Monday, November 18, 2013

Europe driving Jews out

Ben Cohen | @BenCohenOpinion - 12:35 PM
Almost one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully leaned on the German parliament to pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of parents to have their infant boys circumcised, the practice is now under threat in another European country. This week, Norway’s health minister, Bent Hoie, announced that new legislation is in the pipeline to “regulate ritual circumcision.”
Hoie took his cue from Anne Lindboe, Norway’s children’s ombudsman, who believes that “non-medical circumcision”–in other words, circumcision of boys in accordance with the laws of both Judaism and Islam–is a violation of children’s rights. JTA quoted Lindboe as having told the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten: “This is not due to any lack of understanding of minorities or religious traditions, but because the procedure is irreversible, painful and risky.”
Lindboe is certainly not a lone voice in this debate. A large number of parliamentarians from the opposition Labor Party have expressed support for a ban, while the Center Party, which controls 10 of the seats in Norway’s 169-member legislature, is officially in favor. Small wonder, then, that Ervin Kohn, the head of Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 souls, has described the issue as an “existential matter.” Clearly, the push factors that led nearly 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, Hungary, and France to confess, in a survey on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, that they are considering emigration have manifested in Norway also.
The Norwegian developments follow the October vote by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a 47-member body that is not institutionally linked to the EU,recommending restrictions on ritual circumcision. The ensuing outcry among European Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians led a nervous Thorbjorn Jaglund, the council’s secretary-general, to assure the Conference of European Rabbis “that in no way does the Council of Europe want to ban the circumcision of boys.” But given that the Council of Europe has no control over national legislatures, that statement is essentially toothless.
The abiding question here is why hostility to ritual circumcision has become such a hot topic in European states. When it comes to circumcision, the kinds of survivors groups that push for tougher legislation on, say, child sexual abuse or violence against women simply don’t exist. Hence, if the vast majority of men who have undergone ritual circumcision aren’t clamoring for a ban, why the insistence on portraying them as victims?
According to Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, the anti-circumcision campaign is an integral component of a continent-wide “offensive” against Muslim communities, in which Jews represent “collateral damage.” There is some merit to this view, yet it ignores the fact that legal measures against Jewish ritual have a long and dishonorable pedigree in Europe. It’s widely known that the Nazis banned shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, three months after coming to power in 1933, but they were beaten to the punch by Switzerland in 1893 and Norway in 1930–and you don’t need to be an expert on European history to know that there were no Muslim communities of any meaningful size in these countries when these legislative bills were passed. 
Moreover, it can be argued that by grouping male circumcision with the horrific practice of female genital mutilation, which in Europe mainly afflicts women from Muslim countries, the Council of Europe was going out of its way not to target Muslim communities specifically. In a classic example of the cultural relativism that plagues European institutions, its resolution on the “physical integrity of children” listed as matters of concern, “…female genital mutilation, the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children, and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery.”
As this week’s edition of the Economist argues, this categorization is nonsensical:
Our intuition tells us that the circumcision of baby boys is probably okay, at worst harmless and culturally very important to some religions, while the excision practised on baby girls in some cultures certainly is not okay.
The same piece observes that, in any case, the determination of European leaders to prevent a ban on circumcision will likely foil any parliamentary legislation to that end. A similar point was made in a recent Haaretz piece by Anshel Pfeffer, who derided fears among Israeli legislators of a ban on circumcision as just so much hyperbole.
However, what’s missing here is the understanding that a practice doesn’t have to be proscribed for it to be frowned upon. Large numbers of Europeans already regard circumcision as a backward ritual, and the current Norwegian debate is likely to persuade many more that circumcision should be opposed in the name of human rights. Over the last decade, European Jews have watched helplessly as their identification with Israel has been stigmatized: with a similar pattern now emerging over Jewish ritual, an adversarial political climate that falls short of actual legislation may yet be enough to persuade them that their future on the continent remains bleak.
Ben Cohen | @BenCohenOpinion - 2:25 PM
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.

