Passover, which commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from enslavement in ancient Egypt, begins this weekend. But many European Jews don’t feel like celebrating. Many feel that their religious freedoms are being eroded.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, recently said pandemic safety measures had curtailed religiou freedoms. In his video, published to coincide with the 46th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Gallagher said state public health policies are infringing peoples’ ability to exercise their human rights.
Gallagher’s statement struck a chord: Religious communities across the world have changed the way they worship during the pandemic. Alas, restrictions of the fundamental right to religious freedom are not a new phenomenon.
In some case, the coronavirus pandemic has served as a pretext to restrict worship. Jews in the European Union are deeply troubled by this development.
‘United in diversity?’
For over a decade, the European Union has been preoccupied with itself and in permanent crisis mode, seemingly forgetting its much touted motto “united in diversity.” The United States, in contrast, is much more outward looking. Speaking at an OSCE expert summit last month, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Kara McDonald gave an outlook regarding President Joe Biden’s agenda on tackling Anti-Semitism.
The good news is that Biden plans to intensify the US’s fight against anti-Semitism in accordance with the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Much more surprising, however, were McDonald’s observations concerning Jewish life in Europe today. Europeans should take her concerns seriously.
McDonald said Jewish communities in numerous countries were confronted with planned and actual bans on religious practices such as ritual animal slaughter and circumcision of male babies.
EU restricts religion
McDonald’s remarks were primarily directed at EU leaders. Keeping the memory of the past alive is essential, she said, but ensuring that people can freely practice their religious beliefs here and now is even more important.
In December, the European Court of Justice upheld a ban on ritual slaughters — a religious and humane method for killing animals for consumption — in Belgium.
The ruling jeopardizes the ability of Jews in Belgium to freely practice their religion. Banning access to and the producing of kosher meat makes Jewish life impossible. Similarly, proposed bans on male circumcision in Denmark, Finland and Iceland run counter to religious freedom.
These policies are de facto bans on Jewish life. Is a Europe “united in diversity” really willing to accept this? While professing to uphold individual liberty, Europe is undermining freedom.
The EU’s empty words
EU lawmakers repeat over and over that Jewish life must be appreciated and respected. But assertions like these ring hollow and hypocritical in light of recent laws outlawing religious practices. Indeed, commemorative speeches made at last January’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day appear disingenuous given that Europe is the only continent pursuing such dangerous initiatives curtailing religious freedom.
McDonald’s statements do not only highlight the need to keep the memory of the past alive to fight anti-Semitism. They also stress the significance of making Jewish life possible in the future. The US model for protecting religious freedoms is exemplary. Europe must follow the US lead and adopt its norms so that Europe’s Jews can freely practice their beliefs.
We want to see determined and positive steps by EU politicians to protect and foster Jewish life — and to prevent a looming exodus. This is not an exaggerated fear: It is already happening. Over the past decade, many Jews have left EU countries, feeling no longer welcome. That stems not only from the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents, but also from the gradual curtailment of religious freedoms.
Pinchas Goldschmidt has served as president of the Conference of European Rabbis since 2011.
This commentary has been adapted from German.