ARE JEWS STILL NEEDED IN POLAND? – A LANDSCAPE AFTER SHECHITA On a beautiful July day in 2013, July 12, to be exact, the Parliament of the Republic of Poland decided that it would not be possible to slaughter livestock in accordance with the norms of religious communities in Poland.
The vote was preceded by an aggressive campaign by animal rights activists, claiming that kosher slaughter was tantamount to “torturing animals” and “murdering” them.
Photo: Sławomir Kamiński / Agencja Gazeta
The voice of Polish Jews failed to penetrate to the main media, although numerous efforts had been made to make it audible. An information campaign had been carried out by the Forum of Polish Jews and Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, yet this voice proved too frail. The position of meat producers and the Ministry of Agriculture, emphasizing the economic aspects, was seen as an expression of wild capitalism. The public, swayed by an aggressive and expensive campaign by “animal rights advocates”, became convinced that the meat industry and the Jews (since what little is known about Muslims in Poland?) had contrived a plot designed to treat animals inhumanely and to reap profits from this shameful practice.
Few intellectuals and legal experts have cared to point out that a ban on slaughter in accordance with the norms of religious minorities would be an infringement of their right to freedom of religion, conscience and faith, as guaranteed by the Polish Constitution.
A grim spirit did not set in until after the initial reports on the vote came through, although even premier Donald Tusk did not disguise his satisfaction “After this vote, reason was sad, while the heart rejoiced” he said of the Sejm’s rejection of the draft amendment to the law permitting ritual slaughter. “The prime minister considered that there were many arguments, presented by the minister of agriculture and the coalition PSL party for allowing the slaughter of animals without prior stunning in Poland. One was the export of ritually slaughtered animals, worth - as the premier indicated - about 1 billion PLN, as well as the jobs associated with the business. On the other hand, it would have been a sorry affair to accept this method of killing animals, which is believed to cause more suffering to the animal - the premier said”.
A few days later we learned that the state budget was 24 billion PLN short this present year. So is the one billion coming from meat exports, as well as another, likely to be saved on unemployment benefits, really of such little importance?
It is important to cite his above declaration in full, as a grim memento, since it most aptly proves that at the time reason was at most asleep. And as we know, the sleep of reason produces monsters.
And so the monster of anti-Semitism was reawakened
The Jewish community in Poland and those around the globe unanimously saw the Polish parliament’s decision as quintessentially anti-Semitic, since it banned the practice of one of the basic precepts of Judaism: consuming meat obtained exclusively by means of kosher slaughter (Hebr. shechita).
To clarify: Jews (but also certain groups of Eastern Christians) are bound by the rules about what may be eaten contained in the Bible (Leviticus 11). From the point of view of normative Judaism, there is no room for non-observance here or “negotiating” a less stringent approach. The Polish parliament has told Jews living in Poland: you cannot live in accordance with your religion, which in practice might mean: you cannot live at all. Why go so far in our interpretation? Not everyone can be a vegetarian for reasons to do with physiology and life comfort. Not everyone can afford the advice of a dietitian on how to replace the iron to be found most abundantly in red meat or on how much beans and soy a grown man should eat in order to feel strong and healthy. We are talking about entirely practical matters here.
It is highly immoral to justify the ban by referring to numbers, and arguing that Polish Jews for the most part do not eat kosher meat (of course these are completely groundless claims). Even if there was only one person, they have the right to eat kosher. Is there a more basic human right? The Friday vote proves that cattle and poultry have greater rights in Poland than a specific religious and ethnic minority. By the way, other Jewish communities also relied on Polish kosher meat within the framework of the single European market, including those in France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. And what about food for Jewish tourists visiting the country in great numbers? According to a report released by the Polish Institute of Tourism, an average tourist brought in about 410 USD per day in 2011. Groups coming on the March of the Living, Israeli youth coming to Poland for educational programs, Chassidim visiting the country on the yarzeits of important rabbis? The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has every right to be alarmed, since half a million Israeli tourists may cease going to Poland simply because they will have nothing to eat.
The economy is very important. What reasons are there to intentionally limit - and this in the midst of a crisis - the potential of Polish exports and internal trade, eliminate jobs, discourage visitors? History teaches us that when ideology takes precedence over economic development, we should seriously consider whether we are not dealing with some kind of dangerous phenomenon, the beginnings of totalitarianism.
When we warned against growing approval for such attitudes on the Forum of Polish Jews (for example in an article by M. Weitzman http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-new-anti-semitism-or-the-old-anti-semitism-resurgent/#.Ub90mUpUqo8.email), voices appeared that we were wrongly and without justification accusing people of anti-Semitism. Of course, one might say that by voting in favor of a strange understanding of animal protection (strange, since other forms of harassing animals, for example recreational hunting, enjoy full acceptance) the Polish deputies, like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, did not know that they were “speaking in prose”. But ignorance is not a sufficient excuse. The Internet, on this occasion, has been rife with anti-Semitic comments. The author of this article, for instance, received a signed letter, the beginning of which read: “If you don’t like it in Poland, then get the hell out of here and go to Israel!!!!!!!!! Poles died in camps and fought for freedom, but Jews didn’t fight for a free Poland! you won’t have it your way in what is not your country! you have Israel, so go throw your weight around there! (...). If we say that this is merely an isolated case, then I assure you that that is not true. There is no point in even mentioning the flood of hate speech on the Internet. In spite of foreknowledge, Polish authorities did NOTHING to prevent this phenomenon. Aviram, who is an ordinary Polish Jew, wrote on his Facebook account: “there has been no such wave of anti-Semitism since 1968. I remember police raids on my parents’ house, my Father beaten up, and the gray travel document to get out of Poland.” After 1989, Polish Jews always lived in the shadow of the trauma of 1968, hoping that Polish-Jewish relations would change for the better, which they did.
