July 17, 2013
Poles ban kosher slaughter
In their Krakow home, Anna Makowka Kwapisiewicz and her husband, Piotr, skim through an online article about Poland’s recent ban on kosher slaughter.
What they find even more disturbing than the actual news are the comments posted by other readers.
Hundreds of comments calling on Jews to leave Poland have appeared beneath news articles in the days since the country’s parliament defeated a bill that would have reversed a ban on kosher slaughter, or shechitah, first imposed in January.
“The ban is bad enough because it’s the result of disinformation, but it opened the door to anti-Semitism that’s very evident in these comments,” said Piotr, who with his wife is a founding member of Czulent, an association of young Krakow Jews.
The shechitah ban and ensuing anti-Semitic outbursts come as painful reminders that despite years of government-led projects celebrating Jewish tradition, Poland still has a long way to go to become a place “where minorities feel at home and not just guests,” as Anna put it.
“There’s a view that Poland is a paradise for Jews,” Anna said. “But now everyone sees there’s no paradise and Poland is a country like all others. It needs to work on tolerance during difficult times, when populism and nationalism flourish throughout Europe.”
In January, a constitutional court, responding to a petition filed by animal welfare activists, outlawed religious slaughter in Poland. A law that would have reinstated shechitah was rejected by the Sjem, the Polish parliament, on July 12 by a vote of 222-178.
On July 16, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he had no plans to reintroduce legislation to lift the ban.
The Polish ban is not the first time a European country has put animal welfare concerns above the religious freedom of its Jewish and Muslim minorities.
In 2011, a large majority of the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a bill banning the practice, but it was scrapped by the Dutch Senate. Laws banning kosher slaughter also are on the books in Norway, Switzerland, Latvia, Sweden and Iceland.
The view of Poland as something of a Jewish paradise has been bolstered by initiatives such as Warsaw’s ambitious $100 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews and Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, a weeklong affair that attracts tens of thousands of participants — projects carried out with significant government support. Poland also is seen as a robust Israeli ally.
But the government has lagged on other issues of Jewish concern, like Holocaust restitution. It is the sole European country that does not offer private property restitution to survivors and their heirs.
Poland also has shown a worrying indifference to instances of anti-Semitism.
Last month, a prosecutor in the northern city of Bialystok called swastikas “symbols of prosperity” in explaining the refusal to investigate the painting of Nazi symbols on municipal property. Earlier that month, a Polish official said the courts were “powerless” to stop a declaredly anti-Semitic political party from running in elections.
In April, a survey found that 44 percent of 1,250 Warsaw teenagers polled said they would rather not have Jewish neighbors. More than 60 percent said they did not want Jewish spouses.
A year ago, Jonathan Orenstein, director of the Krakow Jewish Community Center, said in an interview that “there’s no better place to be Jewish” than Poland. Interviewed again this week, the New York-born Orenstein sounded less upbeat.
“For the first time in my 11 years in Poland, I feel that things are going backward,” he said.
Poland is home to some 25,000 Muslims, according to a 2010 U.S. government estimate, and a Jewish population of approximately 40,000, according to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the country’s American-born chief rabbi.
But Jews and Muslims are not the only ones affected by the ban, which has shut down the country’s robust export industry of kosher and halal meat. Estimates place the value of the ritual slaughter industry at more than $500 million.
“Yet the talk in media and online was about how the Jews should not be allowed to make money off the misery of animals,” said Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland. “This kind of talk created a very uncomfortable feeling.”
The ban has created a rift as well within the Jewish community. In the wake of the parliamentary vote last week, the director of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, called on Schudrich to resign. Representatives of two other European Jewish groups also said in interviews that they were dissatisfied with Schudrich’s performance in connection with the July 12 vote.
Schudrich said that Margolin’s words constituted “unwarranted hate,” adding that he had been in contact with the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis about the issue. Schudrich has said he would resign if the bill is not reversed.
Rabbi Shalom Ber Stambler, the Chabad movement’s emissary to Warsaw, said he believes this will happen because “there is enormous interest and good will toward Jews in Poland.”
Back in Krakow, Anna and Piotr are less certain.
“We are certainly working to make this happen through education and the struggle against intolerance, but there are no guarantees,” Anna said. “Not in Poland or anywhere else.”