Leave it to Poland to bring together Jews and Muslims. Despite having only 20,000 Jews, the Eastern European country has a booming kosher-slaughter industry worth an annual $350 million, one-third of all of the country's beef exports. Yet the industry has been slowed for a year amid a controversy over the legality of ritual slaughter. Now, a coalition of Jews and Muslims—whose halal meat is slaughtered in a similar fashion to kosher meat—is anxiously awaiting a ruling from the Polish High Court over whether ritual slaughter will remain legal.
Since Poland's constitution explicitly guarantees religious freedom, Jews and Muslims should be at liberty to slaughter and consume animals in accordance with their ancient beliefs. But in 2002, parliament passed a law requiring, on humane grounds, that all animals be stunned before slaughter. Given that religious laws governing both kosher and halal slaughter forbid such stunning, the Polish agricultural ministry issued a directive in 2004 exempting the Jewish and Muslim communities.
A drawn-out legal and political battle with animal-rights activists ensued. Among them was the celebrated Polish actress Maja Ostaszewska, who bombastically compared ritual slaughter to performing surgery on a human being without anaesthetic. Last November the High Court ruled that stunning animals before slaughter was necessary—regardless of religious belief. And three months ago, a government-sponsored bill to override the High Court and protect ritual slaughter was defeated in parliament, 222 to 178.
The contradiction between the country's constitution and the parliamentary vote has left the legal status of ritual slaughter in limbo. Absent a definitive High Court ruling about whether animal welfare trumps religious freedom—the 2012 decision only addressed stunning—many of Poland's kosher and halal food manufacturers have erred on the side of caution, halting production after last year's ruling.
Michael Schudrich, who has served as Poland's chief rabbi for almost a decade, said that his attempt to slaughter animals for the last Passover holiday in March was prevented by a Warsaw veterinarian, who referred the case to the local prosecutor. (Fortunately for the rabbi, the lack of clarity over the law meant that the prosecutor didn't pursue him.)
The ban also has had significant economic costs. When the government's attempt to rescue ritual slaughter in parliament failed this summer, large abbatoirs, like the Biernacki slaughterhouse in western Poland, cut the prices they were paying for cattle by as much as 13%. Meanwhile, the Polish Meat Association has warned of significant job losses among the country's more than 500,000 livestock producers if ritual slaughter is permanently banned.
Given the history of persecution suffered by Jews in Poland, it was inevitable that attempts to curb ritual slaughter would generate charges of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Jewish leaders inside and outside the country have reminded Poles that the Nazis banned ritual slaughter in Germany three months after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933.
Still, those leading the battle to protect ritual slaughter don't believe their opponents are driven by anti-Jewish bigotry. "This has more to do with ignorance," said Jonathan Ornstein, a former New Yorker who heads the Jewish Community Center in Krakow.
Mr. Ornstein and Rabbi Schudrich both described a relentless campaign by animal-rights activists, inundating members of parliament with dozens of emails and phone calls each day. The protestors regularly make false claims, including that kosher slaughter is outlawed in the U.S. This pressure, along with support from a rebel faction of the ruling Civic Platform party, caused the defeat of the government's pro-ritual slaughter bill in July.
With the High Court ruling on the horizon—Rabbi Schudrich expects it to be delivered by the end of this year—advocates for ritual slaughter want to ensure that the decision goes their way. To avoid reducing the controversy to one about anti-Semitism, Messrs. Schudrich and Ornstein are emphasizing the idea that ritual slaughter is predicated on the importance of animals suffering as little as possible. The message is buttressed by the fact that both men are vegetarians.
They've also mobilized Poland's normally reserved community of 30,000 Muslims. "Right now, it's very hard for Muslim people to find halal meat. We have to buy it from Germany, which is very expensive," said Mohammed Munir Hussein, a student from Bangladesh who has been living in Krakow for the past five years. The issue has brought Muslims and Jews together. "I didn't know any Jews before, now I've made Jewish friends," Mr. Hussein told me.
Jews and Muslims in Poland—which is 90% Catholic—have found an ally in the Polish Episcopal Conference, the nation's top Catholic body, which last week issued a robust statement in support of ritual slaughter, noting "Poland's long tradition of religious freedom."
Poland isn't the only country in Europe where there is hostility toward Jewish and Muslim religious practices. Similar moves against ritual slaughter in the Netherlands and the circumcision of infant boys in Germany attracted strong public support before eventually being defeated.
But earlier this month, the Council of Europe, a 47-nation body that controls the European Court of Human Rights, passed a resolution challenging "traditional methods" in performing circumcision, urging greater state regulation of the practice. What this suggests is that even if Poland's High Court does decide in favor of ritual slaughter, voices in Europe will continue urging restrictions of religious liberty.