Jewish and Muslim groups have condemned a proposal by a regional leader in Austria to sell halal and kosher meat only to registered, religious-observant customers.
The proposal came from Gottfried Waldhäusl, environment minister for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the state of Lower Austria.
A register to purchase halal/kosher meat, ostensibly to reduce the number of animals to be slaughtered without being first stunned, was, he said, necessary “from an animal welfare point of view”.
It was immediately dismissed by the federal government in Vienna with parliament speaker Wolfgang Sobotka insisting the proposal was at odds with constitutional guarantees on freedom of religion.
But Jewish groups in Austria and Germany see the move as the latest dog-whistle by the FPÖ, junior coalition partner in Vienna.
"This sudden outrage over slaughtering has nothing to do with animal welfare and a lot more to do with an anti-migration mood," said Pinchas Goldschmidt, head of 700-member Conference of European Rabbis, to Der Standard daily.
He recalled how a religious slaughter ban was one of the first laws introduced after Hitler took office in 1933, in a bid to encourage Jews to emigrate.
“The values established again in post-war Europe – democracy, protection of minorities, state-guaranteed religious freedom – all stand under a question mark at the start of the 21st century.”
Meanwhile Oskar Deutsch, president of Vienna’s Jewish community, said the plan to compare lists of Jews echoed Nazi laws implemented after its 1938 takeover of Austria.
A century ago Vienna was home to about 200,000 Jews, around 10 per cent of the population then. Today an estimated 8,000 Jews live among 1.8 million Viennese. There are about 20 synagogues, eight kosher food stores and five kosher restaurants. These food businesses were either uncontactable or declined to discuss the FPÖ’s register proposal.
But members of the Jewish community sense a growing hostility in their city, with three orthodox Jewish men attacked on a street last month. Official figures show anti-Semitic attacks in Vienna have almost doubled in three years, to 503 last year. A quarter have a far-right background, say police, with about 10 per cent with an Islamist link.
Even though its proposal was stopped before it could start, Austria is not the only country debating ritual slaughter of animals, with similar debates pushed in Belgium and the Netherlands – again, by populist parties.
Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is also opposed to ritual slaughter on religious grounds. Its Bavarian branch, hoping to enter the state parliament there after an October regional election, argues that kosher/halal slaughter is “not justified by religious practice . . . (with) exceptions not justified”.
"The AfD has the gall to claim the right to say what is part of Jewish belief and what is not, a bizarre form of anti-Semitism," wrote Maram Stern, Berlin office head of the Jewish World Congress, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. "Whoever accuses people across the board of torturing animals for their religious purposes is not interested in the issue but in cheap propaganda."
Despite the slapdown from its Austrian government partner, FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache revived the issue on Facebook saying “animal slaughter without anaesthetic should be forbidden”. Later the comment was relativised to say that slaughter on religious grounds “was to be accepted”.
David Lasar, a Jewish member of the FPÖ, said he opposed a register. He estimated that just a few hundred of Austria’s Jews are kosher, requiring at most 12 animals to be slaughtered a week. But he said he was concerned about “animal slaughter tourism”, with animals brought there for slaughter from countries with tighter animal welfare rules such as the Netherlands.
Austrian Jewish groups pointed out that animals transported long distances for slaughter are not kosher, suggesting the FPÖ’s real target is the country’s Muslim community.
Enis Buzar, halal spokesman for Austria’s Muslim community, said he had “no knowledge at all” of living animals being brought to Austria from the Netherlands. Austria’s butchers’ association described the FPÖ “slaughter tourism” claim as “far-fetched”.