Austria’s vice chancellor and interior minister on Monday indicated that he wants to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter, fanning the flames of an ongoing discussion in the country about the conflicting values of religious freedom and animal rights.
Ritual slaughter, known as Schächten in German and shechita in Hebrew, “should generally be prohibited without prior anesthetization, just like in other EU countries,” Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, wrote on his Facebook page.
“And animals are not objects but creatures worthy of protection that must not be allowed to be tortured!” he added.
Strache included in his post a link to a newspaper article that lists several European Union member states where ritual slaughter is outlawed, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland.
The article (in German) is illustrated by a map of Europe and a cartoon sheep, together with the words: “Schächten verboten.”
In the comments section of his post, Strache wrote that many things have to be “improved” regarding animal protection. “And that’s an issue close to my heart, which I want to advance!”
Strache’s position appears to be opposed to that of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who last week promised his government will “in no way” limit the Jewish community’s ability to produce and consume kosher meat.
According to current Austrian law, the slaughter of animals without prior anesthetization is forbidden. However, exceptions are made to produce kosher or halal meat. Religious Jews and Muslims are forbidden from consuming meat of animals that were sedated before they killed.
However, animals produced for the kosher and the halal markets are stunned immediately after their throats have been cut, in an effort to minimize their suffering.
“Approximately 15 years ago, a compromise solution was found regarding the question of kosher/halal slaughter in Austria,” Israel’s ambassador to Austria, Martin Weiss, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
“Chancellor Kurz has repeatedly underlined the importance of Jewish life in Austria and has made it clear that no changes to this practice will find a majority in a government under his leadership. This is where we stand today — and will tomorrow,” Weiss added.
The thorny issue of when religious freedom can trump animal welfare made headlines last week, when the Austrian Jewish community complained over the plans of a regional politician to dramatically limit the availability of kosher meat.
Gottfried Waldhäusl, a member of the regional parliament of Lower Austria, argued that only individuals who can prove that they obey religious dietary laws be allowed to take advantage of the legal exception allowing shechitah. For that purpose, he suggested that consumers of ritually slaughtered meet register with state authorities.
Waldhäusl, a member of the Freedom Party, also wanted to require consumers of kosher meat produced in Lower Austria to have their main residence in that state.
Few Jews live in Lower Austria, but it is there that most of the kosher meat consumed in neighboring Vienna is slaughtered. Some 95 percent of Austria’s 12,000-15,000 Jews live in the capital.
Apparently ending the debate, Lower Austria Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner on Tuesday assured local Jewish leaders that no lists of Jews would be created, and that the availability of kosher meat would not be diminished.
On Friday, Kurz and his minister for the European Union, Gernot Blümel, stressed their support of Jewish traditions, vowing to defend religious freedom.
“As head of the Austrian Federal Government, I can assure our Jewish fellow citizens that their freedoms and fundamental rights will be upheld and in no way limited,” Kurz said.
Blümel, Mikl-Leitner, and Parliament speaker Wolfgang Sobotka issued a joint statement saying that a “registration of end consumers who want to purchase kosher (and halal) meat will certainly not take place in Austria.”