Future of Jewish religious freedom hangs in balance in EU -opinion

Regarding Jewish religious freedom, tolerance of belief and speech is not enough.

A Star of David necklace. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
A Star of David necklace.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Nowadays, for the most part, Europe is a continent where citizens enjoy basic freedoms. After all, Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights proclaim the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and freedom of expression for its residents. Next week, there is an EU-wide conference in Brussels to discuss and celebrate these rights and freedoms, and I have been honored with the opportunity to address the plenary. 

Unbeknown to many, there is a snag to these freedoms and rights, and it’s not a small one. Such freedom is not, strictly speaking, the case. Jewish religious life is in a quite precarious state. While Jewish communities have undoubtedly thrived and flourished over the past several decades, legally and legislatively protecting our religious freedoms across the continent remains a real challenge: Jewish practices remain under threat.

Tolerance in Christian Europe

Historically, in Christian Europe, religion was primarily about doctrines and beliefs, words and ideas. So, when the Enlightenment notion of freedom of religion took hold, it essentially meant the freedom to think and speak whatever you want, to believe or disbelieve. As Voltaire wrote, “I wholly disagree with what you say but I will contend to the death for your right to say it.” This type of freedom of religion, certainly a blessing, works well in a Christian context.

Yet herein lies the problem. Regarding Jewish religious freedom, tolerance of belief and speech is not enough. Judaism is not only about speech, study, and belief but, crucially, it is also about praxis. Jewish religious life is pervaded with practices and laws: brit milah, shechita (ritual slaughter), Jewish education, Shabbat observance and dress are all crucial parts of our religion.

We require not only the freedom to believe and say want we want, as Voltaire would have it, but also the right to act how we want, provided, of course, that we do no harm to others. The practical performances observant Jews observe are not explicitly protected by law and in recent years, have been challenged and in some cases actually banned by countries that fully subscribe to the aforementioned European Convention on Human Rights. 

 SOCIETY SHOULD welcome different faith groups, lifestyles and values, and allow them to all coexist together. However, that means that one must be sensitive to issues facing faith groups, says the writer.  (credit: Shimon Cohen/Shechita UK) SOCIETY SHOULD welcome different faith groups, lifestyles and values, and allow them to all coexist together. However, that means that one must be sensitive to issues facing faith groups, says the writer. (credit: Shimon Cohen/Shechita UK)

Tolerance for Jewish ideas, not action

THE CURRENT charters and declarations of freedom of religion or belief are wholly inadequate for Jewish people, whose religion is focused on practical laws and observances, often different from the norms of society. When it comes to religious freedoms, it is our practical laws that need to be protected. Jews, for example, should not have to fear the banning of kosher meat production through legislation that ignores Jewish religious practice, as they currently do. 

One slip of the pen in an agriculture or animal welfare bill in the British Parliament, for example, could effectively ban kosher slaughter in Britain. In an age where freedom of religion reigns high, we nevertheless continuously fight bans or limits to shechita in bills, white papers and parliamentary debates to ensure that Jewish households in the UK can eat kosher meat. The same is true in mainland Europe too.

In January 2019, Belgium’s Flemish and Wallonia regional parliaments passed a law requiring abattoirs to mechanically stun livestock before slaughtering them. Thus ended shechita in Antwerp’s bustling, sizable Jewish community. Loyal, law-abiding, contributing Belgian citizens were neither consulted nor consented. A vital aspect of Jewish life has been ripped away, leaving Belgian Jews to import their meat.

The judges argued that they were “protecting animal welfare, ”a judgment, they claimed, of kindness and concern for animals. The 2019 ban in Antwerp was swiftly followed by Greece; although it stopped short of enacting a ban, the country did obtain a legal ruling that would allow them so to do. Finland, too, has tabled a bill in its parliament that if enacted as it stands, would see shechita forbidden.

Society should welcome different faith groups, lifestyles and values, and allow them to all coexist together. However, that means that one must be sensitive to issues facing faith groups. That is the complexity of a multi-faith society. Religious settings, yeshivas, should not suffer threats of closures just because authorities do not know how to police some parents who have committed to home-schooling their children. 

Problems should be tackled at their source, and harsh solutions should not unjustly be swung at religious institutions as the easy target. Additionally, one faith group should not fall into a catch-all clause in the law, impinging on their rights, simply as collateral damage because of the need to regulate another group.

Jewish religious freedom on the chopping block

THERE IS A further problem regarding how “Freedom of Religion or Belief” is being proclaimed nowadays. These rights are used in an absolute sense. Campaigners are now advocating a subjective hierarchy of rights, to the exclusion of the rights and value-judgments of others different from them.

Tim Stanley, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph recently observed, “Many liberals see diversity not as an end in itself but as a method, a means, of compelling churches to shed old ideas and embrace modernity. I’ve noticed that people who most loudly say they want diversity usually don’t, because if they did, they would respect the right of religious communities to believe unfashionable things. Instead, they pressure them to change. Today, paradoxically, liberals are campaigning for a diverse world in which everyone thinks exactly the same.”

Even within our own community, some leaders publicly advocate against and consequently seek to eradicate Jewish observance for traditional Jews as well. They demand rights for their minority to the exclusion of the rights of other minorities. Secularist groups too are pushing for the rights they hold dear to be considered the most important for all communities, particularly regarding education. All communities, they thunder, must think, teach, act and live as they do.

True freedom means that everyone should be able to lead their own religious life, so long as they are at peace with their neighbors. Each communities’ particular rights or lifestyles should be respected. That is true diversity and freedom of religion and belief. Our age-old obligations “to study and do, protect and practice” need to be respected more widely and safeguarded by explicit legislation. Only then will we have been listened to.

I am very proud to work together with the Conference of European Rabbis, Shechita UK/EU, the European Jewish Congress and the support of the World Jewish Congress team to advocate for these crucial Jewish religious freedoms to be safeguarded within European law. We need these lobby groups precisely because these freedoms are not yet explicitly protected in law.

The EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life 2021-2030 recognizes that Jewish communities can only exist and thrive in Europe if they are able to enjoy the freedom to practice their religion, protecting their religious requirements, traditions and customs. 

It is high time that the law across European member states and the UK reflect that, allowing people to not only say what they want, but also to live fully in accordance with their faith. That is why I will be in Brussels at the EU’s conference, advocating for these much-needed changes.

The writer, campaign director of Shechita UK, will be speaking on Jewish religious freedoms in the EU, at the one-day conference next Thursday.