UK debate on ritual slaughter mobilizes Muslims and Jews
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UK debate on ritual slaughter mobilizes Muslims and Jews

80 percent of Muslim halal meat is pre-stunned, said one British MP at Monday's parliamentary debate. So why can't the Jewish community do the same?

Illustrative image of a demonstration of a ritual goat slaughter for ultra-Orthodox Jewish students in Zichron Moshe, on April 26, 2011. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative image of a demonstration of a ritual goat slaughter for ultra-Orthodox Jewish students in Zichron Moshe, on April 26, 2011. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

LONDON — For the second time in three months, British MPs have debated the future of religious slaughter, both halal and kosher.

A three-hour debate was called at Westminster Hall on Monday as a result of a petition backed by the British Veterinary Association calling for the banning of non-stun slaughter. The petition garnered more than 115,000 signatures.

Jews and Muslims are in complete accord in opposing the ban. For those in favor of continuing religious slaughter, a counter-petition, begun by a member of the Conservative Muslim Forum, has so far been signed by more than 124,000 people.

The core issue for the Jewish community is that Judaism does not accept slaughter with pre-stunning, a practice considered by many animal welfare activists as more humane. These activists say shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, is cruel and claim the animal does not lose consciousness from one knife cut. Shechita experts contest this, as do halal butchers.

In the Jewish community, Shechita UK is the main advocacy group seeking to preserve kosher slaughter. It has an advisory panel of rabbis from the London Beth Din and is headed by lawyer Henry Grunwald QC, former president of the Board of Deputies. The group was established a decade ago when it became clear that animal rights groups were at the forefront of trying to ban religious slaughter in Britain. To date Shechita UK has successfully rebuffed such attempts.

The issue is of such contemporary importance, however, that the first item on the British Veterinary Association’s election manifesto is a pledge to ban religious slaughter.

Fanning the flames, recent undercover filming at selected British slaughter houses — where kosher slaughter did not take place — have revealed distressing scenes of animals in obvious pain. Some prosecutions may follow.

Before the parliamentary debate, Shechita UK accused the British Veterinary Association – whose new president, John Blackwell, has not yet viewed a kosher slaughter himself – of being “negligent, obsessed and politically driven” in its campaign.

Conservative MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone (courtesy)
Conservative MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone (courtesy)

Conservative MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone opened the debate by emphasizing that the issue was one of animal welfare rather than an animus against religious practices. But many MPs, including those who sit for constituencies with a large Jewish and Muslim population, said their voters were deeply concerned about the renewed focus on what is to them a core religious practice.

Diane Abbott is a Labour MP who represents Hackney and Stoke Newington in east London, which has large Muslim and ultra-Orthodox populations. She said both communities are concerned about the renewed debate.

“They are concerned about what it really means. They are worried that the issue is not really one of animal welfare… they worry that some people who signed the petition are in some sense antagonistic to communities of faith,” said Abbott.

Mike Freer, Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley & Golders Green (courtesy)
Mike Freer, Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley & Golders Green (courtesy)

Conservative Mike Freer sits in Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley [as well as Golders Green], a heavily Jewish area. He said religious communities feel threatened and unwelcome.

“Some, but not all, are using animal welfare as a flag of convenience. That is why we must anchor this issue in animal welfare,” said Freer.

Freer said that opponents of halal and kosher slaughter had written to him complaining of meat being prepared by “dirty men with beards” or of “Muslim meat,” a point echoed by the MP for Ilford South, Mike Gapes, who said he had received similar anti-Semitic and Islamophobic letters.

European regulations insist on animal slaughter with pre-stunning. But there is an exemption for religious communities and Britain has applied that exemption so that halal and shechita can continue in the UK. This commitment was reiterated at the debate by a government minister.

Hollobone said that he believed “there is an overwhelming number of people who want to see non-stun slaughter ended in this country.”

‘There is an overwhelming number of people who want to see non-stun slaughter ended in this country’

Hollobone repeated – as did many of the MPs taking part in the debate – the statistic that 80 percent of halal meat is pre-stunned, leaving open the question as to why the Jewish community cannot do the same. Hollobone said that the Shechita UK campaign was not making a good enough case to defend its practice.

Nevertheless, the three-year training given to shochetim (or ritual slaughterers) and the insistence that both shochet and animal should be calm before slaughter takes place was widely praised during the discussion.

Almost everyone who spoke in the debate who had visited a slaughterhouse had witnessed only halal slaughter methods, and not those of shechita. Of the two Jewish MPs who contributed, one, Richard Harrington, (Conservative) MP for Watford, is a vegetarian of 32 years’ standing.

Nevertheless it was Harrington who went to see Prime Minister David Cameron to receive personal assurances for the continuation of kosher and halal slaughter in Britain.

MPs came out very strongly in favor of detailed labeling on meat products.

Shabana Mahmood MP for Birmingham Ladywood (courtesy)
Shabana Mahmood MP for Birmingham Ladywood (courtesy)

Hollobone suggested there should be four categories: halal, kosher, stunned and non-stunned. Other MPs, such as the Muslim MP for Birmingham Ladywood, Shabana Mahmood, said that this was insufficient information and could lead to renewed prejudice.

Hollobone suggested there should be four categories of labels: halal, kosher, stunned and non-stunned

Shechita UK’s spokesman, Shimon Cohen, told the Times of Israel that while there was no objection to labeling per se, it could not be restricted to four categories.

“Stunned meat would have to carry details of how the stunning was carried out – electric bolts, gassing, etc.” he said.

Additionally, there was a widely-backed call for mandatory video surveillance in all slaughter houses. A number of MPs – particularly those from farming communities – made a case for “post-cut stunning” – meaning that after an animal is killed by a shochet or a halal butcher, an electronic or mechanical stun is applied to ensure that the animal does not suffer.

Post-cut stunning was originally introduced in small slaughter houses as a way of ensuring animals’ limbs did not flail about after death by shechita. Rabbis consulted in the 1970s agreed that this limited practice could be introduced only 30 seconds after shechita was administered. Today Jewish religious authorities in Britain oppose post-cut stunning on the grounds that it would imply that shechita had failed to render an animal unconscious without causing undue suffering.

The Farm Animal Welfare Committee has been forced to admit that rather than the mere six cases of mis-stunned animals it acknowledged, in fact thousands of animals were involved every year

One long-standing complaint by Shechita UK campaigners did get highlighted: the vast amount of “mis-stunning” that takes place in Britain every year.

The Farm Animal Welfare Committee has been forced to admit that rather than the mere six cases of mis-stunned animals it acknowledged, in fact thousands of animals were involved every year. Electrocution, gassing, or bolts to the head have been mis-applied and the animals do not die immediately. These, say Shechita UK, amount to considerably more cruel and inhumane practices than anything done in the name of Islam or Judaism.

Cohen said Shechita UK was “extremely pleased” with the debate. He did not accept Hollobone’s contention that the vast majority of British people wanted an end to religious slaughter.

“It took the British Veterinary Association 12 months to come up with the signatures on their petition to enable this debate,” he said. “Those 125,000 people who signed the counter-petition, in favour of conserving halal and shechita, did so within a week.”

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