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Jews in Europe face new restrictions on religious freedom, says rabbi

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abbi Menachem Margolin
abbi Menachem Margolin   -   Copyright  EJA
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Over the course of a single summer in 2020, Jewish graves in Worms, Germany, were vandalised, an Austrian Jew was attacked in the street and a calendar published in the Czech Republic that glorified Nazi leaders. It came in a year during which Europe and the world marked 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, Belgium, Denmark and Poland have either proposed bans or actually banned ritual slaughter, the method by which millions of Jews and Muslims in Europe require their meat to be killed. In Iceland, Denmark and Norway, a furore has erupted over circumcision, with critics arguing that the practice is inhumane and should be banned for those under the age of 18.

“It is very frustrating, there is no question,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, president of the European Jewish Association, told Euronews from his office in Brussels.

“You just think, [...] why do we have to [do this] again [...]. Three weeks ago it was the circumcision issue in Belgium [...]. Two weeks ago it was circumcision in Denmark, this week it is ritual slaughter in Poland, I mean what is next?”

Kosher meat

Poland’s ban on kosher meat was pushed through by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) earlier in September against the objections of its two minority coalition partners, potentially bringing down the Polish government and paving the way for new elections.

The ban on kosher meat was part of a wide-ranging law on animal welfare, which will similarly outlaw Muslim halal slaughter and the production of fur. It is currently in a 14-day review period, but the fact that the PiS was willing to let its coalition collapse to pass it suggests it could stand.

Read more: 'It's a knife in our backs': Confusion and anger in Poland over law on religious slaughter

Speaking to Euronews last week when the law was passed, Margolin told Euronews that the campaign for the animal welfare law had distinct antisemitic overtones, presenting the supporters of the law as "good Polish citizens" and its opponents, among them the Jewish community, as bad. But there will also be a practical impact on Europe’s Jewish community.

“Limiting the export of kosher meat from Poland will immediately impact Jewish people from all over Europe because many Jewish people from Europe consume kosher meat coming from Poland,” he said.

Margolin is keen to make the distinction between antisemitism, on the one hand, and a lack of respect for Europe’s religious minorities, including Jews, on the other. Being attacked in the street, he said, is unpleasant, but it is a crime and should be treated as such. The slow chipping away of religious freedoms is the bigger threat to Europe’s three million Jews, he said.

“Of course, governments have to be very tough with people who commit crimes against Jews. But much more important is to take care of the long term: education and a strong commitment to ensuring freedom of religion,” he said.

Key to beating both, he said, is education. As the events of the Holocaust, when six million European Jews died in the death camps of Europe, recede in the memory of Europeans, as the generation that remembers fascism in Europe is dying out, the history of Europe’s Jews must be made part of the curriculum in every school in every European state.

“Antisemitism is a very old disease. If you want to fight against anti-Semitism you have to educate,” he said.

'Ignorance is an open door for populists'

“We have been pushing European governments to update the curriculum [to] include more information about the Jews, their customs, their history, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, these are things that Europe has faced for two millennia. Every child needs to learn about that,” Margolin said.

Ignorance, he added, is “an open door” for the populist movements of both right and left, and it is from the right, left and the political centre that antisemitism is coming. He is reluctant to name and shame but said centrist parties have noticed the success that the far right and left have had using hatred to win votes, and are now adopting similar tactics.

“What we see is that mainstream political parties do not take the right direction in order to fight the extremists, they adapt themselves to part of that agenda, which is very dangerous,” he said.

“I prefer not to attack anyone in particular. It is a phenomenon that is all over Europe. All over the world. But when it comes to the Jewish situation it is a dangerous direction.”