Gosia Szymańska Weiss
August 15, 2013
world of Polish-Jewish relations is confronting a crisis over kosher slaughter
of animals. Both kosher and Muslim halal slaughtering rules forbid stunning the
animal beforehand. Under Polish law, however, such stunning is mandatory. The
Polish Constitutional Court recently struck down an exemption from that law for
kosher and halal slaughter on a legal technicality. Last month the Sejm, the lower
chamber of the Polish Parliament, failed to reinstate the exemption.
in the United States and Israel reacted quickly to the Sejm vote.
Misinformation about the roots of the legislation as well as a negative
knee-jerk reaction based on certain perceptions—or misperceptions—of Poland’s
history led many to the hasty conclusion that Poland today is no different than
it was in the 1930s, when anti-kosher-slaughter legislation was part of a broad
assault on Jewish rights.
on the other hand, seemed surprised by the criticism, and their reactions
ranged from defensiveness to outright anti-Semitic rhetoric. The office of
Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, received an unprecedented number of
anti-Semitic letters, emails, and phone calls. While anti-Semitism was not the
root cause of the controversy over ritual slaughter, it has reared its ugly
head once the Sejm vote became a matter of public debate.
kosher slaughter issue needs to be settled in favor of religious freedom, and
reports from Poland suggest that this is likely to happen. But a positive
resolution may prove no more than a Pyrrhic victory, since the tenor of the
discussion has reopened old wounds in Polish-Jewish relations. The bleeding
needs to stop before decades of efforts to heal this important relationship
unravel. All sides must realize that once this particular controversy is
resolved, the relationship between Poles and Jews will continue, and everyone
has an interest in strengthening it.
a Polish Jew living in the United States, I have dedicated my work over the
years to creating space between the images of horror associated with Poland’s
World War II history and the bright, hope-filled scenes of modern times. I have
witnessed the building of remarkable bridges of understanding through my work
with the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Polish-Jewish Exchange program—work
that AJC had the foresight to launch more than twenty years ago. We cannot go
backward. How we conduct our dialogue now will shape the quality of the
relationship moving forward.
understanding of the facts is key to progress in Polish-Jewish relations.
Poland legalized kosher slaughter in 1997 with the passage of a law regulating
the relationship between the State and the Jewish community. The Animal
Protection Act, also passed in 1997, rendered slaughter without stunning
illegal, but included an exemption for ritual slaughter. In 2002, this
exemption was removed, leaving the Animal Protection Act and the kosher
slaughter law in conflict. To resolve it, the Polish Minister of Agriculture,
by decree, announced an exemption for ritual slaughter. It remained in effect
until 2011, when Poland’s Constitutional Court—in an action brought by the
country’s strong animal rights lobby—overturned the minister’s decree, but did
not resolve the underlying conflict of laws. Following the court’s ruling, the
government sought to protect religious freedom and the interest of farmers who
produce kosher and halal meat for export by introducing the bill that would reinstate
the ritual slaughter exemption.
Sejm voted 222-178 against the exemption, as a dissident minority faction of
the governing party joined with the opposition party to defeat the government
initiative. Anti-Semitic sentiments were nowhere publicly expressed in the
discussions leading up to the vote. The most plausible explanation for the
Parliament’s action is the political weakness of Prime Minister Donald Tusk—not anti-Semitism.
controversy now rests again with the Polish Constitutional Court, which
eventually will have to reconcile the conflict between the animal rights
legislation and the law that regulates Poland’s relationship with the Jewish
both Jews and Poles have work to do. World Jewry must remember that it is 2013:
Poland is a free and democratic country, a member of the European Union, with a
strong civil society, which engages in lively public discussion. It is a friend
of Israel and of the Jewish people. We must not alienate Poles and harm
long-term Jewish interests by insinuating that there is a serious problem of
anti-Semitism in the country.
the Polish people need to better appreciate the historical context of Jewish
sensitivities to matters affecting religious freedom, and must also take the
recent anti-Semitic outbursts as a wake-up call. Polish-Jewish cooperation, the
protection of Jewish heritage in Poland, and the resurgence of Jewish life in
Poland since the collapse of Communism, while impressive, are far from
stake is not merely ritual slaughter, but the future of Polish-Jewish
Gosia Szymańska Weiss is
Assistant Director, International Relations, in the American Jewish Committee’s
Los Angeles Region.