Nowadays, for the most part, Europe is a continent where citizens enjoy basic freedoms. After all, Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights proclaim the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and freedom of expression for its residents. Next week, there is an EU-wide conference in Brussels to discuss and celebrate these rights and freedoms, and I have been honored with the opportunity to address the plenary.
Unbeknown to many, there is a snag to these freedoms and rights, and it’s not a small one. Such freedom is not, strictly speaking, the case. Jewish religious life is in a quite precarious state. While Jewish communities have undoubtedly thrived and flourished over the past several decades, legally and legislatively protecting our religious freedoms across the continent remains a real challenge: Jewish practices remain under threat.
Historically, in Christian Europe, religion was primarily about doctrines and beliefs, words and ideas. So, when the Enlightenment notion of freedom of religion took hold, it essentially meant the freedom to think and speak whatever you want, to believe or disbelieve. As Voltaire wrote, “I wholly disagree with what you say but I will contend to the death for your right to say it.” This type of freedom of religion, certainly a blessing, works well in a Christian context.
Yet herein lies the problem. Regarding Jewish religious freedom, tolerance of belief and speech is not enough. Judaism is not only about speech, study, and belief but, crucially, it is also about praxis. Jewish religious life is pervaded with practices and laws: brit milah, shechita (ritual slaughter), Jewish education, Shabbat observance and dress are all crucial parts of our religion.
We require not only the freedom to believe and say want we want, as Voltaire would have it, but also the right to act how we want, provided, of course, that we do no harm to others. The practical performances observant Jews observe are not explicitly protected by law and in recent years, have been challenged and in some cases actually banned by countries that fully subscribe to the aforementioned European Convention on Human Rights.
Society should welcome different faith groups, lifestyles and values, and allow them to all coexist together. However, that means that one must be sensitive to issues facing faith groups, says the writer.
True freedom means that everyone should be able to lead their own religious life, so long as they are at peace with their neighbors. Each communities’ particular rights or lifestyles should be respected. That is true diversity and freedom of religion and belief. Our age-old obligations “to study and do, protect and practice” need to be respected more widely and safeguarded by explicit legislation. Only then will we have been listened to.
The EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life 2021-2030 recognises that Jewish communities can only exist and thrive in Europe if they are able to enjoy the freedom to practice their religion, protecting their religious requirements, traditions and customs.It is high time that the law across European member states and the UK reflect that, allowing people to not only say what they want, but also to live fully in accordance with their faith.