At any rate, the Sejm sent out or perhaps amplified a certain signal. The Union of Jewish Communities in Po-land has stated: “The outcome of today’s vote in the Sejm regarding the admissibility of ritual slaughter has been a shock to us. An entirely untrue view has prevailed, according to which such slaughter is cruel, or even intentionally cruel. This view had gained popularity in Europe in the 1930s, when, influenced by Nazi propaganda, Norway and Sweden introduced a ban on [kosher] slaughter; from here on, Poland will be the first country in the European Union in which this ban will be in force without being a remnant of the Nazi era."
As I write this, I receive a message that the Jewish cemetery in Lublin has been vandalized. A coincidence? Or perhaps the activity of “Judeo-sceptics” (new word recently developed by certain far-right Polish politician to describe his any-Semitic views)? The Police are not in the habit of detecting the perpetrators of such crimes, nor those behind hate speech on the Internet.
This article is also a good opportunity to denounce a number of myths that have hatched recently. A few have already been mentioned above, but perhaps we will do well to give a systematic overview:
1) the myth that kosher slaughter is illegal in the United States - untrue. It is legal, and one can quote the American ambassador in Poland, S. Mull, who wrote that this right is guaranteed by American legislation.
2) the myth that kosher slaughter is illegal in the European Union - untrue. Regulation (EC) 1099/2009 of the European Council states that although as a rule slaughter with prior stunning is the standard procedure, member states can introduce exceptions in order to allow slaughter for the needs of religious communities. In the European Union, such a ban has till now only been in force in Sweden. Switzerland and Norway, where slaughter without prior stunning is also disallowed, are not members of the EU, but only part of the European Economic Area (EEA).
3) the myth that the 1997 Act on the Relation of the State to Jewish Religious Communities allows ritual slaughter for the purposes of Jewish communities – according to the official opinion of the Government Legislation Center and the Minister of Administration released few days ago, the Law on Jewish Communities and Law on Protection of Animals cannot be reconciled, unless Constitutional Tribunal allows the kosher slaughther in future. In notifying the European Commission that it does not admit exceptions to the regulation in January 2013, Poland adopted a stricter standard that does not provide for exceptions from slaughtering with prior stunning.
4) the myth that shechita is tantamount to extreme cruelty. Completely untrue. This issue is broadly discussed in our compendium of knowledge, as well as in an interview with shochet rabbi of Jewish Community in Katowice, Y. Ellis
5) the myth that reformed Jews allow stunning before kosher slaughter. Untrue. Declarations on this point have been issued by the rabbi of the progressive branch of Warsaw Jewish Community, S. Wojciechowicz, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
6) the myth that Jews are to blame for everything. That “you should have said something earlier.” It is difficult to argue with this myth because adopting a conspiracy theory of the world effectively prevents this. But there has been argument. Perhaps too little, perhaps the sin of omission consisted in there being too little contact between the Jewish community in Poland and Jewish organizations in Europe and around the world. There is a widespread fear that the current situation, if it is not immediately reversed, will become a dangerous precedent that other countries will follow.
The end of the Jewish renaissance in Poland?
After the momentous vote, Jewish communities can feel themselves duped. Since 1989 - the introduction of democratic changes in Poland - Polish Jews and their leaders, in response to the accusations raised by their brethren from Israel and other, friendlier countries of the Diaspora, that they are living on the graves of the victims of the Holocaust and legitimating anti-Semitic Poland, tried to show that there was a sense to rebuild-ing Jewish life in Poland, that it had a future. There are 9 Jewish communities in Poland and several organiza-tions, social care, Jewish schooling, summer camps, cultural events, cemeteries have more or less successfully been taken care of (at least insofar as providing them with legal protection and renovating some of them is concerned), there are Jewish weddings, brit mila, bar and bat mitzvah, jubilees, anniversaries, burials. There are rabbis, teachers with an increasingly better education from Israeli and American yeshivas, the Warsaw community has a cheder for children, each year the Poznan community celebrates Israel Independence Day with great pomp. Jewish books and magazines are published, there are Jewish websites. In Warsaw alone there is one kosher shop, a cafeteria and two restaurants. In Krakow and Łodz, one. Every community has kosher meat available for its members. The members of Poland’s Jewish community have been and continue to be proud of these achievements. But now, what will they answer to standard questions from visitors from abroad (if they come to Poland at all): “how can you live here?”, “what kind of future do your children have here?”
The ideological foundations of Jewish existence in Poland have all but been ruined. The next move belongs to the Polish authorities: will the Jewish community of Poland be allowed to continue to exist, or will it move, for example, to Germany, where Jewish communities can benefit from support and there is no ban on kosher slaughter? In terms of Poland’s image, this would be a catastrophe and a striking out of the many centuries of Polish-Jewish co-existence.
The condition of the Jewish community also provides a measure of the authorities’ attitude toward other ethnic and religious minorities. Politicians, especially those who voted for rejecting the amendment - should ask themselves whether it is in the interest of the Polish state to harass minorities. And, repeating an already popular grim joke, will the last chapter of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews’ Postwar gallery be devoted to the episode of the Sejm vote on making it impossible for Jews in Poland to continue their existence in Paradisus Iudaeorum?
Monika Krawczyk is attorney in Warsaw, Poland