Op-Ed: Follow Israel’s lead on ending animal cruelty

(JTA) — Diaspora Jews often find themselves exasperated with the Israeli rabbinate. But on one significant issue, an Israeli rabbinic authority is looking far more enlightened and merciful than his peers in the United States.

Recently elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau surprised more than a few people last week when he reportedly threatened to terminate the kosher certification of a slaughterhouse belonging to Soglowek, one of Israel’s largest meat producers.

Lau issued the warning after an undercover investigation produced video footage showing routine and egregious abuses of chickens and turkeys at a Soglowek slaughterhouse in northern Israel. The graphic video, aired on national television in Israel, showed chickens packed in filthy cages without food or water, writhing turkeys tossed into metal boxes with their throats cut, and several other forms of cruelty.

“As a human being and as a Jew, I was shocked by the footage, by the brutal behavior of those employees toward helpless animals,” said Lau, according to Israel’s Ynet website. “Such things shouldn’t happen. The Torah forbids us to act in this way and obliges us to be extra vigilant with regard to animal welfare. We cannot remain silent in the face of such things. We will act firmly and sternly against this factory.”

Lau summoned Soglowek officials to a meeting and urged all slaughterhouses nationwide to take additional steps to avoid abuses. The Soglowek slaughterhouse was shut down temporarily by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The chief rabbi’s reaction to the conditions at the Soglowek facility is remarkable, and encouraging, in two ways. First, he said the treatment of animals prior to slaughter actually matters. The rabbi specifically invoked “tzar baalei chaim,” the Jewish prohibition on inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals.

In essence, Lau shattered the widely believed fiction that the laws of kashrut by themselves assure the humane treatment of animals. He acknowledged the reality that the laws of kosher slaughter only apply to the last seconds of an animal’s life. What happens in the modern factory farm and during transport to the slaughterhouse typically involves multiple forms of cruelty, but is not governed by kosher standards.

Second, Lau’s response to the Soglowek scandal stands out in vivid contrast to how America’s kashrut establishment has reacted to similar situations in U.S. slaughterhouses.

The most obvious example is the infamous Agriprocessors case, in which undercover investigators documented shocking cruelty at what was then the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. In response, the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kosher-certification agency and one of the plant’s kosher supervisors, told concerned consumers that disturbing footage shot at the plant was not an indication of animal suffering.

Granted, the Soglowek and Agriprocessors are not identical. The footage at the Soglowek slaughterhouse focused mainly on the pre-slaughter processing of chickens and turkeys, while the most incendiary footage from Agriprocessors focused on cows after slaughter. The common denominator is evidence of the harsh realities of the industrial meat business.

Jewish Vegetarians of North America calls on the O.U. and other kosher-certification agencies to follow Lau’s lead and get serious about animal cruelty. The treatment of animals in factory farms, transport vehicles and slaughterhouses should concern the rabbinate — and should concern anyone who views compassion as a virtue rather than as an inconvenience or an expense.

Kosher-certification standards should be reviewed and a humane-certification process should be created to take into account the treatment of the animals at every stage of their shortened lives. The operators of farms and slaughterhouses alike should be regularly inspected and the results made public.

Isn’t that the government’s job? Sadly, the only federal law governing the treatment of farm animals, the Humane Slaughter Act, entirely exempts birds. In other words, 98.5 percent of slaughtered animals are completely unprotected. They are at our mercy.

And they desperately need our mercy. Even at the better-run factory farms, as many as 50,000 chickens are crammed into long, low-slung buildings, genetically manipulated to grow unnaturally fast, denied meaningful access to the outdoors, separated from their mothers and trucked to the slaughterhouse before they even reach adulthood. Nearly all of their natural behaviors are thwarted, in direct contravention of how the Torah tells us to treat animals.

For everyone wishing to align their food choices with their own deeply felt sense of compassion, we advocate vegetarianism as an expression of Jewish ideals.

But for people who continue eating meat, we ask our nation’s Orthodox rabbinate to be at least as caring as their counterparts in Israel.

(Jeffrey Cohan is the executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America.)

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