June 2003 -- Kashrus Under Fire

Kashrus Comes Under Fire In Europe

Animal welfare launches new shechita challenges.

by Rabbi Yosef Wikler

The Farm Animal Welfare Council in England is scheduled to present a report in June to the British government recommending that all animals be stunned before being slaughtered. Jewish authorities unanimously stated that this is unacceptable. In fact a group of Jewish leaders walked out of a meeting with the FAWC in March when discussions broke down.

In 1985, The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that the government “require that the Jewish and Muslim communities review their methods of slaughter so as to develop alternatives which permit effective stunning.” That report pointed out that the Torah itself did not mandate a particular method for killing animals, preferring to use “vezavachta” (and you shall slaughter) implying that the methods were orally taught. To a Jew, however, the Talmud delineates just what was meant by that Torah injunction.

Let’s face it, there is pain in an animal’s life. Animals are tagged at birth. Veterinary examinations are painful. Shearing sheep is a traumatic experience. The microsecond of suffering at slaughter is not the most painful experience an animal endures.

The council’s recommendations do not have the force of law. The government rejected its proposals in 1985, and a group of legislators is already pressing the government to do so again this year. At least 10 members of Parliament have signed a motion in support of kosher slaughter. They said that the council’s recommendations would place “unacceptable restrictions” on religious freedom.

The kosher challenge in Britain is not the only European kosher news this year. In January, Jewish and Muslim groups in Germany applauded the reversal of a law that banned Islamic ritual slaughter in Germany. And, during this same time period, the Swiss attempt to permit kosher slaughter was defeated.

German animal rights groups, the German Animal Protection League and the Union Against Abuse of Animals, maligned the ruling permitting halal slaughter and said that they would continue their quest for a European ban on all forms of ritual slaughter which they consider cruel to animals. They vowed to take their campaign across Europe and to the European Union.

At present, shechita is legal throughout Europe (including Germany) except in Switzerland and Sweden. Aside from the exception for kosher slaughter, Germany requires that an animal be rendered unconscious before slaughter.

In Germany, butchers are required to stun an animal, usually with a bolt fired into the brain, so that it is unconscious before slaughter. An exception was granted for the kosher form of slaughter, because a kosher butcher requires training and a license and is presumed to take precautions against an animal’s suffering.

In 1995, Germany declared halal slaughter illegal, with the hope that Muslim butchers would produce halal meat under the existing German law. The Swiss government launched a campaign to end a century-old law barring Jewish ritual slaughter. Economics Minister Pasqual Couchepin started the campaign which created a strong backlash against any change in the law. The original law went into effect in 1893. It was drafted because of anti-Semitism, not to protect animals.

In March, Switzerland decided not to ease a ban on kosher slaughter. But the government did promise Swiss Jewish leaders that the import of kosher meat will be guaranteed by law. The government promised to use all its influence to turn down a referendum submitted by an animal rights group that wants to ban the import of kosher meat altogether.

Where do we go from here?
The current challenge to kashrus throughout Europe should not be underestimated. And, lest we American Jews, enjoying freedoms never thought possible by our recent ancestors, feel safe and secure behind the big business that kosher has become here, let us take note that after Europe the animal welfare people are coming to these shores to challenge shechita. On May 15th, The Times of London featured an article entitled “Muslim and Jewish Ritual Slaughter May Be Banned.” As a result of that article, talk radio show hosts invited listener feedback on the alleged cruelty of ritual slaughter.

There were people who proclaimed that the act of shechita, which is probably no more than a second for a chicken, actually takes two minutes long, with animal/bird suffering all that time. Horror stories about kosher slaughter houses were related--no mention of what takes place at a non-kosher plant where they stun the animal by shooting him in the brain. All this in the name of animal welfare! The aim is not to ban slaughter, only ritual slaughter (i.e. shechita and halal).

The London Jewish Tribune has made an appeal for a united Jewish front with the government, perhaps joining with the halal community. The request is for a restructuring of the Farm Animal Welfare Council in England. The Tribune urged publicizing that our Torah laws go in tandem with a strong concern for animals.

Unquestionably, this is the road to go, and we echo the call “on this side of the pond,” too. We urge all those who can to join our European brethren in their fight for continued shechita. Communicate with the British government and with the Jewish leaders throughout Europe."

Many stood by when Hitler, who started by outlawing shechita, went on to create a holocaust. In those dark days, far too little could have been accomplished even by a united chosen people. But, today things are different. A concerted effort on these shores to show concern for our European brothers could help.

Our people stood idly by when the kosher laws in the U.S. were defeated. Will we still keep quiet even now?

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