The parliament in the northern Flemish-speaking region of Flanders, Belgium, that includes Antwerp, has voted to ban all slaughter of animals without pre-stunning, making no exemptions for religious slaughter. The ban mirrors legislation recently passed by the parliament in Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking region. The law in both regions is set to go into effect in 2019; the only recourse is to appeal to national or EU courts.
Mr. Pinchos Kornfeld, president of Antwerp’s Machzikei Hadas kehillah, vice chairman of the Belgian Jewish Consistoire and chairman of its Shechitah Committee, told Hamodia that he was presently engaged in dialogue with legal experts to chart a course of action to challenge the law.
Reiterating a comment he made after the measure passed in Wallonia, Mr. Kornfeld said, “We have lost the battle, but we have not lost the war.”
The present law requires that small animals such as chickens and sheep be non-lethally stunned before they are killed. Cows would receive “irreversible stunning” shortly after slaughter. According to Jewish law, stunning renders animals unfit for kosher slaughter.
The arrangement is the result of a “historic compromise” that Animal Welfare Minister for the Flemish region, Ben Weyts, reached after a total ban was criticized by Belgium’s constitutional court.
Mr. Kornfeld said that while some Muslim groups remain adamantly opposed to the law, “most” have accepted it. He was hopeful that flexibility on the part of many Muslim groups might strengthen the Jewish community’s appeal that while Islamic leaders are able to accommodate the new standards, halachah absolutely forbids it, leaving Jews no option to produce meat in the country.
There is reason to believe that legal challenges could succeed. In February, a similar attempt by the Walloon parliament met with disapproval from the nation’s Council of State, the constitutional court, saying that it would “contradict basic human rights laws and religious rights.”
Most European Union countries require stunning but make exceptions for religious groups whose customs forbid it. Slaughter without pre-stunning is presently illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, without any exceptions.
The measure is especially significant as it affects Flanders’ capital city of Antwerp, home to one of Europe’s largest Orthodox Jewish communities.
The Jewish community’s main slaughterhouse is located in the Brussels region, which has not yet seen attempts to require stunning across the board. Still, several smaller kosher slaughterhouses that mostly produce chickens in Flanders would be affected by the ban.
Church leaders from Belgium’s Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches joined together to warn against using animal welfare issues to disguise attacks on religious freedom. “There are many problematic points in the food- and meat-processing industry that, due to its scale, deserve at least as much priority,” they said in a statement.
The present wave of attempts to ban religious slaughter represents a trend by nationalist elements in Europe to seek its elimination as a means of curbing the size and influence of Muslim communities on the continent. They have joined forces with powerful animal rights groups who also oppose slaughter without pre-stunning, even by religious groups. Many have commented that Jewish communities, and particularly shechitah, have become “collateral damage.” This and previous attempts to restrict religious slaughter in the Flemish region have won wide popularity outside the Muslim and Jewish communities. Both in Flanders and Wallonia, the laws passed unanimously.
Shimon Cohen, director of Shechita U.K, which advocates to protect the right to practice religious slaughter methods in Great Britain as well as on the Continent, told Hamodia that the move is cause for great concern, far beyond Belgium.
“This is a really worrying omen for the future of shechitah across Europe. We must join together to redouble our efforts to prevent this now being seen as a precedent,” he said.