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They Shouldn’t Ban Shechita, But Sure They Can

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in this file picture taken October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

One Shabbat, during the time I was studying for a Master’s degree in International Law and Human Rights, I mentioned the courses I was taking to a rabbi. He looked perplexed, then gestured towards his synagogue bookshelf loaded with thick books of Talmud and codes of Jewish law. “Human rights is all here,” he protested. “Why would you go to a university?”

Human rights and Jewish values often overlap. But unfortunately, sometimes they don’t. This was on stark display earlier this month, as the European Court of Human Rights upheld a ban on shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) which was recently imposed by the governments of two regions of Belgium. The Belgium law requires that all animals be anaesthetized or stunned before slaughter, which according to Halacha, renders the meat not kosher.

Jewish and Muslim groups both protested that this requirement violates their human rights. In particular, they cited their right to freedom of religion, claiming that a ban on kosher slaughter interferes with their ability to live according to their faith. Many Jewish spokesmen were livid with the court, with the European Jewish Congress even releasing a statement saying that coupled with rising acts of antisemitism, this decision called into question whether there is a future for Jews in Europe.

The court’s ruling, however, was well grounded in human rights principles. It was based on two findings. First, preventing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals falls under a category of government responsibility known as preserving public morals. This makes ensuring humane slaughter a legitimate government interest. Second, this requirement that animals be stunned before slaughter was a narrowly tailored and proportionate method of achieving the goal of making slaughter more humane.

But what about the difficulty this causes for Jews and Muslims trying to observe their religious dietary laws? The court decided that the fact that this law interferes with some citizens’ religious observance isn’t enough to block it. The reason is that freedom of religion does not extend to situations where religious practice violates other human rights.

The right to religious freedom consists of the right to choose one’s own beliefs, and to practice those beliefs only in ways that do not violate the rights and freedoms of others. This includes the right of people to live in a society that upholds what they consider to be basic morals, such as not causing unnecessary pain and suffering for animals. So the right to freedom of religion does not protect religious practices that go against this principle. In the extreme, imagine a hypothetical religious ritual that requires torturing an animal. In such a case, the government could forbid it no matter how ancient, solemn, or important the ritual might be to members of whatever faith wants to continue the practice.

In practical terms, the Jewish community has a good argument to overturn the ban on shechita. We can maintain that shechita is humane, and causes no more suffering to the animal than what’s done in non-Jewish slaughterhouses with stunning. As long as our ancient method of slaughter is still within the parameters of what’s currently considered moral, there is no reason for governments to disallow it. While the court was right about the law, it may have the facts wrong about shechita in this case.

But protesting that we’ve been doing shechita for thousands of years — and therefore we must have the right to continue — isn’t a winning argument. Opponents will point to countless religious teachings, ranging from regulations regarding how women must dress, to unequal treatment of women in divorce, and to acceptance of polygamy and slavery in the Bible, as examples of deeply rooted religious practices that must now be banned in the name of human rights.

The rabbi I mentioned earlier was partially correct in pointing to his Jewish bookshelf. The Jewish tradition does contain many teachings that are in keeping with human rights. But in fundamental ways, the two are vastly different.

We regard Jewish values as ancient, timeless, and perhaps even emanating from God. Human rights were only conceived of within the last century, and come from our ever-evolving vision of how to make the world more free and equitable for all members of the human race. Since their sources are so different, it’s inevitable that Judaism and human rights will sometimes clash.

If we are committed to both Judaism and human rights, we need to take these conflicts seriously. The Belgium law may have exaggerated the suffering caused by ritual slaughter, and therefore given us grounds to oppose it. But how we deal with other intractable conflicts between human rights and Jewish values is a key question that each person committed to both must struggle to answer.

Rabbi Shlomo Levin is the author of The Human Rights Haggadah, which highlights modern human rights issues in this classic Jewish text.

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Air Canada cancelled two flights to Tel Aviv due to the Iranian missile attack—leaving some travellers to seek alternatives, or consider postponing their trips

After a weekend overnight shutdown of Israeli airspace, during which time Iranian missiles and drones attacked the country, Canadians ware cautiously optimistic that travel to and from Ben Gurion Airport will resume regular schedules later this week. Air Canada cancelled departures from Toronto on Saturday and from Tel Aviv on Monday—the latter despite the airport […]

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Harvard University Wants Antisemitism Lawsuit Dismissed, Denies Injury to Students

Students accusing Israel of genocide at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, Nov. 16, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Lawyers representing Harvard University in Massachusetts have requested the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by six Jewish students who accused the school of ignoring antisemitic discrimination.

