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?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser