Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
The World Jewish Congress reported late last week that the Danish Minister of Food and Agriculture, a 38 year old Social Democrat named Dan Jorgensen, had signed a regulation effectively banning the Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for food. Jorgensen explained the ban on Danish television by saying “animal rights come before religion” – or, according to another translation, “animal rights precede religious rights.”
Under the new regulation, all animal slaughter must be carried out after stunning, which is contrary to the Jewish practice of shechita, or ritual slaughter. Denmark’s Jewish community (which numbers a mere 6,000 persons) opposes the minister’s decision. The European Commissioner on Health, Tonio Borg, questioned the legality of the ban, saying that it “contradicts European law.” On the other hand, Jorgensen’s decision was acclaimed by the Animal Welfare Intergroup, of which he had been President.
If the Danish government and parliament let the decision stand, Denmark will join several other western European nations, including Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Poland and Switzerland in prohibiting such ritual slaughter. (Holland had attempted to ban shechita, but a compromise was negotiated in 2012.) The Polish parliament first passed a bill effectively banning shechita in 1936, but the legislation was later shelved. Norway has maintained a legal ban on shechita from the 1930s to the present.
Denmark’s gesture seems to be purely symbolic: there are no kosher slaughter houses in that country, and Danish Jews who practice traditional dietary rules import meat from abroad. The Social Democratic government in whose Cabinet Jorgensen serves has been struggling to stay in power, and his prohibition of Jewish butchering practices is seen as a populist move.
The ban affects Danish Muslims as well as Jews. Last summer, Jorgensen’s predecessor at the Food and Agriculture Ministry started a national debate on the subject by when she rejected a Danish Muslim organization’s request to allow the butchering of animals without any stunning. Denmark’s Muslims, who now constitute about 5 % of that nation’s population, have also objected to the new ban, which effectively proscribes halal practices.
Believers in religious liberty have rightly found such legal restrictions disturbing. Last September, Pope Francis, after meeting with the President of the World Jewish Congress, ordered Cardinal Kurt Koch to investigate Poland’s ban on the ritual slaughter of animals. The Pope also expressed his opposition to restrictions on religious liberty.
No Circumcision, Either
The broader context in which Denmark has ordered this ban is illuminating. As Mark Movsesian has recently noted, Denmark and its Nordic neighbors are also contemplating legal measures that would prohibit another religious practice central to Judaism and Islam: the non-therapeutic circumcision of infant or young males, including boys being raised in the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
A Danish doctors’ association has characterized infant male circumcision as a type of child abuse, while a Swedish medical association argues that circumcision should not occur before the age of twelve and without the boy’s consent. Last fall, the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children issued a joint statement condemning non-therapeutic circumcision as a violation of international human rights law. The second largest paper in Denmark has editorialized in favor of ban on such circumcision.
A Danish doctor, Morten Frisch, recently argued for such a ban in an op-ed in the Copenhagen Post. Dr. Frisch contends that the practice violates the child’s right to “to explore and enjoy his … undiminished sexual capacity later in life.” Jewish and Muslim parents, he claims, have no right to inflict circumcision for religious reasons on their boys; not until child reaches the age of eighteen should he undergo the procedure – and then, only if he consents to it.
Elsewhere in the Nordic world, the movement to ban religiously motivated male circumcision has encountered at least momentary checks. The Finnish Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that if “appropriately performed,” the circumcision of a Muslim boy would not be a criminal act. Nonetheless, Finnish prosecutors are continuing to press charges of this kind against Muslim parents – despite a major recent defeat in an appeals court.
As with kosher and halal butchering, agitation in favor of banning circumcision as long practiced by Jews and Muslims is not confined to northern Europe. Last September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution recommending the banning of physical assaults on children – including non-therapeutic circumcision on boys. An effort late last year by Israeli parliamentarians to persuade the Europeans to change their minds was unsuccessful.
Given the centrality of male circumcision and dietary regulations to both Judaism and Islam, it is hard not to suspect that these “animal rights” and “medical” campaigns are motivated by the underlying desire to purge Nordic and other European societies of unwelcome Jewish and Muslim populations. In view of the hostility Muslim immigrants face in many parts of Europe and the return of open anti-Semitism in countries like Hungary and France, this suspicion does not seem to be unfounded.
Are Animal Rights a Pretext?
But how serious is the animal rights argument for the ban? Our own Supreme Court, in a major 1993 decision entitled Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, rightly discerned that a local prohibition on animal sacrifice, ostensibly adopted to prevent cruelty to animals, was in fact aimed at the ritual practice of a minority religion whose followers were largely immigrants. The ban on animal sacrifice was, accordingly, held to be an unconstitutional abridgement of religious liberty.
Further, under an Act of Congress entitled the Humane Slaughter Act, it is considered humane to slaughter “in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.” 7 USC 1902(b). From an American perspective, therefore, the concern for “animal rights” voiced by supporters of the schechita ban seems clearly pretextual. Certainly, the vigorous animal rights movement in this country has not called for such a ban. Why is northern Europe different?
In fact, fear and loathing of Muslim immigrants may well loom larger than traditional anti-Semitism in motivating these legal and regulatory measures. Until quite recently, the Nordic nations had been nearly homogeneous in ethnic, religious and linguistic terms. But immigration from Muslim countries, coupled with high birth rates among the immigrant population and conversions, have significantly changed these nations’ demographics. Islam is now the largest minority religion in Norway, where Muslims comprise between 2 % to 3.4 % of the population. As much as 5 % of the populations of Denmark and of Sweden is Muslim. And given projections of higher than average (if also declining) Muslim birth rates in those societies, the Muslim presence in the population is likely to grow. Anxiety over demographics is casting a shadow over Nordic politics, as it has done elsewhere in Europe.
