WJC ANALYSIS: The assault on shechita and the future of Jews in Europe - World Jewish Congress

WJC ANALYSIS: The assault on shechita and the future of Jews in Europe

WJC ANALYSIS: The assault on shechita and the future of Jews in Europe

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July 2013

At issue

In recent months, debate regarding the banning of shechita and halal [slaughter in accordance with Jewish and Islamic law, respectively] has been renewed in a number of EU member states, most notably Poland. While some of those who support a reexamination of the issue are undoubtedly motivated by genuine concern for animal welfare, there may be less sanguine intentions on the part of others who advocate a ban (or the upholding of existing ones). Certainly, the vituperative language of at least some of the campaigners is hardly reassuring. Ironically, a common front on this issue may help bring Jews and Muslims in Europe closer together. The outcome of this debate may well be seen as a watershed in the history of European religious pluralism, one on which the future of Jewish religious life on the continent will depend. 


The Jewish religion is deeply imbued with the concept of tza'ar ba'alei chaim — the idea that one may not intentionally inflict unnecessary pain on any living creature, nor fail to prevent the causing of such pain. This principle is the basis for the Jewish religious prohibition of hunting of any kind. As such, when it is necessary to kill animals (whether for food or hides, never for sport), they must be dispatched in the swiftest and most painless way possible.  

"You shall slaughter of your cattle and sheep... as I have instructed you, and you may eat..." is the biblical imperative contained in the book of Deuteronomy (12:21). The rules governing the slaughter of animals in accordance with Jewish law are laid out in many sources, including — in considerable detail — in the seminal codification of Jewish law, Rabbi Joseph Caro's Shulchan Aruch [Yorah Deah], at chapters 1–28. The religiously mandated method of slaughtering kosher animals is to sever the trachea, the jugular veins, the esophagus and the carotid arteries — all in one swift cut.   

Almost 1,000 years ago, the great Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides closely studied the issue of animal slaughter and came to the conclusion that there is no more humane method than through the rapid loss of blood following a swift incision with a razor-sharp knife in the hands of a qualified slaughterer [shochet]. To date, not a single scientific study has conclusively proven otherwise, and over the years many prominent experts, both Jews and non-Jews, have validated shechita as a humane means of slaughter.

The pioneering research in the scientific defense of shechita was that penned by the physician Isaac A. Dembo (1847–1906). His major contribution was to demonstrate that shechita does not cause more pain to animals than any other technique and that, in fact, it causes considerably less pain than the other commonly used methods.

Dembo's work was continued in modern times by I. M. Levinger, who is a leading authority on veterinary issue in Jewish dietary laws. Levinger attempted "to define the loss of sensibility and the time of death by measuring the corneal reflexes, the drop in blood, carotid and vertebral arterial pressure, and the heart rate and respiratory rate using the best available instrumentation."

The most recent research has proven that by using the proper slaughter apparatus (with the cow standing upright with a properly designed head restraint) and with proper handling, the cow is apparently unaware of the throat being cut and collapses in 10 to 15 seconds. Moreover, the rise in cortisol levels in head-restrained animals was minimal."

Temple Grandin, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, has designed livestock handling facilities in Europe, North America, Australia, and elsewhere. In 2011, she wrote: “I have observed that when kosher slaughter of cattle is done well, there is almost no reaction from the animal when the throat is cut. Flicking my hand near the animal’s face caused a bigger reaction.”

Nevertheless, there are those who, out of genuine concern for animal welfare, or because of adherence to an anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim agenda, have raised questions about the humanity of this means of slaughter.   

New wine in old bottles?

The campaign against shechita is nothing new. In 1933, almost immediately after being named chancellor, Adolf Hitler decreed a ban on the practice—at once depriving the Jews of Germany of kosher meat and also putting out of business those who worked in the country's kosher meat industry. Such a law had already been enacted in Bavaria in 1930. Significantly, the infamous 1940 Nazi 'documentary' film Der ewige Jude [The Eternal Jew], designed to sow hatred of Jews, contained a gruesome scene that utterly distorted the way in which animals are killed in accordance with Jewish law—and depicted the practice as a barbarous custom in which Jews rejoice at the suffering of animals.

