Last month, I spent two days in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in an attempt to ensure that the EU legislature supported the rights of the Jewish community to shechita, the killing of animals for meat according to Jewish law.
By no means was the task straightforward. Alongside other representatives of European Jewish organizations, we were asking the parliament to back measures voted by its own agriculture committee but against the advice of that very committee’s chairman and rapporteur, both vociferous opponents of shechita.
But we did succeed. The two major blocs in the European Parliament, representing the twin ideologies that have governed much of western Europe since the war – those of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) voted en masse in support of Jewish rights. They provided an attentive ear and understood our concerns, and we are grateful for their efforts.
Since these two groups prior to the recent elections held some two-thirds of the voting power in the European Parliament, the result was that we won all the votes with large majorities.
To the right of the EPP and to the left of the PES, nationalists, communists, neo-fascists and Trotskyists all voted against. So did the European Greens and most of the European Liberals.
The twin ideologies of European Christian democracy and social democracy reflected in the EPP and the PES lie at the heart of the postwar reconstruction of Europe, and they have provided a home for Jewish communities on this continent despite the devastation and trauma of the Shoah.
In the recent elections, these broad center-right and center-left blocs saw a slight reduction in their strength at the expense of groups that in general are not supportive of issues close to the hearts of Europe’s Jewish communities. As we saw on the shechita issue, the rights of religious minorities are not a priority for many of these fringe groups, while many of their number are openly antagonistic to the very concept of religious freedom and anti-racism.
Similarly, in their relationship to the Jewish state, these groups generally adopt positions deeply critical of Israel’s actions and often of its very existence. Even more troubling was the entry into the European Parliament of fascists from Hungary and even from Britain. Europe’s proportional system of voting can enable extremists to enter parliament even when their percentage vote is small. We are right to be worried when our democratic institutions are sullied by the presence of such groups.
The victory by Europe’s Jewish community in the European Parliament in the fight to preserve shechita rights has been critical in fending off some of the most extreme threats to shechita. But it may not be enough. Current EU laws give the parliament only consultative rights in areas of agricultural policy. Ultimately, the decisions over shechita will be taken by the governments of the member states.
This situation will change when the Lisbon Treaty, restructuring the governance of an enlarged and increasingly powerful European Union, is ratified, which seems increasingly likely. The treaty will give greater powers to the parliament, and Jewish citizens of Europe will ignore this at their peril.