Depending on the decisions of the Dutch parliament, this year’s High Holidays may be the last in which the Dutch Jewish community was able to consume kosher meat that was ritually slaughtered in the Netherlands. And a public debate about circumcision is next.
What’s going on? In a country known for its freedom and tolerance, freedom of religion seems to be increasingly in jeopardy.
There was an upheaval last June in the Dutch Jewish community when the lower house of parliament passed a bill against ritual slaughter. But that upheaval was nothing compared to a more recent one that arose earlier this month when daily newspapers ran an essay by the Royal Dutch Medical Association that discouraged “non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors.”
For both the Dutch Muslim community (numbering roughly one million people) and the Dutch Jewish community (numbering 50,000, including some 10,000 Israelis), the furors over ritual slaughter and circumcision have created a precarious situation.
The bill against shchitah (ritual slaughter) was initiated by the only pro-animal party in Europe that focuses entirely on animal rights. This bill, proposed by the Dutch Party for Animals, must still be approved by the senate and the government. The party includes only two of the 150 members in the parliament, but it nevertheless succeeded in convincing a vast majority to vote against ritual slaughter without first stunning the animals.
About 3,000 animals are slaughtered every year for the Jewish community, which is less than 0.001 per cent of all the animals killed for food in the Netherlands on a yearly basis.
“One might think that this possible ban on shchitah may only have an impact on the roughly 500 families that buy kosher meat in the country. But it stands for much more,” says Rabbi Lody van de Kamp, a former shochet (ritual slaughterer) who is currently principal of the Orthodox Jewish day school in Amsterdam and an adviser to the Amsterdam city council on communal issues involving diversity and integration. In this capacity, he works with representatives of the Dutch Muslim community.
“What’s going on with ritual slaughter is indicative for the secularization of Dutch society,” Rabbi van de Kamp said, adding, “The bill is not explicitly antisemitic. But it does create an atmosphere where it becomes more and more awkward and uncomfortable to live a religious life. There has also been some talk against brit milah (circumcision) over the years. Sooner or later, we anticipated circumcision to become topical again as a followup to the shchitah issue, but we did not expect it this soon.”
“It is remarkable, to say the least, that this particular newspaper essay was launched exactly around the start of the new parliamentary year,” said Ibrahim Wijbenga, chair of the Dutch Islamic Burial Society, born in Holland and the son of a Moroccan mother and Dutch father. He works closely with the Dutch Jewish community, among them Rabbi van de Kamp, since they share a common interest these days.
“While both our communities, with the Jewish community in the front line, are still working very hard to prevent ritual slaughter from being banned, we have to deal with the alarming situation around circumcision as well. It looks like the medical association, which dismisses circumcision as a religious expression, is taking advantage of the current anti-religious climate.
“The proposed ban on ritual slaughter may be seen as a first step in a continuing series of restrictions,” Wijbenga said.
The writer of the newspaper essay in question takes a different view. “This has absolutely nothing to do with anti-religious feelings whatsoever, let alone antisemitic sentiments,” said Gert van Dijk, a philosopher at the Royal Dutch Medical Association. “It is purely coincidental that it is being published after the issue around ritual slaughter came up. They have nothing to do with each other. The only thing they may have in common is concern about and respect for the rights of both animals and children.
“This fits in [with] a current tendency within society – and not only in Holland.”
Is van Dijk aware of the impact this may have on the Muslim community, and certainly the Jewish community? Jews, after all, have lived for almost 400 years in the Netherlands with a great degree of cultural and religious freedom; the exception was during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945, when shchitah was prohibited [and almost 80 per cent of the Jewish community was killed].
“I realize it touches the heart of religion,” van Dijk said, “but we do not plan to ask for a ban on circumcision, as this may cause people to perform circumcision in an illegal way at the kitchen table, for instance, with a knife. And we do not intend to stop doctors from performing the surgery either. We merely want parents to doubt, to question what harm they may do to their sons by having them circumcised.
“At the same time, religious leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities and the communities themselves must realize that, these days, this practice of circumcision is considered as mutilation of children and evokes reluctance in society. This may cause estrangement and alienation between these religious groups and the rest of society. And within the Muslim and Jewish communities, one may also find an increasing number of people who are critical about this custom, which we hope will eventually be abolished,” van Dijk concluded.