According to The Harvard Crimson, the university said in a court filing that a lawsuit, as well as a period of discovery during which its conduct would be thoroughly examined, was not necessary due to the “tangible steps” it has taken to combat antisemitism in just the past few months. Additionally, the school argued that the civil suit, led by graduate student Shabbos Kestenbaum and Students Against Antisemitism, lacked standing.

“Without minimizing at all the importance of the need to address energetically antisemitism at the university, plaintiff’s dissatisfaction with the strategy and speed of Harvard’s essential work does not state a legally cognizable claim,” said the motion to dismiss, as quoted by The Crimson. “Consequently, the amended complaint should be dismissed.”

Harvard University recently received an “F” grade for its handling of antisemitism in a first-ever Campus Antisemitism Report Card issued by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, students have stormed the campus calling for the destruction of the Jewish state, terrorizing students and preventing some from attending class.

In November, a mob of anti-Zionists — including Ibrahim Bharmal, editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review — followed, surrounded, and intimidated a Jewish student. “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the crush of people screamed in a call-and-response chant into the ears of the student who —as seen in the footage — was forced to duck and dash the crowd to free himself from the cluster of bodies that encircled him.

In February, a faculty group posted on social an antisemitic cartoon which showed a left-hand tattooed with a Star of David dangling two men of color from a noose.

These incidents, and more, are currently being investigated by the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is probing Harvard’s handling of skyrocketing instances of antisemitic intimidation and harassment on campus.

Proclaiming that Harvard “failed Jews repeatedly,” Kestenbaum told The Crimson that he would not stand down.

“Harvard’s meritless motion to dismiss our lawsuit only proves our point: It has never taken the concerns of us Jewish students seriously, and has no plans to start now,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to apply maximum pressure in both the court of law and the court of public opinion … We hope that donors and prospective students follow closely.”

No Ivy League school earned better than a “C” in the ADL’s landmark report, a grade awarded to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Four others — Columbia University, Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Pennsylvania — received “D’s” while Harvard and Princeton University both received “F’s.”

“Every campus should get an A — that’s not grade inflation, that’s the minimum that every group on every campus expects,” ADL chief executive officer Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement announcing the report. “They deserve a learning environment free from antisemitism and hate. But that hasn’t been the experience with antisemitism running rampant on campus since even before Oct. 7.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Israel Sets New Standards for Saving Wounded Troops in War

Israeli soldiers scan an area while sirens sound as rockets from Gaza are launched towards Israel, near Sderot, southern Israel, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The Israeli army’s chief medical officer told a recent gathering of NATO and allied officials about the striking success of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in saving injured soldiers during the war against Hamas in Gaza.

According to IDF Medical Corps chief Elon Glassberg, the army has brought the time between the moment of injury and seeing a senior medical practitioner to under four minutes, and in many cases under one minute. One reason for the speed is that the IDF has changed its strategy for treating wounded soldiers from the typical field hospitals to which soldiers are evacuated and treated — and in serious cases transferred via helicopter to a hospital — to a system that brings doctors to the battlefield with soldiers.

The new system has, according to Glassberg, more than 670 doctors and paramedics embedded within combat groups in Gaza. As a result, wounded soldiers are given immediate care.

Additionally, the new policy calls for airlifting every wounded soldier to a hospital via helicopter, which are on standby at all times and outfitted to be like flying emergency rooms, staffed with surgeons and intensive care doctors.

The IDF has conducted over 950 such operations in the helicopters, according to Glassberg, bringing approximately 4,200 soldiers to hospitals. In the field, 80 soldiers were saved due to quick doses of plasma and 550 had bleeding stopped before the flights.

Of course, helicopter times to hospitals vary and are not predictable on the minute. The current time from moment of injury to arriving at the hospital stands at one hour and six minutes. This is in comparison to an average time of two hours and ten minutes during the 2014 Gaza War, also known as Operation Protective Edge.

The new processes by the IDF are saving lives. According to Glassberg, the current rate of death among wounded soldiers is 15 percent. In Gaza today, however, 6.3 percent of soldiers who are injured end up succumbing to their wounds, showing how quick action is key in ensuring the injured soldiers can return home after the war — or, in many cases, back to the battlefield.

Glassberg also pointed out how the IDF is continuing to learn how to best protect soldiers in the future. For example, he noted, a majority of deaths occurred due to injuries to parts of the body that are not protected by bulletproof vests. Therefore, Israel is already discussing new vests to give to soldiers to lower the casualty count.

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