08 April 2011
The Netherlands, one of Europe's first countries to allow Jews to practice their religion openly, may soon pass a law banning the kosher slaughter of animals. An alliance of a small animal rights party and the larger xenophobic Freedom Party of Geert Wilders is spearheading support for the ban on kosher and halal slaughter methods. The far-right's embrace of the bill, which is expected to go to a parliamentary vote this month, is based mostly on its strident hostility toward the Dutch Muslim population. The Party of the Animals (PvdD), the world's first such party to gain parliamentiary representation, has argued that humane treatment of animals is more important than traditions of tolerance. Jewish and Muslim groups have called the proposed bill an affront to freedom of religion.
"I can speak for the Dutch Jewish Community and I think for the wider Jewish world, that this law raises grave concerns about infringements on religious freedom," Ruben Vis, secretary-general of the Dutch Jewish umbrella organization NIK, told the news agency AP. Abdulfatteh Ali-Salah, director of Halal Correct, a certification body for Dutch halal meat, said he felt the debate made Muslims in the Netherlands feel Dutch society was more interested in animal welfare than fair treatment of its Muslim citizens. "If the law goes through now there's nothing else to do but protest," he said. "And that's what we'll do."
As in most western countries, Dutch law dictates that butchers must stun livestock before it can be slaughtered, to minimize the animals' pain and fear. However, so far the law grants an exception for meat that must be prepared under ancient Jewish and Muslim dietary laws and practices. These demand that animals be slaughtered while still awake, by swiftly cutting the main arteries of their necks with razor-sharp knives.
Most Dutch citizens favor a ban, but many centrist parties feel the issue is a distraction from the more serious issue of abuses at regular slaughterhouses. One of the two parties in the Cabinet, the Christian Democrats, opposes the law out of fear for damage to the country's international image as a haven of tolerance for religious minorities. The other, the VVD Party, has yet to say which way it will vote. In letters to World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder and to European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor earlier this week, Dutch Prime Minister and VVD leader Mark Rutte wrote that his government would only adopt a formal position on the issue once the parliamentary debate on the bill is over.
The PvdD has only got a tiny presence in the Dutch parliament (two members out of 150), and therefore relies on the support of the major parties, including that of Wilders, for gain a majority for its bill. The PVV may be able bring the two governing coalition parties onside and thus enable the PvdD to push the bill through. Observers believe that because the PvdD has no chance of gaining ground on big animal rights issues like the bio-tech industry or ecology, it is focusing on ritual slaughter as an 'easy win'.
If the Netherlands outlaws procedures that make meat kosher for Jews or halal for Muslims, it will be the first European country to do so since the end of World War II. The Netherlands has long-standing traditions of tolerance and was one of the first countries in Europe to allow Jews to live openly with their religion in the 17th century. The Dutch Muslim population is now an estimated one million, in a country of 16 million. Dutch Jews number around 40,000 to 50,000; 70 percent of the country’s Jewish community perished in the Holocaust.
"Religious freedom isn't unlimited," said Party for the Animals leader Marianne Thieme in an interview. She said the law would be good news for the two million animals that are slaughtered without stunning each year. Wilders first brought the issue forward in 2007, when he heard that halal meat was being served at a public school in Amsterdam. "Muslims at our schools must adjust to Dutch norms and values and not the other way around," he wrote in a letter questioning government policy. Wilders and the Freedom Party did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
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