Europe driving Jews out

Mosaic Magazine
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Seeking Shelter
Why I am filing for asylum in my own country
By Annika Hernroth-Rothstein
Seeking Shelter
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein speaks at a rally in Stockholm, September 2012. Courtesy Black on White.
·         Print
·         E-mail
·         Kindle
Here in Stockholm this fall, we in the Jewish community have enjoyed our 21st annual Jewish film festival, a klezmer concert, and a number of other cultural diversions. I choose the word “diversions” advisedly. It’s thanks to such entertainments that so many of my fellow Jews can allow themselves to say that we’re doing okay here—that there’s no need to rock the boat or cause trouble.
But you know what? We are not okay, and this is not okay.
Kosher slaughter has been outlawed in my country since 1937, and a bill is now pending in parliament that would ban even the import and serving of kosher meat. Circumcision, another pillar of the Jewish faith, is likewise under threat. In my job as a political adviser to a Swedish party, I have dealt with two bills on this issue in the past year alone; a national ban is rapidly gaining political support in the parliament and among the Swedish public. When it comes to our religious traditions, those on both the Right and Left in Swedish politics find common ground; they take pride in defending both animals and children from the likes of us, and from what one politician has called our “barbaric practices.” 
The avenues of aggression may be new, but the rhetoric is old and familiar—and so are the effects. In today’s Sweden, home to all of 20,000 Jews amidst a national population of some nine million, the public display of Jewish identity, like donning a kippah or wearing a Star of David pendant, puts an individual at severe risk of verbal harassment and, even worse, physical harm. Synagogues are so heavily guarded that Jewish tourists are turned away if they try to attend services unannounced. Inside the sanctuary, we celebrate our festivals and holy days under police protection. On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, during the five-minute walk to the water for the ceremony of tashlikh, my young son asked a guard why so many policemen were accompanying us. Replied the officer: “so that no bad people can hurt you.”
This is the self-image—the reality—that Jewish children in Sweden grow up with: being Jewish means being under threat of harm from bad people. This is where we are at.  One by one, our practices are being outlawed. Attacks on us are going unpunished. Politicians, journalists, and intellectuals describe us as barbarians. On November 9, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a few hundred neo-Nazis marched through Stockholm in solidarity with their Greek allies in the Golden Dawn party. They marched legally, with police permits. Another few hundred leftists turned out in protest; a significant number were waving Hamas flags and sporting Palestinian kefiyahs. It made for a perfect synergy: a solemn anniversary, a day of shame, hijacked, with official permission, by two extreme and nominally opposite sides of the political spectrum, united by their hatred of Jews.
The recently released findings of a year-long survey by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights show that we Swedish Jews are far from alone. On the contrary: out of fear of violence, a majority of European Jews avoid going to Jewish events or wearing identifiably Jewish items of clothing. But the fear is especially strong in Sweden, where 49 percent say they refrain from such activity and 80 percent report having experienced a rise in anti-Semitism over the past five years. Sweden’s own National Council for Crime Prevention confirms the facts: anti-Semitic crimes have tripled since 2010. Worst of all is the situation in the city of Malmö, which has witnessed an increase of 320 percent in crimes against Jews since 2011. And these are just the reported incidents; one can only imagine how many go unreported each year.
True: we are not being murdered, and we are not being physically driven out. But our religious observances are being interdicted, our persons are being threatened, our safety is being endangered, and—in short—our human rights are being violated. Why do we put up with it? And why do pundits and politicians assure me that Jews in Sweden are perfectly safe when what they really mean is that we will be safe only so long as we agree to become invisible as Jews and cease to practice Judaism?
When I raise these issues with sympathetic Jewish friends abroad, including in Israel, the usual response is that Europe is over for the Jews—finished; that it’s too late to change things; and that Swedish Jews should move to Israel. I cannot accept that. No matter how much I believe in and promote the idea of aliyah, what is happening here is simply not right. People from all over the world seek refuge in my country in order to be who they are, and to live freely.  I want this for them, and I want this for us.
EU statutes provide that asylum be granted to persons with “well-founded reasons to fear persecution due to race; nationality; religious or political beliefs; gender; sexual orientation; or affiliation to a particular social group.” Jews in Sweden meet these criteria, and should be eligible for the same protection and support extended to non-natives. 
And so today, November 18, I am legally filing for refugee status and asylum—not in America, not in Israel, but here in Sweden, my own country.
Absurd?  No doubt. I can only expect that my application will be summarily dismissed. But the situation is beyond absurdity, beyond op-eds and strongly worded letters of protest. The situation calls for action. I would like to think that in making this statement, I am fighting on behalf of Swedish Jewry as a whole for the right to live a religious life, to preserve our cultural identity, and to be who we are without fear of persecution—the same rights enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed in the Swedish constitution. Is Sweden, is Europe as a whole, truly no longer willing to enforce its own standards of justice where European Jews are concerned?    
A month ago, I sought out the parliamentarian responsible for the latest anti-kosher bill and others like it. Feeling at once sad, lonely, and furious, I told him that instead of churning out all these different measures, each one aimed at outlawing yet another aspect of Jewish life, it would be much easier to write a single bill outlawing Jews. At least that would be honest. When he protested, I ended up arguing with him over the kashrut bill for almost twenty minutes, giving him the facts until, unable to refute me, he turned bright red in the face, leaned in, and said: “Well, you know us. This thing you call multiculturalism. All of that. We don’t want it. Not here. Not in our country.”
I was startled, but also relieved. Finally, some truth.

And that, too, is why I need to make my statement, before it is altogether too late. Where the lives and safety and freedoms of its citizens are concerned, the Swedish government has made solemn promises. Let it live up to them

No comments: