Jewish groups voiced outrage on Friday after Poland's parliament rejected a government-backed bill that would have allowed slaughterhouses to produce kosher meat, angering Jewish groups who said the decision violated their religious rights.
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Lawmakers who opposed the bill said they did so because kosher slaughter is cruel to livestock. Jewish groups said prejudice about their faith – a sensitive subject in a country where occupying Nazis killed millions of Jews – had played a part.
"Populism, superstition and political interests won out," said Piotr Kadlcik, who heads the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland. "It looks like we've made a full circle and are heading back to what happened in Poland and Germany in the 1930s."
Usually, slaughterhouses stun livestock before killing them, while kosher rites demand an animal is killed by slitting its throat while it is alive and allowing it to bleed to death. The halal meat consumed by observant Muslims is killed in a similar way.
The government had hoped the proposed law would allow Polish abattoirs to resume production of kosher meat, which was forced to stop last year by the constitutional court.
Some Jewish community leaders said the tone of the debate around the issue echoed the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric seen in Europe before World War Two.
Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish community before the outbreak of war in 1939, but the Holocaust all but wiped it out. Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz and Treblinka were located on Polish soil.
"The majority of Polish MPs gave the Polish Jewish community three choices: don’t practice your religion, don’t eat meat, or don’t live among us," said Abraham H. Foxman, director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League.
"For a country still struggling to come to terms with its past treatment of Jews, it is outrageous to strike such a blow to the future of Jews in Poland.
"This vote was a clear violation of religious freedom, supported by the ignorance of some and the bigotry of others," Foxman added in his statement. "The debate demonstrated acceptance of the false premise that kosher slaughter, which involves a single cut with a razor-sharp knife to minimize pain, is less humane than slaughter with pre-stunning by electrocution, gassing or a bolt shot to the animal's forehead."
Activists have challenged religious slaughter customs in France and the Netherlands, mostly concentrating on halal slaughter by Muslims.
Industry groups in Poland have said banning halal and kosher meat production would stop firms from exporting to markets in Israel and the Middle East.
Opponents of the practice said that was no justification. "Even if we were talking about significant losses – and we're not – there is no permission for animal cruelty in the name of money," said Andrzej Rozenek, a leader of the leftist Palikot Movement.
The bill's defeat is a setback for Prime Minister Donald Tusk after 38 deputies from his own Civic Platform (PO) joined the opposition to defeat it.
"We urge Poland's legislative and judicial authorities to move expeditiously to recognize by law the Jewish community's right to prepare kosher meat according to Jewish tradition," David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
"It would be beyond shocking if a democratic Poland prevented kosher slaughter, which is so integral to Jewish life in the country," Harris added.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group, also voiced solidarity with Poland's Jewish community, and called on the government in the country to reaffirm the 1997 law "that protected schechita (Jewish ritual slaughter)."
The organization experssed “deep chagrin and dismay at the vote of the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, which upheld the ban on Jewish ritual slaughter, necessary for those who observe kosher dietary laws as well as the needs of the Muslim faith …The placing of restrictions and requirements that violate religious law denies the Jewish community its fundamental necessities."