He is the rov of Brussels, Belgium, and, of course, he lives in Brussels as well. In addition to that, he is the representative of the Conference of European Rabbis at the European Union, and that makes him the man responsible for fighting anti-Jewish legislation.
His name is Rabbi Avrohom (Albert) Gigi. He is an imposing, distinguished-looking man, blessed with excellent oratorical skills and a charming personality. Here is one of many newspaper reports about him, this one in the wake of a terror attack: “Rabbi Avrohom Gigi, the rov of Brussels and representative of the Conference of European Rabbis in the European Union, said that the community’s thoughts are with the murdered and wounded. Gigi added, ‘We are appalled. I find it hard to believe that a murder in a Jewish museum on Shabbos could have been committed for any reason other than anti-Semitism. I imagine that the police announcement, which suggested that it might have been a revenge attack aimed to settle a score, was intended solely to promote calm in advance of today’s elections for the European and Belgian parliaments.’” One thing is certain: Rabbi Gigi knows how to choose his words wisely.
Last month, a picture was publicized of Rabbi Gigi greeting the prime minister of Belgium when the latter visited the main shul of Brussels. Two weeks ago, Rabbi Gigi was quoted in many news outlets when he spoke out sharply against the parliament of Wallonia, a region of Belgium, after it decided to outlaw shechitah.
I met with Rabbi Gigi last week in Holland, where he was attending a session of the Conference of European Rabbis. Rabbi Gigi is a senior member of this forum, which unites all the foremost rabbonim of Europe and its Jewish communities. In fact, Rabbi Gigi is the conference’s representative in the European Union. “I am the one who deals with all of our problems with Europe and with the European Union,” he told me.
I asked Rabbi Gigi for a simple overview of the European political map.
Can you explain to our American readers – and to me – what the European Union is?
“There are actually two entities. There is a legislative body, which is the European Parliament. Every country holds its own elections to select its delegates to the European Parliament. Every country has its own number of delegates, based on its size. The European Parliament has almost 700 members, representing 28 different countries.”
The members of the parliament reside in Brussels, meeting alternately in Brussels and in Strasbourg, France. “They spend three weeks out of the month in the parliament in Brussels, and they travel to Strasbourg for one week,” Rabbi Gigi explained.
Does the European Parliament have any actual power?
“Absolutely. This parliament makes all the laws that govern life in Europe. But there is another body as well: the European Commission. In effect, it is the government of all of Europe. In America, there is a president, and he has a cabinet that includes the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Health, the Secretary of Transportation, and many other officials, each with their own individual jobs. Here, the European Commission has a president and 28 members, and each member has his own portfolio.”
Are these members drawn from the European Parliament?
“No. They are two different bodies. The members of the European Parliament are delegates who are elected in their individual states. The states also have different delegates in the Commission. Every country has the right to have one member in the Commission. The Commissioner for Taxation, for instance, is from France. The Commission is the government of all of Europe.”
What happens if the European Union has a law that contradicts the laws of one of its member states – Holland, for instance?
“The law of the European Union always overrides the laws of its member countries. The EU is above the laws of any nation.”
What does it mean that you are the representative of the Conference of European Rabbis to the EU?
“Whenever we have a problem concerning the European Union, I must handle it. For example, we had a problem with anti-Semitism in Europe…”
You had a problem? The problem still exists!
“True, but at the time when all the terror attacks were happening in Europe, the Jewish communities began to grow frightened, and I went to the Commissioner who deals with religious affairs. He will be here tonight, and he will be giving a speech.”
What is his name?
“His name is Frans Timmermans. I said to him, ‘Listen, the Jews are running away from Europe. Something has to be done.’ So he called a meeting of all the people involved in this matter so that he could hear from them, and he listened to all sorts of people, including Jews and Muslims alike. Then he made some decisions. His first decision was to appoint a woman – the woman who spoke yesterday – who would serve as a direct link between him and the Jewish communities.”
He is a member of the European Commission?
“Not only is he a member, he is also the vice president. Whenever we have a problem, I contact this woman, and she reports directly to him.”
With that, the picture became clear. The European Union has two branches: the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Parliament creates the laws, and the Commission establishes policies. And the woman who acts as a bridge between the Commission and the Jewish communities has already brought about practical results: Following her actions and recommendation, Frans Timmermans reached an agreement with the major social media companies to prevent the dissemination of anti-Semitic hatred on the Internet. Now, if an e-mail or other message containing anti-Semitic, racist, or hateful material is publicized on these platforms, it must be erased within 24 hours.
“So, have I explained my job well enough to you?” Rabbi Gigi asked me.
I am reminded of the story about the person who had a dream that he was meant to be a rebbe. When he told others about the dream, they told him that it would be a good idea for his chassidim to have a dream, as well – that they should be his followers. I understand that the Conference of European Rabbis chose you as their representative to the European Union, but how did you become recognized by the European Parliament and the European Commission?
