SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — A controversial ban on kosher slaughter by New Zealand’s agriculture minister has been partially reversed amid allegations that his decision was taken to appease Muslim countries that have lucrative trade relations with New Zealand.
The reversal marked only a partial victory for the Jewish community: While the ban on kosher slaughter of poultry was suspended and a deal on kosher lamb is still being negotiated, the ban on beef is expected to remain in place. That means kosher beef will have to be imported from Australia.
New Zealand Jewish Council President Stephen Goodman, who had described the ban as "a direct threat to our existence," said the partial reversal was a "small victory confirming our rights to practice as Jews in New Zealand.
“The whole process has been extremely stressful to the New Zealand Jewish community,” he said, noting that it has cost more than $223,000 to fight the ban. That money, Goodman said, “could and should have been applied to reinforcing the community rather than arguing with our government about our right to live here."
Last Friday, lawyers acting for Agriculture Minister David Carter agreed to permit the kosher slaughter, or shechitah, of poultry. The decision came just three days before the trial over shechitah was due to begin in the High Court in Wellington.
The change comes six months after Carter’s May 27 amendment of the Commercial Slaughter Code mandating that all animals for commercial slaughter must first be stunned. That action rendered kosher slaughter unlawful and enraged the 7,000-member Jewish community, which took the matter to the High Court when negotiations with Carter broke down in August.
Ever since the ban was declared, the case has been closely monitored by Jewish officials the world over — from the Orthodox Union in New York to the Office of the Chief Rabbinate in London.
"We felt right away it was a significant case," Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrut division, told JTA. "The OU was extremely concerned about it. Whenever shechitah is challenged, we consider it significant because of its history." He noted that the Nazis prohibited shechitah.
"We were also concerned because of the ramifications in Europe," Genack said, alluding to the Dec. 7 vote by all 27 European Union states on a proposal to label kosher meat as "slaughtered without stunning."
Genack said in a meeting this week with New Zealand Consul General Paul Gestro, he impressed upon Gestro that the U.S. Humane Slaughter Act deems shechitah humane.
Even after Carter backed down last week, he told Radio New Zealand on Monday that killing animals without pre-stunning was "frankly cruel."
His comments came a day after the Herald newspaper published allegations that Carter was advised that Muslim countries might be irked if they believed New Zealand was giving preferential treatment to the Jews while animals must be pre-stunned for halal.
The paper also revealed that Carter owns shares in Alliance Group Ltd., which exports meat to Muslim countries, and in Silver Fern Farms Ltd.
Carter denied the allegations.
"Claims that business interests determined my decision on the Commercial Slaughter Code of Welfare are totally baseless," he said in a statement. "Animal welfare was the primary consideration in making the decision."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, whose mother was a Jewish refugee who escaped Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, said he had "no concerns" with the way Carter handled the issue.
Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, the Chabad emissary to New Zealand, said he was delighted by Carter’s reversal.
"The ban on shechitah would have been devastating to the Jewish community, which has a hard enough time observing Jewish traditions,” he said. “We regret that we needed to go to the courts simply to uphold the New Zealand Bill of Rights."
Animal welfare groups expressed their outrage. Robyn Kippenberger of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told the Herald that "Kosher killing does cause suffering. Pressure from a small community is allowing animals to suffer — we believe that is unacceptable."
But David Zwartz, a representative of the Jewish Council, defended shechitah, which has been practiced here since 1843. Noting that hunting and home kills on farms are legal in New Zealand, he said, "There are double standards here in what is being required of the Jewish community and what is being required of New Zealand society as a whole."
Although the case was not heard in court, Sydney-based Jeremy Lawrence, a former rabbi at the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, said the process was beneficial.
"As a test case, the bringing together of the local community with Shechita UK, with scientific experts in America and with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry means that we are much better equipped to respond to these attacks than we were a year ago," he said. "We are on alert."
Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, who travels from Australia to New Zealand to supervise shechitah, told JTA, "Victory will only he complete when lamb and beef are approved."
He said, "What we were more concerned about was that people could say, ‘If shechitah was banned in New Zealand it could be banned elsewhere.’ Thankfully that precedent was not set."