Polish Jews Fight Law on Religious Slaughter of Animals

The chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, said Wednesday that the Jewish community there had appealed to the country’s highest court to overturn an effective ban on religious slaughter that he said threatened to undermine Jewish life in a nation where the community was all but wiped out during the Holocaust.

In a country where memories of the past run deep, the prohibition of kosher and halal slaughter has polarized Poland and spawned an angry outcry from human rights activists, Jews around the world, Israel and Muslims who say the ban impinges upon minority rights. Polish farmers also complain that they stand to lose as much as €700 million, or $924 million, annually in exports of halal meat to Muslim countries like Turkey and Iran and kosher meat to Israel and Western Europe.

Supporters of the ban, which include a mix of animal activists, leftists and right-wing nationalists, say it safeguards animals against what they characterize as a barbaric ritual. Legal experts say that until recently religious slaughter has operated in a legal gray zone, with overlapping laws both allowing and prohibiting the practice. In July, the lower house of Parliament voted 222-178 against legislation that would have ensured the right to religious slaughter.

Rabbi Schudrich said the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland on Friday appealed the prohibition at the constitutional court on the ground that it impinged upon religious freedoms guaranteed under the Polish Constitution. He said by phone from Warsaw on Wednesday that he had considered resigning his post since a ban on shechitah, or Jewish ritual slaughter, prevented him from fulfilling his duties.

“I cannot imagine serving as chief rabbi in a country in which the rights of the Jewish religion are curtailed, as I would not be able then to serve properly,” he wrote on his Facebook page on July 14 after the proposed law allowing ritual slaughter was rejected by Parliament.

The Jewish community’s consternation was relayed to Pope Francis on Monday when he met with members of the World Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities outside Israel, the group said. The group said Wednesday that the pope specifically expressed concern about the ban, but he has not made any public comments on the issue.

As Jews across Poland prepared to celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, on Wednesday evening, Rabbi Schudrich said there was a sufficient supply of kosher meat because it had been stored in anticipation.

Jewish officials added that kosher meat was being imported from Vienna and Budapest and that in any case ritual slaughter in Poland was continuing in clandestine slaughterhouses in defiance of the ban.

The challenge of reconciling public health policy with religious minority rights has echoes with a recent controversy over ritual circumcision in Germany. German lawmakers voted late last year in favor of safeguarding ritual circumcision practiced by Muslims and Jews after a regional court ruling had equated the practice with bodily harm, provoking anger among the Jewish and Muslim communities.

In the case of animal slaughter in Poland, Polish law requires that slaughterhouses stun livestock before killing them. Kosher rituals demand that a healthy animal must be killed by slitting its throat with a special sharp knife.

The ban had tapped into deep-seated emotions in a country that has sought to rebuild its Jewish community in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Rabbi Schudrich said the ban had terrible historical resonance for Jews, noting that Poland began legislating against kosher slaughter in 1936 in an effort to push out the Jews, and the Germans banned it altogether after they occupied the country in 1939.

Before 1939, Poland was home to more than three million Jews, more than 90 percent of whom were killed by the Nazis. Many Jews who remained in Poland after the war hid their Judaism during decades of Communist oppression in which persecution against Jews persisted.

An animal rights activist, Cezary Wyszynski, said critics of the ban were trying to use the accusation of anti-Semitism to silence dissent, while the actress Maja Ostaszewska has equated ritual slaughter with performing surgery on a human being without using an anaesthetic.

Rabbi Schudrich said the Jewish community was seeking legal clarity after the constitutional court in November, under pressure from animal rights activists, upheld an effective 2002 ban on religious slaughter, even though a previous 1997 law granted the Jewish community the right to conduct the ritual.

Following an international outcry, the center-right government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk sought to lift the ban. But then in July, Poland’s lower house of Parliament rejected the proposal.

Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said the ban was a setback to the Jewish revival under way in Poland, where he said Jewish life was flourishing.

“In a place which experienced the Holocaust and anti-Semitism during Communism, you would hope that there would be a special responsibility to make Jews feel welcome,” he said by phone. “The ban is bad for Jews and bad for Poland, as it makes it look like an intolerant country, even if that is not the case.”

Mr. Ornstein said that he was determined not to allow the ban to impinge upon his Rosh Hashanah celebrations and that his community would be eating chicken, which is not covered by the prohibition. As for him, he added, “I am a vegetarian.”

Joanna Berendt contributed reporting from Warsaw and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.