However, opposition to shechita pre-dates the Nazi period. Switzerland's legislation prohibiting shechita was enacted in 1893 when the practice was outlawed by a plebiscite. Sweden followed suit in 1937 and Fascist Italy in 1938. In the late 1930s, there were also moves to restrict shechita in Poland, but they did not come to fruition. Generally, Jews in countries in which shechita is outlawed (Norway among them) have been able to avoid the most drastic effects of the law, because they are able to import meat from abroad.

However, there are even some (in Switzerland, for example) who would like to see a ban on the import of kosher meat — which will effectively force Jews who observe kashrut to abstain from the consumption of meat. Muslims will also be affected by this move. The halal method of slaughter has certain similarities to that of shechita, and in locations in which halal meat is unavailable, Muslims content themselves with kosher products.   

The anti-shechita drive in Poland comes at a time when similar moves are being contemplated in other parts of Europe as well — even in countries that had debated the subject long ago, and had previously refrained from enacting any restrictions against it. It is ironic that in some instances, the current motivation for advocacy against shechita/halal stems from local hostility toward the burgeoning Muslim communities in Europe. Be that as it may, whatever their other differences, Jews and Muslims will be left to fight this battle together.  

Poland: The latest testing ground

In recent months, there has been a revival of the long-dormant debate in Poland on whether animals must be stunned before being killed. Article 53 of the Polish Constitution guarantees that "freedom of conscience and religion shall be ensured to everyone" and specifies that the "performing of [religious] rites" is protected by law.   

Jewish religious law forbids the stunning of animals before slaughter. However, the Constitutional Tribunal disallowed the exception made by the minister of agriculture not to require stunning for religious slaughter (after a 2002 law which required stunning). A court ruling determined that in so doing, the minister had overstepped his authority. The court also clearly stated that they are not ruling of religious slaughter.   

Although the government declared its intention to pass a law to permit religious slaughter, that effort failed in parliament on July 12, 2013. That move precipitated widespread upset and anger both in Poland and abroad. Significantly, the Polish agro-industrial lobby led the unsuccessful struggle to rescind the ban. Over the years, the Polish meatpacking industry, particularly the beef sector, has become heavily dependent on exports of kosher and halal products to Israel and the Middle East. That industry employs thousands of workers and brings in hundreds of millions of euros per annum. In the Sejm vote, some parliamentarians from the ruling party, which called for rescinding the ban, actually voted to support it.

Critics of the ban, both Jews and non-Jews, could not contain their sense of indignation, especially when some actually suggested that shechita was a foreign concept, not in keeping with traditional Polish values. They pointed to the thousand-year history of Jews on Polish soil and the irony that those who called for a ban on Jewish/Muslim methods of slaughter continue to allow the destruction of animals for sport.

For example, Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, himself a committed vegetarian, said he finds it “hard to believe that any reasonably intelligent, thinking person could hold the opinion that ritual slaughter, as practiced by Jews, is worthy of being singled out as particularly cruel to animals and therefore should be banned.” He went on to say that he could not “accept the idea that in a country where you can go out and hunt for pleasure, also something expressly forbidden in Judaism, a country where you can take a live carp home in a plastic bag and allow it to slowly suffocate as you wait in line at the supermarket checkout before Christmas, [Parliament] should outlaw a form of killing which was devised thousands of years ago to be humane.”

At the time of this writing, Poland’s Jewish community plans to petition the country’s constitutional court in an effort to strike down the Sejm decision upholding the ban. Chief “Many legal experts believe that the only way to resolve the conflict between the law and the rights of Poland’s religious communities is by petitioning the Constitutional Court and letting it rule on the matter. We will express our position in a most determined fashion and will bring most of the evidence from the Polish Constitution, which supports our position,” declared Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.

