(December 18, 2020 / JNS) Last time I checked, the French were still preparing their famed foie gras delicacy using the method of “gavage.” This involves force-feeding a duck or a goose with grain passed through a tube over a period of several days so that its liver swells to approximately 600 percent of its normal size. The point is, if you don’t put the bird through this plainly ghastly experience, you cannot produce the rich flavor and buttery texture that makes foie gras so prized among gastronomes.
Many people refuse to eat foie gras precisely because of the cruelty involved in its production, but equally, many more people clearly aren’t bothered by it at all, as revenues internationally run into the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Its sale has been banned by local officials in a handful of places, including New York from 2022, but that isn’t going to stop French, as well as Spanish, Hungarian, Belgian and Bulgarian farmers from producing foie gras with the only method available to them. Indeed, any initiative to shut down the industry would need to come from the European Union, and there is precious little sign of that happening.
To be clear, I’m not advocating a renewed European Union legal crackdown on foie gras; frankly, it’s not an issue on which I have strong feelings either way. I raise the issue in order to illustrate a glaring double standard that has, in the last week, left both Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe feeling like rank and unwanted outsiders.
Last Thursday, the Luxembourg-based European Union Court of Justice (ECJ), which is the final arbiter of E.U. law, drew a line between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized” in terms of how farm animals that are slaughtered for human consumption are treated by different religious groups in Europe.
On the “civilized” side of the line are those carnivores whose meat is stunned before it is slaughtered, which the ECJ deems to be humane. On the “uncivilized” side are those—overwhelmingly Muslims and Jews—whose religious commandments strictly forbid the stunning of animals before they are slaughtered, which the ECJ deems to be inhumane.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that meat that has been slaughtered with a pre-stunning process is not considered kosher or halal, nor can it be.
The ECJ’s determination was part of a ruling that rejected an appeal brought by the Belgian Federation of Jewish Communities against a ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the Wallonia region imposed by the local authorities in 2017. By upholding the ban, the ECJ has effectively licensed other states and regions within the E.U. to outlaw ritual slaughter—or the sale of kosher and halal products—without the threat of mass discrimination lawsuits.
Unusually, the court’s decision eschewed the opinion of one of its 11 Advocate Generals, Gerard Hogan, who stated last September that the member states of the E.U. “are obliged to respect the deeply held religious beliefs of adherents to the Muslim and Jewish faiths by allowing for the ritual slaughter of animals.”
For the judges of the ECJ, evidently, there were no such fundamental stakes involved. From their perspective, the ruling did not outlaw ritual slaughter itself, but merely “one aspect of the specific ritual act of slaughter.” It added that the law allowed for a “fair balance” between animal welfare and the “freedom of Jewish and Muslim believers to manifest their religion.”
No such “fair balance” between animal welfare and human traditions is on display when it comes to the annual production of 17,000 tons of foie gras. The stench of hypocrisy, the nagging sense that the high-minded secular humanists who run European institutions are just bullying observant Jewish and Muslim communities with this latest edict, is unmistakable. Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the Conference of European Rabbis elegantly summarized both the insult and the absurdity of the ECJ’s ruling thus. “We are told by European leaders that they want Jewish communities to live and be successful in Europe,” he said, “but they provide no safeguards for our way of life.”
While there are many more Muslims than there are Jews in Europe these days, the roots of this enmity towards ritual slaughter lie in the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic traditions that have persisted and so often flourished throughout the continent’s history. Europe, after all, is the continent of the so-called “Judensau”—grotesque carvings on medieval churches that mocked the Jewish prohibition on pork by showing Jews in obscene acts with pigs. The method of shechita (kosher slaughter) has been twisted and distorted by anti-Semites for various tales of blood libel and theologically mandated cruelty allegedly practiced by Jews down the ages. And lest we forget, one of the first legislative actions undertaken by the Nazi regime in Germany was a ban on kosher slaughter, which was depicted in official propaganda as an ugly, alien and thoroughly un-German practice.
The ECJ is making much the same declaration in 2020, albeit in language that avoids the demonic ravings of Nazi official rhetoric. Its judges are surely aware that the rules of shechita are not flexible; therefore, any part of Europe that prevents the sale of meat that has not been pre-stunned is effectively telling observant Jews that they are unwelcome as residents.
Not only that. If kosher slaughter is a legitimate target for the ECJ, then why not add male infant circumcision as well—another requirement of the Jewish and Muslim faiths that has been faced with legal and political challenges across Europe in yet one more demonstration of how centuries of anti-Semitism have reappeared dressed in humanist concerns.
Instructively, the ECJ’s ruling came just weeks after the EU Council, the bloc’s main coordinating body, issued a solemn six-page declaration against anti-Semitism.
The declaration stated that anti-Semitism “in any form, is and must remain unacceptable and all steps must be taken to counteract it, including, where necessary, through legal measures at European level.” It went on to underline that “the member states of the European Union support policy initiatives at European level that aim to combat incitement to anti-Semitic hatred and acts of violence, as well as the dissemination of anti-Semitic conspiracy myths online.”
I beg your pardon? By telling European publics, as the ECJ is doing, that Jewish methods for slaughtering kosher meat are inherently suspect? By stoking fears among Jews that their core religious beliefs and rituals are under legal attack? No matter how many words the E.U. expends on the evils of anti-Semitism, no matter how many definitions of anti-Semitism it adopts, any restrictions on the supply or sale of kosher products will render all of those efforts meaningless.
I say again: meaningless.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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