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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ritual Slaughter Ban

Air Date: Week of

Some European nations are banning Jewish ritual slaughter. Advocates cite cruelty to animals. Others cry anti-semitism. Sarah Zebaida reports.


CURWOOD: For many Jews, eating kosher food is a central part of daily life. And an important part of kosher law is the detailed rituals surrounding the slaughter of animals for food. Muslims also eat animal meat slaughtered according to procedures laid out in the Koran and known as the Halal. In Europe, there's a growing movement to ban meat products derived from these ritual slaughters. Supporters say they're protecting animal welfare, but some see it as veiled anti-Semitism. Sarah Zebaida reports.

ZEBAIDA: The term “ritual religious slaughter” may conjure up an image of a barbaric animal sacrifice, but Jewish leaders say these ancient detailed laws are built upon minimizing animal suffering. Jewish ritual slaughter involves slitting a fully conscious animal's throat with a sharp knife and letting all the blood drain away. The Muslim Halal method is similar but those rules allow for more compromise and interpretation. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, a community leader in London and a vegetarian on principle, says Jewish ritual slaughter is as painless a method as possible.

ROSEN: Now, the proof of it is, that if you cut your finger you don’t feel anything with a sharp knife or a piece of paper. It’s only afterwards when you rub the two sides together that you begin to feel a certain amount of pain. The Jewish method of slaughter requires there to be no damage, serious damage to the organs of the animal and that it should feel as little pain as possible. So, merely slitting with a very, very sharp knife the artery, and these knives are incredibly sharp. They have to be checked all the time. So, the feeling of fainting is all that the animal is actually going to feel.

ZEBAIDA: Contrast that with conventional methods of slaughter, which involve stunning animals with a heavy blow between the eyes, done with a bolt gun. Jews and Muslims aren’t the only ones to see stunning as unnecessarily painful. Animal Aid, an international animal welfare group, has described the stunning procedure as ‘barbaric’ and says that it often requires several blows to the head before the animal is actually knocked out. The group has called for all forms of stunning to be outlawed. Jewish law demands that each animal be killed in isolation. But in conventional slaughterhouses, stunning is generally done in large groups, where animals stand in full earshot of each other’s cries - a practice that critics say contributes to their suffering. Once the animal is stunned, a gunshot, decapitation, or death by electrocution follows. Again, Rabbi Rosen.

ROSEN: The trouble with other methods of slaughter - for example, a bullet to the brain - you can miss the brain. Or even electronics – you see with people who have been in death row; the electronic charges go through them and they don’t always kill immediately. Our method guarantees immediate loss of consciousness.

ZEBAIDA: But many European governments disagree with Rabbi Rosen. Citing animal cruelty, Finland recently joined Sweden and Spain in passing a modern law which bans ritual slaughter. Norway’s ban on ritual slaughter was introduced at the start of World War II and Switzerland’s ban has been on the books for more than a century. Both laws have their origins in the blatant anti-Semitism of that time. Two years ago, when the Swiss government tried to revoke the ban, the move created such a furor that the government pledged never to lift it. Miryam Holzner, with the Swiss government’s veterinarian association, says her government is motivated solely by a concern for animals.

HOLZNER: If you look at the last few decades, animal protection has gained a lot of weight within the population. It has become more and more important for human beings that animals are treated correctly.

ZEBAIDA: But Jews across Europe are today becoming increasingly alarmed that concerns over animal welfare are taking precedent over a freedom of religion. And for some older European Jews, this movement harkens back to the darkest of times. One of Hitler’s first moves to institutionalize anti -Semitism was to ban all kosher food and anyone caught practicing ritual slaughter was sent straight to a death camp. The current ban is evoking similar fears. Julian Voloj, from Germany, chairs the European Union of Jewish Students.

VOLOJ: First, I should say that I’m not religious. I’m not keeping kosher myself. But just the fact that in Europe is now changing--that there is a ban of kosher meat--brings me to the question if Europe considers itself as Christian continent with no Muslims and no Jews?

ZEBAIDA: While Scandinavian countries that have adopted or maintained the ban have strong records of upholding animal welfare, Switzerland and Spain do not. Spain has yet to adopt a national animal welfare law. And such practices as bull fighting and the summer fiestas where goats and donkeys are thrown from the tops of towers have earned Spain fierce condemnation from animal protection groups worldwide. Where some see animal protection, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen sees nothing of the kind.

ROSEN: I think there is a certain bias against religion and against religious practices. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the Jewish community since the war has felt itself to be under pressure and it’s interesting where this pressure comes from. This pressure comes from the sorts of arguments that are motivated by other agendas rather than the pure agenda of cruelty to animals.

ZEBAIDA: The issue of religious slaughter has stirred up a lot of debate among the Swiss people. A recent survey showed more than three-quarters of the population said they would like to see their government ban even the import of kosher meat. Erwin Kessler, an animal rights activist, has been campaigning vigorously for this. He’s 40,000 short of the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum to completely ban kosher and halal meat entering Switzerland. Kessler has inflamed the controversy by publicly comparing kosher slaughter to the methods used by Nazis in concentration camps, but denies that his motives are, in fact, anti-semitic.

KESSLER: I don’t see any connection to wanting to eat meat and religion. It’s not a question of religion. If religion does prohibit to eat something, that’s okay, but no religion does force anybody to eat meat at all. We are today in a modern world cannot accept many things that have been prescribed by religion in earlier times.

ZEBAIDA: There are only a few thousand observant Jews in Switzerland that depend on imported kosher meat and Erwin Kessler says he has two solutions for them – become vegetarians or leave the country. Meanwhile, in Britain, the government’s Farm Animal Welfare Committee has recommended that the UK immediately ban halal and kosher slaughter within its borders. In the next few weeks, the British government will decide whether to adopt that recommendation.


ZEBAIDA: Ruben’s is London’s oldest kosher restaurant and it’s an institution, not only amongst the Jewish community here, but also amongst Muslims who are also permitted to eat kosher meat. The Jewish diners here say they’re in no doubt that their method of slaughter, known as shehita, is not unnecessarily cruel. But for the most part, British Jews believe their government when it stresses that this ban has been proposed with the sole intention of minimizing animal distress. But that doesn’t mean they agree with it.

FEMALE: I’ve always been brought up to keep a kosher home and I want to keep that tradition.

MALE: I believe shehita is as considerate a way as one can imagine for killing animals for human consumption. And if it is banned, then we will presumably get meat in frozen from Argentina or from other countries.

ZEBAIDA: Indeed, Britain's Minister of Agriculture has just pledged to maintain the import of kosher meat even if the government decides to ban the practice within the UK. But if Britain does end up requiring the stunning of animals before slaughter, that could well have an influence on ritual slaughter policies in other European countries. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Zebaida in London.



Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page - Livestock Behaviour, Design of Facilities and Humane Slaughter

OU Kosher


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