Many Jews and Muslims fear that the decision in the Sejm could presage a new struggle against the rights of Jews and Muslims to observe the sacred tenets of their faith. In the Netherlands, an attempt to restrict the right of Jews to slaughter animals in accordance with shechita was staved off. The Dutch minister of agriculture, issued instructions that allow the Jewish community to continue the practice of shechita. These instructions included the introduction of a requirement that the incision be performed within a three-second period. A previous ruling limiting the number of movements of the knife has been abandoned. This issue was also played out in Britain some years ago, but in the end the Anglo-Jewish and Muslim communities were permitted to continue the practice.

'Ritual' slaughter

Part of the problem, at least in the public debate in Poland, stems from the nomenclature: the very use of the word 'ritual' [rytualny] attached to slaughter [ubój]. The idea that the slaughter of animals is a religious 'rite' makes it easy to suggest that it is a part of an antiquated, cruel and even savage custom — and that it should be dispensed with in modern society. Opponents of shechita and halal have often attributed a sinister connotation to the two forms of religiously prescribed slaughter.

Given the declining level of Christian religious observance in Europe, there is less and less tolerance for those who adhere to religious law — especially when it is depicted in such negative terms. It will remain a challenge to Jews and Muslims to overcome this insidious connection between religious rite and cruelty to animals in their attempts to lobby to preserve their rights.

European Union regulations have stipulated that all farm animals must be stunned before slaughter (a practice, which, as noted above, is strictly forbidden by Jewish religious law) unless they are killed in accordance with religious methods, such as shechita or halal.

There is considerable misunderstanding about the effects of stunning animals prior to their slaughter. While stunning an animal may well be preferable to allowing it to experience the pain inflicted by most non-kosher means of slaughter, there is doubt as to whether the same is true with regard to shechita. In fact, the knife (sharp as a surgical scalpel) applied by the shochet across the throat may by itself be regarded as a form of stunning because the animal is rendered unconscious at once. And the risk of imperfect stunning is a very real one, which may cause considerable agony to the animal. Rabbinical authorities who have studied the question believe that stunning before slaughter can actually inflict injuries on the animal severe enough to render it unfit for consumption by those who adhere to Jewish dietary laws.

This is because one requirement for kosher meat is that the animal must have had no physical defects before it was slaughtered, and these rabbis saw the injuries caused by stunning as being significant enough to make an animal non-kosher according to this requirement.

Significantly, certain Muslim abattoirs do comply with the regulation regarding pre-stunning and allow for animals destined for slaughter to be stunned electrically. Still, there is considerable debate in Islamic circles as to whether or not this practice is acceptable or not. More progressive Muslims are less likely to protest if some of their religious leaders allow for stunning. But what is especially worrisome to those who are committed to upholding the rights of Jews and Muslims is the high degree of standardization that the EU imposes on its member states.

In other words, it is likely that as EU standardization becomes more widespread, and given the tendency toward limitations, questions will be raised in many EU states about the viability of existing legislation allowing for exemptions to Jews and Muslims.

A debate with far-reaching consequences

After the Polish parliament's decision, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, who pioneered the revival of Jewish life in post-Communist countries, wrote in an op-ed: "I am left wondering: Can the Jewish renaissance in the heart of Europe continue if essential elements of Jewish life are declared illegal? Or will Europe’s leaders stand up for the civil rights of their Jewish compatriots? As Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, recently remarked, you cannot be proud of the Jews of yesterday and tell the Jews of today that their religious practices are not welcome any more."

There is no doubt that the resolution of the debate on shechita will affect the quality of life of millions of Jews and Muslims across Europe and will have far-reaching effects on the rights of religious minorities to live according to the precepts of their faith.

Rabbi Schudrich, who has worked in Poland for close to a quarter of a century, has said that he could not imagine serving as chief rabbi in a country in which the rights of the Jewish religion are curtailed, as he would not be able to serve his co-religionists properly. This is an especially poignant declaration by someone who played a great role in the extraordinary revival of Jewish life.  Indeed, until not that long ago people had every reason to believe that the final chapter in the long history of Polish Jewry had come to a close.

Today, many Jews, whether in Poland or other countries, including those who do not themselves observe the Jewish dietary laws have rallied around this issue, because they see it as a clear test of their society's commitment to uphold civil and religious rights. One can only hope that their non-Jewish neighbors see it in similar terms.