I say that as a secular Jew, one who does not eat kosher meat. I was raised in Eastern Europe, in Romania, where Communism nearly obliterated what was left of Jewish life after the Shoah. I was one of those Jews, who like many in the region had Christmas trees alongside their Chanukkiah. My parents – as their parents – are not well versed in Jewish liturgy. Our home – while deeply embracing our Jewish identity, was empty of regular Jewish practice.
Yet, Jewish religious freedom is personal to me; it’s personal to all Jews. We know the history of suffering and indignities that our ancestors have endured to preserve that freedom. And we know the richness of thought and culture, of philosophy and tradition that has stemmed and continues to stem out of Judaism, binding Jews of all stripes together worldwide, and shaping, without a shadow of doubt, the European ethos – it’s values and principles, as we know them today.
I, like most Jewish Europeans, love Europe. This is not merely anecdotal. Multiple surveys of Jewish Europeans confirm this attachment, which is often greater than that of non-Jewish Europeans. And how could that not be so? Post-WWII Europe is founded on a promise to safeguard Jewish life and to celebrate it as part of European life; a promise to nurture pluralism and diversity; a promise to protect fundamental freedoms. That is a Europe that the dwindling Jewish community after the war decided to embrace – that was our home, and in this new Europe we could bring forth a Jewish renaissance.
That is why today’s ruling bore down so heavily. The ruling grants EU countries the right to require further restrictions on religious slaughter of animals, a core tenant of Judaism – one that has animal welfare at its core. It comes on the back of a prior ruling in Belgium, that granted such restrictions, balancing religious freedom and animal safety and favoring the latter. Today’s ruling though, had to deal with another balancing act: this time, religious freedom was weighed against the member states rights and jurisdiction. This ruling too favored the latter. It went against the recommendations made by the Advocate General (AG) to the ECJ, that such a ruling would be a disproportionate infringement of fundamental rights. In both cases, the fundamental right to freedom of religion had a negligible weight.
At best, the decision shows an utter lack of understanding and empathy for the essential place that the preservation of certain religious laws – such as ritual slaughter – occupies in one’s religious expression, in one’s faith and sense of self, in one’s communal affiliation and feeling of belonging and of course, in the collective identity and manifestation of a community. At worst, it is a not-too-subtle message: “You don’t belong”, to Jewish as well as Muslim communities throughout Europe – ergo, to millions of Europeans.
The feeling I have today is one I’ve had too often – disappointment, otherness, frustration. Yet it is nothing compared to what practicing religious Jews are experiencing today. For them, Jewish life is, as of today, effectively limited. Families may choose to relocate. Their sense of safety in society will undoubtably be diminished.
Just the other week, the Council of the European Union produced a unanimous declaration reaffirming states’ commitment to safeguarding Jewish life in Europe. It’s worth repeating part of it here:
Judaism and Jewish life have contributed considerably to shaping European identity and enriching Europe’s cultural, intellectual and religious heritage. We are grateful that 75 years after the Holocaust, Jewish life, in all its diversity, is deeply rooted and thriving again in Europe. It is our permanent, shared responsibility to actively protect and support Jewish life.
If the Court of Justice ruling is to stand alongside the above declaration – we need a new framework for religious freedom in the EU.