Austrian region mulls compulsory registration of Muslims and Jews seeking to buy kosher or halal meat

Austria has long been among the fore-runners of the right-wing populist wave in Europe. Since late 2017, the country has been ruled by a government bringing together the traditional conservatives of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, this coalition heralds the final arrival of the previously side-lined far-right at the levers of power.

Driven by the ethnonationalist FPÖ, the government has passed a range of controversial measures targeting asylum-seekers and refugees as well as religious minorities; most notably Muslims. Perhaps emboldened by these initiatives, FPÖ minister Gottfried Waldhäusl from the country’s largest federal state, Lower Austria, has now taken aim at another group – Jews. Waldhäusl suggested that Jewish customers wishing to purchase ritually slaughtered meat should be obliged to register with the authorities.

The FPÖ’s dark history

The FPÖ has a long history of anti-Semitism. Its founders in the 1950s included high-ranking former National Socialists – a ghost that the party has never been able to lay to rest. Barely half a year ago, the FPÖ was embroiled in a renewed scandal, when one of its top politicians was revealed to have been one of the leading figures of an anti-Semitic, far-right student organisation.1

Hence, when Gottfried Waldhäusl suggested that Jewish customers be obliged to register in order to obtain kosher meat, he sent alarm bells ringing among the Austrian Jewish community, who has long been fearful of the FPÖ’s rise.

Waldhäusl is Minister for Animal Welfare, Community Doctors, Asylum and Basic Social Security – a portfolio that seems cobbled together to fit the predilections of the far right in a by and large rural area of Austria. In line with his ministerial competencies, Waldhäusl asserted that the registration of customers purchasing ritually slaughtered meat was required due to animal protection concerns.

Limiting kosher meat consumption

While Waldhäusl denied that he wished to create a formal list of Jews, it was hard to see how the proposal from his Ministry would not amount to precisely that. In a key passage, the proposal stated that kosher meat could only be given to individuals whose high and consistent level of religious observance of Judaism was known and confirmed. (Non-observant and hence unlisted Jews would, conversely, be unable to obtain kosher meat.)2

In the written policy proposal, it is suggested that registered customers be allowed to obtain a “plausible amount” of meat per week. The limitation might be set at 300 to 400 grams of meat – the amount recommended by the Austrian Health Ministry – or at 1.25 kg of meat – the meat consumption of an average Austrian citizen per week.3

Oskar Deutsch, President of a major Austrian Jewish association, criticised the proposal as a “negative Aryan paragraph”, alluding to the Nazi practice of excluding Jews from significant areas of public life. Others drew parallels to Hitler’s Reichstierschutzgesetz (Reich Act for Animal Protection) of 1933, which ordered that animals be stunned prior to killing, thereby effectively outlawing Jewish ritual slaughter on the basis of animal welfare.

Austrian government reaction

The proposal has since been dismissed both by the governor of the Lower Austria province and by the federal Austrian Chancellery. The affair threatened to cause international embarrassment to Austrian policy-makers as Jewish advocacy organisations such as the American Jewish Committee took up the issue. Hence, the official spokesman of the Austrian government took to Twitter in English:

In the same series of tweets, the Austrian government also stressed that “we are clearly committed to our Judeo-Christian roots and will continue to defend them against any form of attack. It is our responsibility to protect and support Jewish life in safety and without restrictions in Austria.”4

Trials and tribulations of ‘Judeo-Christian’ nationalism

Even if no compulsory registration of Jews is implemented, the debate following the Waldhäusl proposal nevertheless highlights key ambiguities in the populist-nationalist revival sweeping across Europe. For starters, stark tensions resurfaced between the ostentatious assertion of a ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ on the one hand and the older anti-Semitic reflexes inherent in the nationalist programme on the other hand.

Particularly in Germany and Austria, countries marked by a history of ethnonationalist agitation that included the killing of 6 million European Jews during the Holocaust, respectable conservatives á la Sebastian Kurz as well as presentable far-right politicians have sought to include Jews in the national community. In this attempt, the narration of an alleged ‘Judeo-Christian’ history of these nations figures prominently.

The AfD party, the FPÖ’s German cousin, has presented itself as the ‘guarantor of Jewish life’ in Germany.5 And even as his party was proposing that Jewish buyers of kosher meat be forced to register with the authorities, FPÖ chairman and Austrian Vice-Chancellor Hans-Christian Strache took to twitter to stress that “we stand for the protection of our Jewish fellow citizens from dangerous imported Muslim anti-Semitism.”

Some policy-makers may adhere to the Judeo-Christian narrative out of a genuine sense of historical obligation towards Jewish populations. Mostly, however, the phrase is above all used strategically: as a means to repel the charge of racism and to claim the mantle of an enlightened patriotism. Yet beneath this veneer of studied Judeophilia, anti-Semitism continues to lurk within both the AfD and the FPÖ.

Muslim and Jewish Others

Conveniently, the narrative of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ occident also consigns Muslims and Islam to the status of a national outsider or intruder. In many cases, a rather disingenuous commitment to ‘Jewish life’ is used as the blunt weapon with which to undermine Muslims’ rights. (This is particularly obvious in the present discussions surrounding allegedly ‘imported’ anti-Semitism.)

Indeed, the initiative to have consumers of ritually slaughtered meat counted and listed would also have affected Muslims. In this respect – and in contrast to what the defenders of a ‘Judeo-Christian’ Europe routinely proclaim – Jews and Muslims found themselves on the same side: as outsiders in a (post-)Christian nation, where religion has been emptied of its transcendental content and become a prime marker of national identity.

A member of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ) even assumed that the proposal to have consumers of ritually slaughtered meat register was secretly and primarily directed against Muslims.6

Regulating and limiting minority religions

More broadly, the abortive attempt to register consumers of kosher and halal meat is part of a broader trend – a trend that will persist even if this particular measure is not adopted. For across Europe, governments have stepped up their activities regulating the lives of religious minorities. Muslim women’s dress, Jewish and Muslim male circumcision or animal slaughter have all come within the purview of the state’s regulatory activity.

The limitations on the freedom of minority religions are usually implemented under the guise of noble commitments: banning the hijab from an ever-larger number of public institutions and spaces is seen as a step towards female emancipation; banning circumcision a victory for children’s rights; and banning ritual slaughter a necessary step for animal welfare. The Danish government will even implement a ‘ghetto plan’ according to which the ethnic and religious Other will be governed by a chilling set of discriminatory legal rules and obligations – ostentatiously for their own good.7

All these restrictions are couched in the language of enlightened and universalist humanism – ranged against the obscure and barbarian particularities of the religious Other. The FPÖ managed to capture this dynamic perfectly when the party backed up its call for stricter regulations of ritual slaughter by tweeting a flyer detailing the supposedly gory and cruel details of the procedure, accompanied by a picture of a smiling sheep.

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