More than 50 religious groups have lodged complaints with Belgium’s Constitutional Court in the hope of repealing a law enacted at the beginning of the year banning ritual slaughter of animals unless they are first shot in the head with a stun gun or shocked senseless with electricity.
Proponents of the law, which would in effect forbid shechitah, claim that they are not motivated by ill will toward Jews or Muslims, whose slaughtering method is also affected, but rather only by concern for the welfare of animals.
Shechitah, however, is entirely humane, and at least some of the activists behind the law and similar ones elsewhere seem to harbor non-animal-related biases.
Killing an animal is an inherently violent act, but no one, thankfully, is proposing a ban on animal slaughter for food. So what remains as an issue is causing undue discomfort to animals being killed. The sharpness of the knife traditionally used in shechitos and the swiftness of the cut result in minimal, if any, pain to an animal. There is an immediate loss of much blood and oxygenation of the brain ceases. As a result, consciousness can be assumed to quickly ebb.
In the United States, the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 protects the practice of shechitah, and, in fact, states explicitly that it is a humane method of slaughter.
Renowned professor of animal science Temple Grandin, moreover, has said about shechitah that, “When the cut is done correctly, the animal appears not to feel it” at all.
Ironically, by contrast, the impact of stunning an animal, with a steel bolt to the head or electric shock, is unnecessarily harsh, and not even always effective, causing animals to suffer blunt trauma or the pain of electric burns.
The European Union’s laws require animals to be stunned before slaughter but allow for exemptions on religious grounds. Several European countries offer religious exemptions for ritual slaughter. Others, though, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Slovenia and now Belgium, do not.
The Belgian law prohibiting animal slaughter without stunning was approved by the country’s Parliament in July 2017. The northern region of Flanders, home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe, around the city of Antwerp, was the first to implement the ban.
The southern French-speaking Wallonia region will put similar restrictions in place in September. By the end of the year, only the Brussels region, home to a sizable Muslim community, will continue to allow slaughter methods without pre-stunning.
About 30,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims are estimated to live in Belgium, out of a total population of 11 million. Apart from religious freedom concerns, the ban could increase food prices for observant Jews and Muslims, since their meat will have to be imported from other countries. And kosher butchers and slaughterhouses will go out of business.
The motivations of those who have pushed for the rescinding of religious exemptions are rightfully suspect. The legislation in Belgium, for instance, was initially proposed by the state of Flanders’ animal welfare minister Ben Weyts, a right-wing Flemish nationalist. Mr. Weyts recently retweeted a comment from far-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, who wrote that the ban “needs to happen in every European country.” While askanim in the field believe that Wayts is sincerely motivated by animal welfare, many who gave the ban such broad support have other motivations.
Beyond contemporary religious or social biases, the pushes to effectively outlaw shechitah is ominous.
Jews and Muslims in affected countries are also concerned about further erosion of their rights to practice their religions. There have in fact been attempts to ban milah in Germany and Denmark over the past several years.
Back in January, the New York Times editorialized about the threat to ritual slaughter in European countries, noting how “Right-wing politicians in several countries have used controls on such religious practices to press bigoted agendas under the cloak of battling for civil or animal rights.”
The editorial observes as well that “on a continent with a long history of anti-Semitism and a newer spread of animosity toward Muslim immigrants, any regulation that appears to discriminate against Jewish or Muslim practices and traditions, circumcision and dress are other examples, is bound to be viewed by the religious as insulting and hostile.”
Not just “viewed” that way, and not just by “the religious.” Innocent animal rights activists may have been ensnared in the net cast by more cynical players, inspired by other, less sublime concerns. But all people of good will should understand that shechitah is an entirely humane method of slaughter, and that its protection is vital to Jewish communities.