The Swiss government has launched a campaign to end a century-old law barring Jewish ritual slaughter.
Launched by Economics Minister Pasqual Couchepin, the campaign has created a heated outcry against any lessening of the prohibition.
It also prompted fears of a widespread anti-Semitic backlash in a country that has experienced such backlashes in recent years, after Switzerland came under international pressure to settle a variety of Holocaust-related claims.
In a recent newspaper interview, Couchepin admitted to some surprise at the stir his proposal has caused. But he said the move to allow ritual slaughter must be seen as a human rights issue.
Noting that an European Union tribunal ruled that the right to perform shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) must be respected, he added, "We must decide whether we want to stand on the side of human rights."
Shechita is widely believed to be a humane form of slaughter. But proponents of the Swiss law believe otherwise.
Most European countries -- with the exception of Switzerland and Sweden -- permit shechita.
Animal rights groups, who have lobbied actively on the subject, have threatened to seek a national referendum if the government seeks to allow shechita. The electorate has the right under Swiss law to hold a referendum on almost any legislative initiative.
Observers believe the move to allow shechita would be defeated in a referendum. A recent government-sponsored survey showed that all the Swiss cantons, or states, are against allowing shechita.
Some historians maintain that the original law, which went into effect in 1893, was drafted because of anti-Semitism, not to protect animals.
Since the government launched the initiative, Swiss newspapers have been flooded with letters from animal rights supporters backing the existing prohibition. Many of the letters have anti-Semitic overtones, with some referring to shechita as a "holocaust of the animals."
Most editorials in Swiss papers speak out against changing the law. A campaign against overturning the law recently was launched by Erwin Kessler, who had been sentenced to several months imprisonment by the Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne for anti-Semitic offenses.
Alfred Donath, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities, has called for an end to "the discriminating law."
But many Swiss Jews are concerned that the government campaign may only increase anti-Semitism.
"We have to ask ourselves if a new wave of anti-Semitism is in our interests," Peter Abelin wrote in the Jewish magazine Tachles.