Ron van der Wieken, president of the Progressive Jewish Community of Amsterdam and a retired cardiologist, is bewildered by this sharply negative point of view on circumcision. “This is such an incredibly arrogant attitude, which proves how one-dimensionally these medical doctors think. They just think on a somatic, physical level and have no clue about spirituality. These people don’t know what they are talking about and how harmful their way of thinking is to us on an emotional level. Basically, it is none of their business. Circumcision in our tradition is not a surgical procedure, but a basic and all-important religious act with medical aspects,” he said.
“Although this medical organization may state rather sanctimoniously that it only wants to discourage the practice of circumcision of minors, I’m afraid it may only be a matter of time before the topic of outlawing brit milah will be discussed in the political arena.”
Of the 10 political parties in the Dutch parliament, the Christian Union was one of the few that voted against a ban on kosher slaughter. And Christian Union member of parliament Esme Wiegman was the only politician who visited the slaughterhouse to witness shchitah.
“Of course, it is basically never pleasant to see anything like this,” Wiegman noted. “But I must say I was impressed how cautiously and quickly this was performed. It was performed in a setting that did not cause perceptible stress to the animal, which I find very important.
“This whole thing about pre-stunning is utterly absurd,” she said. “It has nothing to do with animal well-being, as the animal party and most other political parties claim…
“And this bill against ritual slaughter is out of proportion. It touches the very heart of freedom of religion, which ultimately may affect me as a Christian, as well. So I will be on guard in case the issue of circumcision is next on the agenda. I won’t accept it.”
Among the many political parties that advocated a ban on ritual slaughter was Geert Wilders’s Freedom party, which claims to be both pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.
“Isn’t that interesting?” van der Wieken remarked. “I don’t exactly know the number, but there were even some Jews who have voted for this so-called Freedom party – a party which is rabidly anti-Islam – in the mistaken assumption, that ‘the enemies of my enemies are my friends.’ The Freedom party thought the opportunity to hurt the Muslims by forbidding ritual slaughter so irresistible that they sacrificed us Jews, without blinking an eye. They considered us collateral damage.”
“It is shocking to see how the political climate against us has changed over the past 10 years, with the Jews becoming a victim of Islamophobia,” Wijbenga said of the Jewish-Muslim connections. He highly values this co-operation with the Jewish community. “The Jewish community has a lead on us, as they have been living in Holland so much longer and are much more organized and sophisticated than we are. We are very eager to learn from them.”
Rob Cassuto, a psychologist, vegetarian and committed member of the Progressive Jewish Community, is suspicious of the intentions of the animal party and its explicit focus on banning shchitah.
“A consequence of the increasing secularization in our Dutch society is a large, secular, liberal, anonymous group in the middle that tends, intentionally or unintentionally, to impose its norms on every citizen. Due to this, there is less and less space for cultural and religious minorities,” Cassuto said. “I think it is one of the results of 9/11, which made strangers into a menace. Dissenting views are no longer considered appropriate. This creates a new intolerance. Democracy is getting mixed up with a dictatorship of majority.”
But “at the same time, the paradox is that this broad middle way has acquired a voice to speak up – even more nowadays by means of the new social media – and could possibly form a protection against real extremist positions, such as fascist tendencies.”
On the issue of shchitah, how does Daniel Ritsma, board member of the Federation of Dutch Orthodox Jewish Communities, assess the possible impact of the shchitah legislation if it becomes law?
“I still believe we have a fair chance to continue our ritual slaughter,” he said, basing this optimistic view on the requirement by the Party for Animal Rights that the Jewish community be able to obtain a licence for five years if it can provide scientific proof that unstunned slaughter is not more painful than typical slaughter practices. “We have confidence this will work out in our favour.”
But in a worst-case scenario in which shchitah is ultimately prohibited in the Netherlands, kosher meat will have to be imported from other European countries, including Belgium, France and Britain, which will make kosher meat much more expensive. In a number of European countries, shchitah has already been banned for years, among them Switzerland and Scandinavian countries. And nobody knows to what extent other European countries may be influenced by what is now happening in the Netherlands.
“If the worst comes to worst we will have to fight a possible ban on shchitah in a European court. But it may not go that far,” Ritsma said.
Other factors favouring the continuation of shchitah in Holland are government supervision and working conditions in the food industry, which, Ritsma said, are better than elsewhere in Europe. “The Jews in the Netherlands are stuck between two phenomena: on one hand, anti-religious, intellectual enlightenment thinking. On the other hand, hatred against Muslims. The bottom line is, we have to come to terms with an environment that allows us to be Jewish, as long as we do not differ from the majority in our way of living.”