Europe and religious freedom

Israel should be held up as an example of how it is possible for a country to maintain a strong religious identity while at the same time upholding the religious rights of minorities.

May 11, 2017 20:29
3 minute read.
European Jews

Jews in Europe are facing increasing hostility motivated by anti-Semitism.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Jews of Europe need all the support they can get.

That’s why it was puzzling to hear Oslo’s Chief Rabbi Joav Melchior ask the Israeli government to stay out of a Norwegian attempt to ban circumcision.

There was nothing in Melchior’s statement, as reported by Tamara Zieve, The Jerusalem Post’s Jewish World correspondent, that said why he opposed Israeli involvement in yet another European attempt to ban religious rituals central to both Judaism and Islam.

We hope Melchior, son of former Social and Diaspora Affairs Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, is not attempting to distance Oslo’s Jewish community from the State of Israel out of fear that Israeli involvement might strengthen the anti-circumcision camp in Norway. Asking Israel to stay out of the dispute in Norway is tantamount to caving in to Israel’s many critics and admitting that their baseless allegations against Israel have credence.

Instead, Israel should be held up as an example of how it is possible for a country to maintain a strong religious identity while at the same time upholding the religious rights of minorities. Muslims and Christians enjoy extensive religious freedom in the State of Israel. There is no contradiction between ethnic-basic or religious-based nationalism and liberalism. In fact, the opposite is true. Those who have pride in their own ethnicity or religious tradition are more able to appreciate this sentiment in others.

There is nothing new about campaigns to ban circumcision in Europe. In 2013 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a body composed of five left-wing political organizations, identified circumcision as violation of male children’s “physical integrity.”

Several European countries have also threatened to ban ritual slaughter as well.

But according to Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, what makes the recent attempts to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter different is that centrist parties are adopting these policies to woo voters from the extreme Left and the extreme Right.

“There was a time when we could all recognize who was antisemitic,” Rabbi Goldschmidt noted during a convention this week in Amsterdam.

Last Friday the parliament in Belgium’s French-speaking region voted unanimously to ban religious slaughter. And one day later, Norway’s Progress Party adopted a position favoring a ban on circumcision of boys under the age of 16.

As in the past, the main thrust of legislation banning circumcision and ritual slaughter is directed against Europe’s growing Muslim population. Europe’s Jews have suffered from the collateral damage of this anti-Muslim campaign.

Pushing back against this campaign provides an opportunity for cooperation between Muslims and Jews as well as with other religious communities that have an interest in protecting religious freedom in Europe.

Too often Jews and Muslims find themselves on opposing sides, primarily due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet, these two Abrahamic faith communities have much in common. The two religions revere many of the same biblical texts; both strive to sanctify mundane existence through religious acts; both recognize a higher morality that emphasizes the obligation to strive to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the weak.

Both Jews and Muslims have a strong commitment to continuing their religious tradition. There is a broad basis for cooperation and recognition of common goals and ideals. Circumcision and ritual slaughter are central to both faiths. Defeating attempts to ban them is in the interest of both Jews and Muslims. They should work together.

But Jewish-Muslim cooperation should not be made conditional upon the distancing of the State of Israel. Some rabbis might want to keep Israel out of the debate in Europe about circumcision and ritual slaughter in order to make it easier to work with Muslims. However, they pay a price for doing this by lending credence to baseless claims directed against Israel as though there were something shameful about Israel or Israeli policies.

Despite its many security challenges, Israel manages to maintain a robust and vibrant democracy that respects the religious rights of minorities. Europeans have much to learn from the Jewish state about upholding religious rights under difficult conditions.

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