Vienna without kosher Wiener schnitzel? It could happen soon, according to a flurry of reports Wednesday, which claimed Jews will have to register to get kosher meat.
The tale appears to be a whopper, though, or at least a partial one, and Austrian Jewry will most likely not face major restrictions on the slaughter and sale of kosher meat.
The plan by a regional politician to limit ritual slaughter is causing a veritable political food fight in Austria, with members of various parties slinging accusations at each other. The Jewish community, predictably, finds itself smack in the middle of the mess.
The brouhaha started on July 5, when the secretary-general of Austria’s Jewish community received a lengthy email from an official representing the regional government of Lower Austria, an important state in the country’s northeast.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times of Israel, starts by stating that while killing animals without prior anesthetization is illegal, ritual slaughter, known as shehita (Schächten in German), is protected by a law guaranteeing freedom of religion.
However, the official went on, the law allows exceptions only if there are “compulsory religious reasons” for it. Whether slaughtering without previously stunning the animal is really needed for one’s religious obligations “is always based on the individual case and the specific person,” the letter argues.
In other words: While for some Jews — those who truly observe dietary laws — shehita is indeed religiously compulsory, others do not keep kosher so scrupulously and therefore have no right to take advantage of the exception to the law on animal welfare. For some it may be acceptable to eat meat of animals that were stunned before their throats are cut, the official explained. Others may be okay with consuming meat of animals that were stunned right after the cut.
This is an attack on a basic pillar of Jewish life and religious freedom
Either way, only individuals whose religious conscience requires the animal not be stunned at all have the right to acquire meat slaughtered that way, the official wrote in his email. He goes on to list several “requirements” for the purchase of kosher meat: For one, a “personal declaration” is needed in which a person will have to state that shehita is religiously compulsory for him.
In practice, this would mean that authorities in Lower Austria would have to establish a list of people who keep kosher.
Furthermore, the guidelines, which are the brainchild of Gottfried Waldhäusl, a member of the regional parliament for the far-right Freedom Party, require consumers of kosher meat produced in Lower Austria to have their main residence in that state.
Few Jews live in Lower Austria, but it is there that most of the kosher meat consumed in neighboring Vienna is slaughtered. Some 95 percent of Austria’s 12,000-15,000 Jews live in the capital.
The Israeli government and the Austrian Jewish community boycott the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, due its alleged failure to distance itself from its past as a haven for Nazis and neo-Nazis.
On Monday, Oskar Deutsch, the head of Austria’s Jewish community, informed fellow senior community members of Waldhäusl’s plan. The next day, details about the new guidelines and the Jewish community’s concerns were first reported on in local newspapers.
Waldhäusl, who holds the portfolio for animal welfare in the regional government of Lower Austria and has long agitated against ritual slaughter, responded to media inquiries by saying the Jews’ worries were “exaggerated.” He never intended for shehita to be forbidden but merely wants “to limit it as much as possible,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the Jewish community was up in arms and vowed to resist. “This is an attack on a basic pillar of Jewish life and religious freedom,” Deutsch told The Times of Israel on Tuesday evening. “We will not produce lists of Jews, nor will we tolerate this.”
Deutsch charged that the FPOe was bent on violating the status quo after a good legislative compromise between animal welfare and religious needs had been reached a few years ago.
Deutsch on Tuesday evening spoke with Lower Austria Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner, of the center-right People’s Party, who assured him that she would stop all efforts to limit the availability of kosher meat.
Another senior member of the People’s Party’s regional branch promised that nobody will have to register anywhere to buy kosher meat. A solution will be found that will take the Jewish community’s concerns into consideration, he pledged.
The Social Democrats thought of it first
With the evil decree averted, this chapter could have been closed at this point. But both the Jewish community and political rivals of the FPOe were quick to criticize the party for its alleged anti-Semitism.
“This attack of the Jewish way of life — and Waldhäusl yesterday poured oil unto the flames — shows what kind of thinking many people in the FPOe have,” Deutsch told The Times of Israel on Wednesday morning. “We issued warnings about this, and we must remain vigilant.”
Waldhäusl needs to resign immediately, he demanded. If he doesn’t like Austrian laws, Deutsch added, “he can go elsewhere.”
Former chancellor and current opposition leader Christian Kern also seized the opportunity to slam the FPOe.
The proposed registration of observant Jews (and Muslims, who also require animals to be slaughtered without prior anesthetization) “reminds one of the darkest chapter in our history,” he wrote on Facebook Wednesday morning.
If the FPOe’s Waldhäusl had any decency he would immediately resign, Kern, the head of Austria’s Social Democratic Party, went on. Much worse, though, was the “deafening silence” of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in the face of the Freedom Party’s “permanent attacks against the pillars of our republic,” the former chancellor added.
The FPOe is the top coalition partner of Kurz’s People’s Party.
Just moments later, an Austrian newspaper reported that the idea to limit ritual slaughter did not originate with Waldhäusl but with his predecessor — a member of Kern’s Social Democrats.
In September 2017, Maurice Androsch, who at the time was in charge of animal welfare in Lower Austria and today is a member of the national parliament, demanded “evidence” of a person’s religious beliefs if he or she wanted to be exempt from the prohibition of slaughtering unstunned animals, according to the report [German].
“The applicant must belong to a religious community (stream) that considers shehita as part of religious practice,” the paper quotes him as writing in a widely circulated proposal.
Androsch furthermore wanted to create a “register of members” and a note with a declaration of faith that proves beyond a doubt a person’s need for ritually slaughtered meat.
The irony was not lost on FPOe members, one of whom immediately took to Twitter to ask Kern if he still demands the heads of politicians seeking to limit ritual slaughter.
The Jewish community, too, demanded consequences for Androsch. “His resignation would be unavoidable” if the claims made by the paper turn out to be true, Deutsch wrote on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Androsch defended himself by arguing that his note from 2017 had nothing in common with Waldhäusl’s proposal.
While Waldhäusl wanted to create a list of people who want to buy ritually slaughtered meat, he merely addressed the requirements to be met by people who actually perform the shehita, Androsch argued in a newspaper interview.
These people need to be certified by a religious community recognized by the state and prove that certain religious rules need to be observed, Androsch said.
At the time of this writing, it remains unclear how many, if any, heads will roll because of this saga. But the noise it has already created likely guarantees Austrian Jews’ supply of kosher wieners for the foreseeable future.