COLUMN Jewish News FEBRUARY 13 2015
I have a problem with the times. Actually, I have a problem with The Times, and I wonder what problem this venerable publication has with us.
Twice in a week, The Times has devoted one of its presumably sought-after leader columns to the same subject – what it is pleased to call ritual slaughter. Ritual, rather than religious, please note, with all the connotations of the two toxic terms together, of dark doings in dark corners and possible witchcraft.
The paper also led its front page – on a day when there were world crises aplenty – to an examination of some distressing conditions at an abattoir in which meat was prepared for the halal market.
“Where religion conflicts with social mores,” thundered the Thunderer, “liberty is not absolute. Ritual slaughter is another minority religious practice that, with sensitivity by resolution, the government should seek to end.”
Not content with all that, on Saturday The Times wheeled out one of its best-known Jewish writers, Hugo Rifkind, to opine: “Public distaste of ritual slaughter is growing and I doubt it’ll be long before it gets banned. So be it… I am no fan of ritual slaughter… properly understood, both halal and kosher [sic] are lifestyle affectations…”
Pardon me, Hugo, but even with all your powerful pieces in the last year about anti-Semitism, you and your paper have wilfully missed the point. Kashrut and shechita are not “lifestyle affectations”, not in my book, anyway. Rather, they are symbols of how the Jewish community chooses to express itself within the wider world.
Since the beginning of the year there has been much anguished hand-wringing on the part of politicians, great and small, about anti-Semitism. Britain, says Home Secretary Theresa May, would not be Britain without its Jews. But the British Jewish community has only been able to flourish because of a sane state policy towards its religious practices, and the jungle drums attacking shechita should be listened to very carefully indeed.
It’s not, in the end, vile abuse on the street which will be the determinant as to whether Jews stay or leave. It’s whether the government is prepared to make it viable for the Jewish community to function in Britain: faith schools, male circumcision, and shechita. And if two of those boxes are ticked and not the third, then I believe people should be asking themselves very serious questions.
In almost every European community which does not have its own shechita, Jewish life is flailing and weak. Assimilation and intermarriage are the norm and the Jewish communities are not equipped to deal with the many other threats which they face. It’s not an accident that the French government responded to the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks so robustly: French Jewry is a strong community and though many will leave, the community will retain a critical mass with all the institutions associated with a vigorous diaspora community.
By contrast, Jewish communities in countries where shechita has been banned have diminished greatly. Importing kosher meat is not the answer; if the state will not stand by minority religious practices, then it’s not the state we need to be in. At least one senior community leader conceded to me this week that if shechita were to be banned in Britain, he would seriously be looking for somewhere else to live.
Part of our problem, as an artless Ukip politician spilled the beans last week, is that we Jews are indeed “collateral damage” in the wake of a rising tide of Islamophobia. The abattoir highlighted in The Times for its distressing practices was providing meat for the halal market, not for the kosher one, and yet shechita became conflated with what was being done for halal.
We have many good friends in the Muslim community and we both need to help each other if this truly scary threat is to be combated properly. We can offer our expertise as the “older brother” community and they need to get their act together and become more organised in helping us to provide a united front: the case is woefully undermined when some Muslim authorities say they will accept pre-stunning before slaughter, and others do not.
I referred before to the ticking of boxes: if shechita’s box is unticked, it won’t be long before brit mila and faith schools are targeted. And if I can’t eat my Friday night roast chicken in peace, then all the daubing and the Holocaust denial and the internet abuse are just white noise. The threat to shechita is a manifestation of the times. We should all be very worried.