Three months ago, I was in Poland as part of a UK Jewish Delegation organised by the Polish embassy in London. The purpose of our trip was to explore Jewish life in Poland, and to strengthen relations between our countries and communities. It was a fascinating trip, during which we visited small towns like Bobowa, Lezajsk, and Nowy Sacz, and big cities like Krakow and Warsaw. We felt very welcome and experienced great hospitality in the country that was home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe before World War Two.
During a debrief in the House of Commons about our trip, we decided to establish a Jewish-Polish forum to discuss important issues and strengthen relations and harmony between the Jewish and Polish communities. We didn’t know that just a few days later a major challenge would arise: the decision of the Lower House of the Polish Parliament to reject a bill that would have recognized the religious practice of Kosher Shechita and Halal.
The bill was defeated by 222 to 178 votes, when 38 members of the ruling Civic Platform party voted against it. Poland’s chief Rabbi expressed his shock, while the President of the Union of Jewish Communities said that “populism, superstition, and political interests won out.” This issue matters not just for the Jewish community in Poland, but for Europe as a whole – and what transpired could set a dangerous precedent.
The decision also affects the Polish economy, since Poland is a big exporter of Halal food (to Muslim countries) and Kosher meat (mainly to Israel). The value of exports is estimated to be between £220m and £307m a year. There are 20 slaughterhouses in Poland that specialize in producing kosher and halal meat, and they employ 6,000 people, according to the Polish agriculture ministry.
We’ve already seen an assault by some countries in Europe against religious practices such as circumcision. It is embarrassing that Jews are being discriminated against in 21st century Europe, and we must demand answers to some serious questions: isn’t this a violation of freedom of religion? Isn’t it a basic right of Polish Jews to practice their religion by eating kosher meat? Are they supposed to become vegetarians, to buy non-Kosher meat, or to pay steep prices for imported meat? Can you imagine what would happen if the House of Commons in the UK would ban halal meat?
The battle for preserving and protecting our religious practices and identity will continue. We call on the Polish government to reintroduce the bill in the near future and make sure that kosher and Halal are enabled in Poland.
Tal Ofer is a UK Member of the European Jewish Parliament and can be found on twitter @TalOfer and his own website: www.talofer.com