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Why 2022 will be critical for Jews in Europe

Daniel Höltgen
Daniel Höltgen
January 23, 2022

Jewish traditions and rites are under threat as European society becomes ever more secular. But protecting them is part of safeguarding democracy, says Daniel Höltgen from the Council of Europe.

Menorah set up in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Jewish traditions and rites are under threat in EuropeImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

The year 2021 was alarming for Jews in Europe. In May, there was an escalation of antisemitism as violence flared in the Middle East. Synagogues in Germany were vandalized and Israeli flags burnt.

Similar antisemitic incidents were seen elsewhere, and online threats surged. Another dangerous trend has been the rise in antisemitic conspiracy theories during the pandemic. The narrative that Jews have benefited financially from the crisis continues to spread on social media.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have vowed to tackle antisemitic content, but more needs to be done. A Paris appeals court last week ruled that Twitter must disclose details of the human and technical resources it employs to moderate hate speech, confirming an earlier decision in favor of the Union of Jewish Students in France and other NGOs.

Daniel Höltgen
Daniel HöltgenImage: Candice Imbert/serbest. Sadece Council of Europe

Governments and European organizations have also stepped up the fight against antisemitism with new initiatives. The 47-state Council of Europe issued a detailed Recommendation on Preventing and Combating Antisemitism. The European Commission, meanwhile, presented its Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life (2021-2030), including funding to protect Jewish communities. All 27 EU member states are expected to adopt national antisemitism strategies by the end of 2022. 

Jewish religious practice in question

Though Europe is increasingly united in combating different forms of antisemitism, the picture is piecemeal when it comes to a key element of Jewish religious practice: shechitah, or religious slaughter. European rules on animal protection require stunning before slaughter but allow countries to make their own regulations concerning "slaughtering in accordance with religious rituals."

Most European countries have no restrictions on ritual slaughter, or provide for exemptions to uphold religious freedom. However, about a dozen countries have banned the practice without prior stunning. Jewish (and Muslim) groups are concerned by what they see as a growing threat to religious freedom. The situation is in flux, as both religious groups and animal rights campaigners are looking to courts to support their respective positions.

Following a legal challenge by Jewish and Muslim associations over a decree banning ritual slaughter in Belgium, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2020 that governments were allowed to ban the practice of ritual slaughter in order to promote animal welfare. In its reasoning, the court states that "legislature forms part of an evolving societal and legislative context, which is characterized by increasing awareness of the issue of animal welfare."

Last October, in a case brought by animal rights groups, the highest court in Greece ruled against religious slaughter, stating that the government should regulate the practice in such a way as to ensure both animal welfare and religious freedom.

The recent court decisions have stirred a heated debate in European Jewish communities on how to protect religious rites in an increasingly secular environment. Further legal challenges are not unlikely. However, since European law allows states to make their own rules on shechitah, the future of Jewish religious practice is primarily a political — and societal — issue.

It is therefore high time to have an informed debate about the significance of religious practices in the context of freedom of religion. While governments prepare national strategies to combat antisemitism, they should seize the opportunity to discuss the issue of religious rites and the possible consequences of restrictions on them.

For example, a common justification for bans on ritual slaughter is to say that kosher meat can still be imported. But that argument loses strength as more European countries introduce bans. Decision-makers should consider the small numbers of animals concerned. In Belgium, for example, only about 700 animals are killed according to shechitah rules each year.  

Xenophobic and anti-immigration motivations are also apparent in the opposition to religious practices. As Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the European Conference of Rabbis, recently said at the Council of Europe, "Much of the anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe today is actually also antisemitic; the Jews are the collateral damage."  

Protecting democracy

To ask European Jewish citizens to compromise important religious rites that their ancestors have practiced on this continent for over 2,000 years would be seen as a sign that Jewish customs, once again, are not welcome here.

In 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unequivocally backed brit milah (religious circumcision of boys) after a local court called the practice a criminal offense. Following her lead, the Bundestag adopted legislation the same year clarifying that religious circumcision was lawful, overturning the court's previous ban.

Merkel's decision was undoubtedly influenced by Germany's historical responsibility to Jews. But her decisive action was also guided by a strong conviction that when we protect the human rights of minorities, including religious ones, we are safeguarding democracy.

Diversity and the protection of minorities are part of our common European identity, and Jewish people have made an immeasurable contribution to our cultural heritage. If European leaders are serious about fostering Jewish life, they need to protect Jewish traditions and rites.

Daniel Höltgen is the Council of Europe special representative on antisemitic, anti-Muslim and other forms of religious intolerance and hate crimes.

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not purport to reflect the position of the Council of Europe as a whole or of its leadership.  

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