“They recognize the Conference of European Rabbis. They understand that the Jewish communities are part of the European populace and need to be protected. And those communities are represented by the Conference of European Rabbis. I was appointed to represent them because I live in Brussels, which is where all the institutions of the EU are located. They recognize me as the rov of Brussels and as the representative of the CER. The EU itself is interested in this relationship just as much as we are.”
• • •
How did you become the rov of Brussels? Were you elected?
“There was an election, but that was almost 30 years ago. I have two positions: I am the chief rabbi of Brussels, and I am also the chief rabbi of the Consistoire, which is the umbrella organization of all the Jewish communities in Belgium. It essentially means that I am the chief rabbi of Belgium, but the official title is chief rabbi of the Consistoire.”
Does the Consistoire include all the Jewish communities in Belgium, even the non-Orthodox communities?
“No. Only religious communities are part of the Consistoire. We have the Machzikei Hadas community, the Shomrei Hadas Antwerp community, and all the other religious kehillos.”
Did you know Rav Chaim Kreiswirth well?
“Certainly. Rav Chaim was like an entire world wrapped up in a single individual. I also knew Rav Schiff and Rav Lieberman.”
And Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss?
“I knew him, but he was in Antwerp and I was in Brussels. Today, he is the av bais din of the Eidah Hachareidis in Yerushalayim. Rav Schiff took his place.”
Did Rav Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss always share the views of the Eidah Hachareidis?
“I think so. The Machzikei Hadas community is very strict and very strongly chareidi. After all, he took the place of Rav Kreiswirth, and Rav Kreiswirth himself was like an entire world of chesed and Torah. It is impossible to describe what he accomplished.”
Did you have any personal interactions with Rav Kreiswirth? Did he ask you to come with him to solicit funds from a philanthropist, perhaps?
“Every door opened to Rav Kreiswirth; he didn’t need anyone else’s help for that. He would always receive help from anyone he asked for it. He had an incredible personality.”
Did you work together closely?
“Yes. But the kehillos here in Belgium are autonomous. Even though the Consistoire represents all the communities in the Belgian government, which makes us connected, each kehillah deals with its individual problems on its own.”
Were there any issues on which he told you what the Consistoire should do? Did he give you instructions on how to deal with the government and the EU?
“He didn’t have to do that, because he had his own delegate. When we had the problem with shechitah in our dealings with the EU, Rav Kreiswirth tapped Rav Pinchos Kornfeld to work on the issue, and Rav Kornfeld and I worked together to address the problem. Rav Kornfeld reported regularly to Rav Kreiswirth on what we were doing.”
• • •
The day before our interview, Rabbi Gigi was present at a press conference where one of his colleagues quoted a report issued a month earlier by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs in Israel, which noted a decline in anti-Semitic incidents in France. Although I wouldn’t want to spoil the celebration over that, I should point out that the report also identified the reason for the drop: Jews have been hiding their Jewish identities when they are in public, thus presenting fewer targets for attacks. That is hardly a decline in anti-Semitism.
Is there anti-Semitism in Europe?
“I think so. There is hatred for the yarmulka. I think that in terms of anti-Semitism, you can go out in public without a yarmulke and you will not have a problem. If a goy sees you without a yarmulka, he won’t care. The reason that the yarmulka is dangerous is that there are Arabs who live in certain areas, in Brussels and in other places. Most of them want to live in peace and quiet, but there are some who are violent and will abuse a child if they see him walking on the street with a yarmulka. It isn’t exactly anti-Semitism that we are talking about; it is a sort of hatred that the media has injected into people. They send the message that there is a war between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the Israelis are the oppressors. The result is that Muslims all over the world feel that they have an opportunity to protest.
Then what you are saying is basically that the State of Israel is causing a rise in anti-Semitism, even if it is indirectly.
“Well, what should they do? They have to defend themselves.”
It seems to me that you are understating the situation. It isn’t just that there are Muslims in their own neighborhoods who would harass a little boy with a yarmulka. There are those who wanted to cut off the fingers of a Jewish young man in the heart of Paris. There have been terror attacks and murders. I believe that there are places where Jews are afraid to walk in the streets.
“It’s true that there are places where we can’t go.”
Let’s move on to the subject of shechitah. All we know right now is that the district of Wallonia in Belgium passed a law against shechitah, and you have set out to fight it. First of all, what is Wallonia?
“The country of Belgium consists of three regions. There is the Wallonia region, where the people speak French, and there is also the region called Flanders, where they speak Flemish. There is also Brussels, the capital city, where both French and Flemish are spoken. Every region has its own parliament. These parliaments can make laws on specific subjects for those areas. In Wallonia, the animal rights organizations have become so strong that they were able to pressure the agricultural committee, which regulates the slaughter of animals, into passing a law requiring all animals to be stunned before they are slaughtered. From a halachic standpoint, that means that shechitah has been banned.”
Was it because of us or because of the Muslim form of slaughter? The Muslim population has been growing in Europe in general and in Belgium in particular.
“I think that it is because of the Muslims.”
But not because of anti-Semitism.
