'This is the stupidest thing they could do'

Polish lawmaker backs Jews fighting proposed ritual slaughter ban

As the government prepares to vote on animal-rights legislation to prohibit kosher and halal slaughter, opposition lawmaker Michal Kaminski says country is ‘making a mistake’

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

A consumer buys meat in Warsaw, Poland, Friday July 9, 2004. After Poland joined the European Union on May 1st, food prices increased in the country, with the sharpest rise,  21.7 percent, for meat.(AP/Alik Keplicz)
A consumer buys meat in Warsaw, Poland, Friday July 9, 2004. After Poland joined the European Union on May 1st, food prices increased in the country, with the sharpest rise, 21.7 percent, for meat.(AP/Alik Keplicz)

As the Polish parliament gears up to vote next week on legislation that may effectively ban ritual slaughter in the country, one opposition MP wants the Jewish community to know he’s on their side.

“I think my country is making a mistake. I cannot understand it. I think this is the stupidest thing they could do,” Michal Kaminski of the Union of European Democrats (UED) told The Times of Israel.

“I think they destroyed the very good relations between the Polish and Jewish people that has grown since Polish independence,” he said in an interview.

Poland is currently a large exporter of kosher and halal meat across Europe, Turkey and Israel. Similar legislation was passed in early 2013, resulting in a hiatus on all kosher and halal animal slaughter until the law was overturned by the constitutional court in late 2014.

“These restrictions on kosher slaughter are in complete contradiction to the principle of freedom of religion of the European Union,” said European Jewish Association (EJA) Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin.

“I call on the Polish government to not legislate this shameful law and to take into consideration that the Jewish people’s trust in the Polish leadership is deteriorating. I don’t want to imagine what the next stage will be after legislating the Holocaust Law and putting limits on kosher slaughter in the country,” he said.

Michal Kaminski of the Union of European Democrats. (Adrian Grycuk/CC-SA)

The potential slaughter ban comes on the heels of the controversial “Holocaust bill” ratified earlier this month that could ostensibly impose jail time of up to three years on “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich,” according to the language of the bill.

Since the law passed, Jews in Poland and around the world have bristled, and Israel issued a series of rare reprimands against its ally. There has also been an increasing amount of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Polish media in response to Jewish pushback against the Holocaust bill.

A journalist for one of Poland’s largest radio stations posted on Facebook about a “war with the Jews”; the state-run television station tweeted that the Jews opposed the law because they wanted to seize Polish property (and then subsequently apologized to the Israeli ambassador); and a former priest distributed and sold t-shirts denying responsibility for a Polish-perpetrated pogrom against Jews under the German occupation.

Still, Kaminski emphasizes that the anti-ritual slaughter legislation, which has been raised numerous times over the last months, is neither a reprisal for outspoken opposition to the Holocaust bill nor does it stem from anti-Semitic motives.

“I’m in deepest opposition to this government,” said Kaminski, “but I absolutely believe they are not anti-Semites. I think – I hope – they are decent people.”

A matter of animal rights, not religious freedom

Kraków-based Klaudia Klimek, chairperson of the Social-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland and chief of staff for UED, agreed that the primary focus of the legislation isn’t ritual slaughter, but animal rights in general. She said that most of the bill deals with issues such as fur production and animal cruelty by pet owners.

Klaudia Klimek heads up the Warsaw wing of Poland’s largest Jewish cultural organization, the TSKZ. (courtesy)

“The main thing is that there should be a stipulation that allows kosher slaughter for the country’s religious communities,” she said. “But as long as the local communities are able to practice freedom of religion, then if that’s what Polish society wants – if they want to have a humanitarian way of killing animals, you can’t really say no. I mean, other countries also have those kinds of laws.”

It is also unclear whether the proposed law would completely ban the ritual slaughter of animals, or if it would just affect the commercial production and export of kosher and halal meat. The bill has undergone several changes since its introduction in October, and legislators are reportedly still unsure exactly what they’ll be voting on next week.

Illustrative: Ritually slaughtered meat being processed at a hallal slaughterhouse near Warsaw in 2011. (photo credit: Courtesy of Zaklady Miesne Mokobody/JTA)

“We’ll only know next week when we get the official text of the bill, but as far as we know right now, there is no provision [to allow ritual slaughter] for the local community,” said Klimek.

The EJA said in a statement, however, that even if the bill only targeted large commercial exporters of meat while allowing the local Jewish community to continue ritual slaughter on a smaller scale, this would affect Jewish communities across Europe.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin (courtesy European Jewish Association)

But keeping it local, Klimek said that the Jewish and Muslim communities in Poland are small enough not to need factories to produce enough kosher and halal meat to feed the Polish population. Likewise, though prices might go up if the commercial slaughterhouses are moved elsewhere, that might not exactly spell disaster for observant Jews on the continent and may indeed be a needed boon for animal rights.

“When we imagine kosher slaughter, we think about the shochet [ritual slaughterer] standing in front of the cow, making his knife very perfect, cutting in a smooth move, and the animal goes to sleep,” Klimek said.

“That’s what we have in our heads,” she said. “But that’s not what is happening in the factories. Animals know that they’re going to be killed. They’re listening to each other because they’re not knocked unconscious [before being killed], so they know something bad is about to happen.

“They’re upside down in these metal cages, and nobody is checking if the cutting was done well or not, so if it wasn’t done well, the animal is sometimes choking to death rather than bleeding out. Nothing nice is happening there.”

Other countries could pick up the knife

While prices on kosher meat in Israel and parts of Europe might go up temporarily if ritual slaughter were to be banned in Poland, another similarly-positioned country in central Europe could potentially pick up the slack. When there was no kosher meat production in Poland from 2013 to 2014, Lithuania made a strong bid to act as a replacement.

A butcher at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv (Photo credit Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)
Illustrative: A butcher at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv (Photo credit Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)

France and Britain are among the countries that would be most affected were commercial production of kosher meat to temporarily cease, but any repercussions would likely not have a tremendous impact on the relatively large markets.

Shechita UK, an advocacy group that seeks to protect the Jewish right to ritual slaughter, is keeping tabs on the situation. The group kept comments to a minimum as discussions about the bill continue to take place behind closed doors.

“We have been working closely with Polish Chief Rabbi [Michael] Schudrich and are monitoring this situation as it develops,” a Shechita UK spokesman told The Times of Israel.

Meanwhile, Klimek suggests that the ritual slaughter law simply be removed from the larger animal rights bill and voted on independently as a bill of its own. She said that this would make sense because ritual slaughter is a religious issue, and also because as it stands now, lawmakers are likely to feel pressured to vote to ban ritual slaughter simply because it’s part of the larger animal rights package.

She said by separating it from blatantly immoral issues such as animal abuse by pet owners, the ritual slaughter bill law could be voted on based on its own merits.

“I think voting on it as a standalone issue would help people approach the topic in a fair way,” Klimek said. “This would be the most fair thing for the Jewish community, the meat producers, and the parliamentarians.”

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