Is Kosher still kosher?

When it comes to animal welfare, should secular standards trump religious scruples?

The lower house of the Dutch parliament has voted by a large majority to ban the slaughter of animals without prior electric stunning, as practised by religiously observant Jews and Muslims. The Netherlands would not be the first European country to have such a law -- it is already banned in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland -- but the vote has inevitably reopened the debate on the balance that any modern society must strike between common standards and the rights of minorities to maintain their own traditions.

The debate is perhaps especially fierce in Holland, a country that has long been at the forefront of liberal modernity but which has more recently seen deep and ugly divisions on questions of immigration and culture. Last week saw the acquittal of Geert Wilders on charges of inciting religious hatred through his strongly expressed condemnation of Islam. The vote on banning ritual slaughter has been compared by the country's Chief Rabbi to Nazi legislation that began with the closing of kosher abbatoirs and ended with the Holocaust.

The comparison seems exaggerated, even offensive. But then Hitler was famously a vegetarian. Concern for animal welfare has not always gone hand-in-hand with love of human beings or the promotion of human rights. Even if -- as I strongly believe -- increasing concern about the treatment of other animals is a mark of a more civilised society, it doesn't necessarily follow that those promoting new rules act from disinterested motives.

For many people, the question is purely and simply one of reducing -- so far as is possible -- the pain and suffering of the animals being killed for food. The best scientific evidence suggests that pre-stunning animals is more humane than the religiously-decreed alternative of slitting their throats while still conscious, and that should be the end of the matter. It is widely accepted, after all, that even in a tolerant and religiously plural society some practices are off limits. There's no prospect of allowing female genital mutilation, for example, or child marriage, or the ritual use of illegal drugs. There's even a growing debate about the morality of cicumcising baby boys.

By and large, religious leaders accept that exemptions cannot be demanded as of right, or purely on the grounds of tradition and strongly held belief, but that they must pay lip-service at least to secularism. It's not enough to say simply, "This is what God has ordained". If religious slaughter were demonstrably cruel -- not merely less humane, but mandated that animals be slowly tortured to death or roasted while still alive -- then the argument would have ended long ago. In fact, before the introduction of prior stunning there was little or any distinction, in terms of animal suffering, between religious and non-religious slaughter.

The question thus is whether the religious should be forced to take on board the modern advance of electric stunning if they are to continue to eat meat. The change may in fact be easier for Muslims than for Jews, since some interpretations of Islamic law allow animals to be stunned before being killed. The practice is widespread in New Zealand, where for largely commercial reasons almost all meat is now halal. But Jewish law has historically been flexible, and one should never underestimate the ingenuity of rabbis.

The aim of both kosher and halal butchers -- they claim -- has always been to dispatch the animal in as swift and merciful a manner as possible. God, they would argue, would not have ordained a needlessly cruel death for his creatures. And this is, of course, the stated purpose of modern, secular, animal welfare regulations. Of course, being modern and secular the regulations invoke science rather than God, but the motivation is similar. One might almost call it religious.

Instead of crying religious discrimination, should the rabbis and imams not rather be grateful to the scientists for helping them to fulfil the deeper purpose behind their commandments more faithfully?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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