One of the first acts of the Nazis after they came to power in Germany in 1933 was to ban shechita. The famous Nazi propaganda film “Der Ewige Jude” (“The Eternal Jew”) portrayed shechita as a gruesome Jew-ish celebration of animal suffering.
Despite this creepy history, contemporary advocates of the shechita and brit milah bans angrily deny they are motivated by anti-Semitism—in much the same way, and for the same reasons, that anti-Zionists present the cause of eliminating Israel as a legitimate human rights campaign. It is, of course, tiresome for them to have to deal with the charge of anti-Semitism every time they take aim at Jews as a collective, so they flip the equation by depicting themselves as victims of a malicious reputational smear.
The sad thing is, this approach often works. It feeds into the sentiments of those segments of the European public who regard anti-Semitism as a censorship tool — preventing them from protecting animals, babies, national reputations unfairly soiled during World War II and the right to condemn Israel for alleged human rights abuses.
To their great credit, Europe’s often-cautious Jewish leaders have rarely failed to condemn the anti-ritual campaign in the strongest of terms. Back in 2012, when 600 German doctors signed a letter to a prominent newspaper advocating a ban on circumcision, Charlotte Knobloch, then leader of the German-Jewish community, wondered aloud “whether this country still wants us.” When the Wallonia committee announced its ban on shechita last week, Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, called on “legislators to step back from the brink of the greatest assault on Jewish religious rights in Belgium since the Nazi occupation of the country in World War II.”
It may sound like bombast, but it isn’t. For 2,000 years in the diaspora, Jewish identity was preserved by adherence to these religious commands. This, in turn, bred the resentment of supersessionist Church theologians and, later on, universalist Enlightenment philosophers — both despised Jewish separateness even as their rulers enforced it through ghettoization and other discriminatory measures. From Martin Luther to Karl Marx, the imperative of ending the conditions for a separate Jewish existence — through means varying from outright persecution or conditional emancipation — has been a binding thread in European thought.
It follows logically that even in a modern democracy, a ban on the core rituals making Jews Jewish — and Muslims Muslim — effectively ends the conditions for a separate existence as a Jewish community. It’s true that many Jews don’t keep kosher, but virtually all Jewish males are circumcised, regardless of their family’s degree of religious observance. Ending the right to engage in those practices poses a choice: stay if you are willing to obey the law, leave if you are not.
Norway and Belgium are not the only countries where political battles over Jewish rites have erupted. Shechita is outlawed in Poland, New Zealand and Switzerland, among others, while nasty public campaigns against circumcision have been seen in San Francisco on one half of the globe, and Oslo on the other. The campaign advances in fits and starts, but it is always there, and is present among liberals and nationalists alike.
American Jews are fortunate to live with a constitution clearly demarcating religion and state. European Jews don’t have such clear guidelines, and therefore become hostages to the fortune of political clashes in which their freedom of worship is just one consideration among many.