Belgium’s Jewish community is enraged by plans of two of the country’s three regions to ban ritual slaughter in 2019, after years of pressure from animal rights groups.
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Parliamentary majorities have been reached in Flanders and in Wallonia over a bill that would require the stunning of animals before they are killed for slaughter, but the draft laws have not yet been put to a vote. Most of the ritual slaughter done in Belgium is carried out by the country’s Muslim community, but Jews who eat kosher meat will also be affected if the ban is enacted, of course.
“It is an unprecedented crisis, the worst crisis since World War II,” said Philippe Markiewicz, the president of the Consistorie, the umbrella organization of Belgian Jewry.
Community leaders also expressed anger over remarks made during the debates on the issue in the regional parliaments, some of which compared the Jewish community with recent immigrants to Europe.
The leading French-language daily in Belgium, La Libre, which made Markiewicz’s comments the main headline on its news website, also reported on the great affront that many Belgian Jewish community members felt by what Geert Bourgeois, minister-president of the Flemish government, said during the debate on the issue.
“When he talked about it,” said Markiewicz in reference to Bourgeois, “he mentioned reconciliation between the political sphere and immigrants’ path to integration. The Jews are like the immigrants just arrived in Belgium? But the Consistorie was established almost 210 years ago under Napoleon. Can you really imagine that the Jews are not integrated?”
Speaking at the Great Synagogue in Brussels, Markiewicz said, “In this synagogue, six generations of my family came to pray.”
The Chief Rabbi of Brussels, Albert Guigui, added: “Among Belgian Nobel Prize laureates, at least three are of Jewish origin ... not to mention the enormous contribution of the Jewish community to this country over the generations. The things that the politicians said are a worrisome return to the past.”
Even less religiously observant groups within the Jewish community have rallied to the cause. In a statement, the influential secular Jewish group organization CCLJ said it viewed the proposals “as a step meant to unjustly present Jews and Muslim as barbarians.” Others in the Jewish community noted that when the Nazis, after the occupation of Belgium during World War II, began taking steps against the Jews, the first thing they did was to prohibit kosher slaughter.
In the regional parliaments, the debate over ritual slaughter is being framed solely as an issue of animal rights and welfare.
President of the Belgian Senate Christine Defraigne, who is also a member of Wallonia’s parliament, introduced into the debate a report stating that research carried out in France proved that animals killed using ritual slaughter methods undergo “14 minutes of extreme agony and suffering.”
The legislative proposals speak of a total ban on Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter starting in 2019. The parliament of the Brussels region has not yet formulated a position on the issue.
The Walloon and Flemish politicians who dealt with the issue turned down requests by representatives of the Jewish community to consider what the latter terms the “traditional-culture aspect of kosher slaughter,” or to discuss a compromise.
A ban on ritual slaughter has been on the federal parliament’s agenda for a number of years, propelled by the animal rights group GAIA and similar organizations. But in 2016 the government advisory body the Belgian Council of State issued a notice ruled that a complete ban on ritual slaughter would violate the right to religious freedom guaranteed by the country’s constitution. Council members recommended that a compromise be sought, in consultation with Jewish and Muslim religious communities, but it now seems that regional politicians have rejected this approach.