Back in April, when the imposing Museum of the History of the Polish Jews opened its doors in Warsaw, there was much talk of how the relationship between Jews and Poles had been transformed for the better in recent years. The sentiments expressed by Jan Kulczyk, a wealthy Polish businessman who helped finance the museum, seemed to encapsulate a new era: “When the Jewish nation and the Polish nation, when we are together, when we look in the same direction, it is great for us, great for Poland and great for the world.”
The news that the Sejm, the Polish parliament, has rejected a government-sponsored bill to protect ritual slaughter, in both its Jewish and Muslim variants, suggests that, sadly, Jews and Poles are facing opposite directions when it comes to religious freedom. As a result of the vote, which comes on the heels of last year’s supreme court ruling that ritual slaughter, or shechita, is no longer exempted from requirements to stun animals prior to killing them, the production of kosher meat has effectively been banned in Poland. All the excitement about the revival of Jewish life there now seems rather misplaced, given that, as Poland’s American-born Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich bemoaned on his Facebook page, Poland has become a country “in which the rights of the Jewish religion are curtailed.”
In any country, such a decision would be strongly protested; in Poland, the weight of history gives objections to the ban an added urgency. During last year’s debate over the supreme court ruling, Piotr Kadlcik, head of the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland, opined that “[T]he outrageous atmosphere in the Polish media surrounding shechitah reminds me precisely of the similar situation in Poland and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.” This time around, the historical analogies are no less visible.
Kadlick again voiced his warning about the patterns of the last century repeating themselves, adding that “populism, superstition and political interests won out.” Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, paid an official visit to Poland just last month, was equally sharp in its condemnation. Decrying the “rude blow to the religious tradition of the Jewish people,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry asserted that the Sejm‘s decision “seriously harms the process of restoring Jewish life in Poland.”
Reacting to the Israeli statement, Poland’s centrist prime minister, Donald Tusk, sounded almost wounded. “Especially the historical context is, to put it mildly, off target and is not applicable to the situation,” he said. Isn’t it? One of the reasons why Jews are especially sensitive to legal measures against ritual slaughter, as Tusk surely knows, is that the Nazis banned it in Germany only three months after they came to power in 1933. And like many of today’s animal rights activists, the Nazis depicted the methods of shechita as a gruesome, needless celebration of animal suffering.
Even so, the historical parallels don’t overlap completely. The two main Polish political parties that opposed the government bill are not, as might reasonably be expected, populated by snarling right-wing skinheads. One of them, the Democratic Left Party, or SLD, was co-founded by Alexander Kwasniewski, who served as Poland’s president from 1995-2005. Throughout his time in office, Kwasniewski was feted by Jewish groups, particularly in the United States, for his strong stand against anti-Semitism; after leaving office, he was one of the backers of the European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation, an organization that is unlikely to share the SLD’s revulsion for shechita.
The other party, the Palikot Movement (named for its founder, Janusz Palikot), is variously described as liberal, even libertarian. The party’s support for gay civil unions and the legalization of soft drugs are noteworthy in a country that remains socially conservative and devoutly Catholic. Yet one of Palikot’s leaders, Andrzej Rozenek, sounded like a traditional anti-Semite when he declared that “there is no permission for animal cruelty in the name of money”–the implication being that what really worries Jewish defenders of shechita is the loss of a $400 million dollar regional market for kosher goods produced in Poland.
Poland is not the first country to ban shechita–European states from Norway to Switzerland have also prohibited its practice–but its historic position as the cradle of the Holocaust means that extra scrutiny of any legal measures against Jewish rituals is inevitable. Preventing shechita in a country where, as Rabbi Shudrich noted, hunting remains legal, renders the concerns about cruelty to animals laughable. It also opens Poland up to an accusation last leveled against Germany, where an effort to ban circumcision was recently defeated: namely, that for all of its Jewish museums and memorials to the Holocaust, the country finds the task of being nice to dead Jews far more appealing than guaranteeing the rights of living ones.