“Possibly. It is also possible that they truly believe that shechitah is cruel to animals and they are trying to protect the animals. Three months ago, we argued that this violates freedom of religion, and we asked them to present this law to the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court has the power to decide whether a law encroaches on freedom of religion. They did that, and the court indeed ruled that it was a violation of that freedom. In response, they simply bypassed the law; they said that shechitah could be performed, but the animals have to be stunned first. The result is that Jews and Muslims cannot slaughter animals in Wallonia. The parliament ‘explained’ that we – and the Muslims – are permitted instead to bring in meat from outside Wallonia, and therefore the law is not discriminatory.”
In other words, they were trying to claim that they are still allowing you freedom of religion, since you can still obtain meat that fulfills your religious requirements.
“Exactly. I responded with two counterarguments. First of all, I told them that the law was illogical. Let’s say you are fighting for human rights. You can’t say that you are in favor of human rights in America, but you don’t care about what is happening in Syria. If you are fighting for human rights, then you fight to preserve those rights everywhere. So I said to them, ‘How can you tell us that we should import meat from other places? Do you mean that it is permitted to be cruel to animals in those places? If you are against cruelty to animals, then you should ban all the meat.’ I told them that this proved that they aren’t really opposed to cruelty to animals. If they were, they would never have dared suggest such a solution.”
Who are “they”?
“The members of the committee in the Wallonia parliament. I said to them, ‘There is a principle that no one is allowed to violate, and that principle is freedom of religion. You are taking away our freedom of religion!’”
But they answered that already: They told you to import meat from England.
“And I responded, ‘What will happen if other places follow in your footsteps? What if the same law is enacted in other countries and one day there is no kosher meat at all? Then it will be an absolute violation of our freedoms.’ Aside from that, I argued that it causes a lack of equality among the citizens of Wallonia if some of them can buy meat produced locally while others have to import their meat. But the problem is that we ourselves can’t petition the Constitutional Court on the subject.”
Why didn’t you present your other argument, that shechitah causes the least pain to animals?
“They don’t accept that argument. But we did contact a famous professor who is a world-class expert on pain – not just the pain of animals, but the concept of pain in general. I asked him if there was any way to measure the pain of a person or animal, to determine whether they are feeling more or less pain, and he said that it is impossible. He sent me a copy of a study in which he concludes not only that shechitah isn’t any worse than other forms of slaughter, including those of Christians, but that it actually causes less pain to the animal. Their method of slaughter causes a lot of suffering to the animals. He proved that stunning the animals is worse. There is also a prominent professor in California, Robert Danzer, who used to be a highly respected veterinarian in Europe and is considered an expert on animal cruelty. I used to be in contact with him when he lived here and I contacted him again regarding this. He sent me scientific evidence that shechitah is better. But the people in the parliament don’t listen.”
Because they are afraid of the animal rights organizations?
“Exactly. Those organizations have power – political and financial power. They can control who will be elected to the parliament.”
Why are you so concerned about the decision in Wallonia? If you hadn’t challenged the law, no one else would have heard about it. It hardly would have made any impact.
“I can agree that it isn’t really a disaster for us. If there is no shechitah in Wallonia, we will still find a way to get meat. But it is a matter of principle. If the law passes in Wallonia, the same thing will happen in Flanders, and then in Brussels, and then in Holland, and then in Poland. And then what will we do?
You said yesterday that the law was passed unanimously. Has it been passed already?
“In order for the bill to be passed into law, it has to be approved first by a committee. The committee took a vote, and the law was indeed approved unanimously. It will be discussed in the plenum on May 17, and I anticipate that it will be passed there as well, possibly even by unanimous vote. The heads of the parties can’t afford not to vote for it. If they fail to vote for this bill, they will be sealing their own political demises.”
• • •
Who was your rebbi? Under whom did you do shimush?
“Rav Shalom Mashash, the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim.”
Was that when he was the chief rabbi of France?
“No, it was when he was the chief rabbi of Morocco. I was born there, and I was a ben bayis in his home. I used to ask him every shailah that I had. He was my mentor and role model. He was an endless fount of Torah knowledge and halachic p’sak. He was familiar with all the issues, he understood people, and he always worked to find solutions to every problem.”
Did you ever ask shailos to Rav Ovadiah Yosef?
“Of course, and to the rabbonim of France as well. I don’t know if you have heard of Rav Revivo, but he was a great dayan. Today I ask my shailos to Rav Guggenheim, who is a rosh av bais din in France. He is our guide on the subject of geirus as well.”
Is the State of Israel helping you in this battle? Are you receiving any backing from the Foreign Ministry or the Minister of Diaspora Affairs?
“No. I don’t think that it would be a good idea for Israel to get involved in this problem. What would really help would be international pressure. If the government of America, for instance, protested that this is a breach of freedom of religion, it would cause a massive change. If President Trump said one word to the prime minister of Belgium, it could have an enormous impact.”
Do you have any connections with America?
“I had an almost direct connection with President Obama, since the American ambassador to the European Union was Jewish. He was a close friend of Obama and Clinton. If he were still in his post today, I guarantee that he would have done something. It is clear to me that if Trump were to say something to the prime minister of Belgium, if he simply asked why the government is interfering with the Jews’ freedom of religion, everything would change.”