The Jewish community in Holland has its roots in those who fled persecution and discrimination to a land that has become acclaimed for its freedom of religion and expression.
This freedom may be eroding, however, as a central component of Jewish life may be outlawed in the very near future.
The Dutch Parliament passed a bill last week that proscribes religious animal slaughter without prior sedation. If the Senate votes to ratify the measure, the effects on the centuries-old Jewish life in Holland and Europe will be incalculable.
In practice, it would mean an end to Jewish ritual slaughter, shechitah, in direct opposition to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, namely the right to freedom of religion.
This convention, drafted in 1950 following the nearly fulfilled Nazi attempt to destroy European Jewry, was meant to prevent future atrocities and human rights violations. One of the first enactments of the Nazis against the Jews of Europe was to proscribe shechitah.
Following the Holocaust, which wiped out nearly three-quarters of Dutch Jewry, Europe ruled that religious minorities should feel safe and free to practice their way of life unfettered and unhindered within Europe’s borders. This decree determined that freedom of religion can only be restricted when practices compromise other laws.
The proposed Dutch legislation is based on the flawed premise that shechitah causes additional, unnecessary pain to the animal than stunned slaughter. There is no scientific evidence to merit this conclusion. In fact, a study conducted at Wageningen University in Holland proved the opposite — that shechitah is more animal friendly than many other types of slaughter.
Professors and researchers from Europe, the United States and elsewhere concur and have demonstrated this in various studies. In the United States and Canada, the humaneness of shechitah is acknowledged in the Humane Methods of Animal Slaughter Legislation.
The debate surrounding the legislation is being conducted as if sedating an animal is an ideal, stress-free process without any expert reference to how much stress is caused to animals by sedation procedures as opposed to the stress of kosher slaughter without sedation.
The Jewish slaughterer must undergo extremely rigorous training that entails an expert slaughter with minimum pain for the animal. Good treatment of animals is an ancient guiding principle in Jewish law and tradition, and everything surrounding this principle is adhered to during the slaughter.
It is incumbent on Dutch legislators in the Senate to find a compromise that will allow shechitah to continue, in accordance with the freedom of religion, while attending to the important needs and requirements of animal welfare. If a compromise is not found and this bill becomes law, it could result in a dangerous domino effect that could spread to other parts of Europe.
If more nations in Europe, or the European Union itself, proscribe shechitah, it will further compromise a Jewish community already suffering from growing anti-Semitism and discrimination.
The Jews of Europe have endured millennia of slavery, expulsions, inquisitions and attempted genocides, but a ban on a central tenet of Jewish life, even if well meaning, could well spell disaster for the Jewish community.
If the oldest minority community in Europe is shaken in such a way, it would bode extremely poorly for other minorities, some not yet acclimatized to the European way of life.
Nothing less than the integral fabric of European life could be compromised if religious or national traditions that do not compromise other laws are proscribed. As Europe projects itself as a post-conflict continent that seeks to integrate vastly different histories and customs into a single union, it is incumbent that differences are embraced, not compromised.
If The Netherlands, with its reputation as a tolerant and open society, circumscribes a major facet of religious life, then surely we are on a downward spiral of intolerance and narrow-mindedness.
It was once said that “Compromise, if not the spice of life, is its solidity. It is what makes nations great.”
Holland has always been a great nation, especially for the Jewish people who traveled to its borders seeking sanctuary. It is vital that Dutch legislators seek a compromise before it is too late and the die is cast.
(Dr. Moshe Kantor is president of the European Jewish Congress.)