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29 June 2011

Is Kosher still kosher?

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

By Nelson Jones

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.

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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.

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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?