologians and, later on, universalist Enlightenment philosophers—both despised Jewish separateness even as their rulers enforced it through ghettoization and other discriminatory measures. From Martin Luther to Karl Marx, the imperative of ending the conditions for a separate Jewish existence—through means varying from outright persecution or conditional emancipation—has been a binding thread in European thought.
It follows logically that even in a modern democracy, a ban on the core rituals making Jews Jewish—and Muslims Muslim—effectively ends the conditions for a separate existence as a Jewish community. It’s true that many Jews don’t keep kosher, but virtually all Jewish males are circumcised, regardless of their family’s degree of religious observance. Ending the right to engage in those practices poses a choice: stay if you are willing to obey the law, leave if you are not.
Norway and Belgium are not the only countries where political battles over Jewish rites have erupted. Shechita is outlawed in Poland, New Zealand and Switzerland, among others, while nasty public campaigns against circumcision have been seen in San Francisco on one half of the globe, and Oslo on the other. The campaign advances in fits and starts, but it is always there, and is present among liberals and nationalists alike.
American Jews are fortunate to live with a constitution clearly demarcating religion and state. European Jews don’t have such clear guidelines, and therefore become hostages to the fortune of political clashes in which their freedom of worship is just one consideration among many.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.