The dominant secularist outlook of northern and western European societies also contributes to their growing willingness to dismiss appeals to a fundamental human right of religious liberty. Secularists appear to be unable even to comprehend – let alone respect — the depth and force of religious tradition.
Consider infant male circumcision. The Biblical basis for that practice is found, in part, in Genesis 17, where God says to Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham):
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (NRSV translation)
Scholars have observed that the Bible’s description of the making of the covenant between God and Abraham strikingly resembles the Near Eastern ritual for the enthronement of sacred kings. The covenant establishes that Abraham and his descendants are vessels of their liege, YHWH. See Erich Isaac, “Circumcision as a Covenant Rite,” 59 Anthropos 444 (1964).
Another Biblical source for circumcision is found in the enigmatic verses of Exodus 4:24-26. YHWH makes a nocturnal assault during the return of Moses’ family from Midian to Egypt, which Zipporah fends off by circumcising her son. Commentators have pondered the interpretation of these verses for centuries. One very plausible conclusion has been that they teach Moses (and, by extension, all Jewish men) that even though he may be safe from a worldly power like Pharaoh’s, he faces a far greater danger at the hands of YHWH, whom he must obey and serve even to the point of shedding his son’s blood. See Bernard P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus IV 24-6,” 36 Vetus Testamentum 447 (1986).
Reflecting on these Biblical texts and practices, the theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote (The Body of Faith: God and the People of Israel 67 (1989)):
There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. Israel’s symbol of the covenant is circumcision, a searing of the covenant into the flesh of Israel and not only, or perhaps not even primarily, into its spirit. And that is why God’s election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.
To be sure, there is an active and widening debate among contemporary Jews whether the practice of infant male circumcision, despite its Biblical basis and long historical sanction, ought to be continued. Even so, for many or most believing Jews, the practice of circumcision remains at the core of their religion, serving to identify Jewish men as Jews, to reveal that they are dedicated to YHWH’s service, and to mark them apart from the gentile world.
These considerations seem to carry little or no weight for the secularists who govern northern and western Europe. They can see nothing in circumcision but a barbaric and superstitious relic of the past. For them, it is simply a form of child abuse that forces its little victims to forego some measure of the sexual pleasure they could otherwise obtain as adults. (The latter proposition, incidentally, is doubtful as a matter of science.)
The situation is obviously similar with Jewish dietary regulations. The Book of Daniel recounts how Daniel and his companions, all young and faithful Jews, were educated to play leading roles in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, the gentile King of Babylon. Willing though they were to use their gifts and training in the King’s service, they drew a line at partaking in “the royal rations of food and wine.” Despite their loyalty to the Babylonian state and their readiness to participate in Babylonian life and culture, the claims of YHWH stood higher.
Again, the meaning that kosher butchery and dietary regulations have for observant Jews and Muslims is utterly lost on Europe’s secularist governments. Indeed, so determined are they to persecute those who hold such practices sacred that they are willing to ride roughshod over the international and regional human rights treaties that protect religious liberty, or the relevant provisions of their own Constitutions. (See, e.g., Constitution of Denmark arts. 67, 70 and &71(1)). Indeed, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, given the prestige of human rights discourse in contemporary thought, it has become commonplace for any assault on the life of the Jewish people to be cast in the language of human – or, now, animal – rights.
Back to the Future?
By their actions, “progressive” political leaders are lending credence to the claim that advanced secular liberalism has itself become a religion – and an oppressive and intolerant one. Instead of providing a neutral legal framework in which persons and groups may peaceably pursue different and incompatible visions of the good, advanced secular liberalism is increasingly revealing itself as prescriptive and coercive, committed to deploying the police powers of the State to enforce a particular, substantive conception of the good against unwilling minorities. See James Kalb, The Tyranny of Liberalism (2008).
In their contempt for Jewish and Muslim religious practices, our contemporary secular liberals are reviving the attitudes of Europe’s pagan, pre-Christian past. The Jews of classical antiquity were chiefly distinguishable, in the eyes of the dominant pagans, by three characteristics: male circumcision; dietary restrictions (especially their refusal to eat pork); and Sabbath observance. Pagan writers ridiculed all three Jewish customs, which of course served to identify the Jews as a people apart. Greeks and Romans regarded circumcision as a physical deformity, and therefore Jews (like those with various other deformities) were banned from the Olympic Games. See Louis H. Feldman, Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World 155 (1993). And the Roman historian Tacitus sneeringly attributes the Jews’ aversion to pork to the memory that swine’s flesh had caused them to suffer from leprosy. Id. at 169. Europe’s pagan past seems to be providing a preview of its future.
But it is by no means too late to arrest and reverse these tendencies. American legal scholars who believe in religious liberty should lay out their objections forcefully in letters to the Danish Embassy. Or they should demand that our State Department investigate and object to the human rights violations that are occurring in northern Europe. If the European nations that are imposing these restrictions do not rescind them, then Americans should counter by refusing to buy imported Polish ham, Danish beer, Norwegian salmon or Swedish cars.
Or do we also think that animal rights trump religious rights?