For many of Belgium’s 30,000 Jews, 2019 brought with it some uncomfortable restrictions. A law proposed in June 2017, now implemented after a unanimous vote, has outlawed shechita (ritual Kosher slaughter) in their country.
“The law in Flanders [the northern region of Belgium, home to most of the country’s Jewish communities and all of its nineteen Chabad centers] was born of a 2014 public debate about the slaughter of animals by Muslims in unregulated slaughterhouses,” reports The Times of Israel. It follows a recent trend in Western Europe where animal welfare and child welfare activists have formed unlikely alliances with individuals and politicians critical of the impact of mass immigration to Europe by Muslims.
The law states that all animals must be stunned before slaughter, a rule that precludes kosher and halal slaughter, both of which require that the animal be in perfect health at the time of slaughter. The laws of Jewish ritual slaughter are predicated on the belief that swift killing with a perfectly smooth blade is the most humane.
“The ban affects the Muslim community more than us as we already import most of our meat,” says Rabbi Yehuda Reichman of Chabad in Brussels. The Jewish community can import meat customs-free from countries within the EU bloc, but it is feared that the new laws will affect supply and thereby prices.
In Antwerp the community holds to meticulous kosher standards that stipulate that all meat must be prepared by locally recognized shochtim (those trained in the laws of shechita). They have moved their chicken processing 300 miles away to Strasbourg, France and in the first week there was still no poultry in kosher supermarkets as of Wednesday. “People were getting anxious as it was getting closer to Shabbat, but we just got texts with the exciting news that ‘chickens have arrived,’” Rabbi Yossi Slavaticki of Chabad in Antwerp told Lubavitch International. He says that his community members, some who only recently decided to start keeping kosher dietary laws, have expressed concern about the increased difficulty. “Yes, it’s harder,” he says he told them, “but we will still find a way and we will overcome this difficulty too.”
Yet while Chabad rabbis and Belgian communities seem to be taking the pragmatic approach, there are those who share concern at the bigger picture this paints. Though for now ritual slaughter of animals is allowed in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Russia, where the vast majority of Europe’s Jews live, Belgium has joined a long list of countries, including Switzerland and Norway where the practice is now banned.
Meanwhile, the Jewish communities of Belgium are doing what they can to stop the ban that is due to come into effect in the rest of the country in September. They are also working with local and European organizations to ensure that other religious practices will not be encroached.
“We are worried that from shechita (kosher slaughter), they will move on to ban bris milah (circumcision) and the wearing of religious garments,” says Rabbi Reichman.
When asked whether these fears will compel Jews to leave Belgium and join the growing trend of European Jews emigrating to Israel, both rabbis acknowledged the possibility while remaining resolute in their mission. “People may leave, though we haven’t seen a big movement in that direction, but we are here to bring the spiritual nourishment of Judaism to every Jew and we will be here until we reach that goal,” says Rabbi Slavaticki.