As a small group of voters in this country of 10 million people, Belgium’s 30,000 Jews generally keep a low profile. But the community recently sent representatives to Senate hearings on a proposed law affecting shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of killing animals for meat consumption.
Shechitah has been legal in Belgium since 1808, when Napoleon granted Judaism the status of an official religion. However, because of the size of the Jewish population in Belgium, not many animals are killed according to shechitah: Of a total of 549,000 cattle killed in Belgium in 2004, just 382 were killed by kosher slaughterers.
The law under discussion doesn’t single out the Jewish practice — it also targets dhabiha, the Muslim method of slaughter — but the legislation clearly is aimed at reining in religious slaughtering.
Belgium’s chief rabbi, Albert Guigui, one of two experts representing Belgian Jewry at the hearings, said the proposed law “stigmatizes meat that was killed for Jews and Muslims.”
The second representative, Pinchas Kornfeld, a community leader from Antwerp, claimed that the law “mainly tried to attack the Muslims, but the Jews will also feel the effects of it.”
The law was proposed nearly a year ago by Jean-Marie Dedecker, a senator from the Flemish Liberals and Democrats, a center-right political party. The legislation is a private initiative, however, as Dedecker’s party refuses to support it.
Dedecker’s main support has come from an unexpected corner: the Vlaams Belang, a far-right Flemish political party that some accuse of racism.
The law was created after Global Action in the Interest of Animals, a local animal-rights group, brought the issue of ritual slaughter to Dedecker’s attention.
The legislation urges the government to crack down on animal slaughter outside of government-inspected abattoirs. Illegal killings occur yearly around Id al-Adha, a Muslim festival that traditionally involves the slaughtering of a sheep for each family.
As many as 22,000 animals are slaughtered illegally for the festival each year, and Dedecker said he wants to pass the law before next January’s festival.
Kornfeld said the Jewish community has no problem with restricting slaughter to legal abbatoirs.
“All kosher meat is slaughtered in the official abattoirs and by certified employees of the Jewish community,” he said.
But the community does take issue with other parts of the law: It proposes mandatory stunning of animals before slaughtering, and labeling all meat that was “ritually slaughtered.”
Stunning an animal before slaughter is against halachah, or Jewish law, so making stunning mandatory effectively would ban shechitah.
Philip Carmel, Brussels-based international relations director of the Conference of European Rabbis, said that according to halachah there’s no need for stunning: “The act of shechitah immediately stuns the animal. If we didn’t believe that this method stunned the animal, then we wouldn’t have this method of slaughter. We have a method of slaughter that is humane.”
Belgium is not the first country where mandatory stunning has been proposed. The United Kingdom last year explored the option of introducing such a measure. The European Commission in 1993 issued a directive that recognized religious exceptions to regulations calling for mandatory stunning.
Sweden, a European Union member since 1995, currently is the only E.U. country that doesn’t allow shechitah. Norway and Switzerland, which aren’t E.U. members, also prohibit kosher slaughter, forcing the Jewish communities there to import kosher meat.
The proposed legislation also focuses on the labeling of meat that was slaughtered according to religious tradition. Many animals killed according to the rules of shechitah do not pass additional strict inspections required for meat to be declared kosher.
Meat that does not pass these additional tests, as well as the hind quarters of slaughtered animals — which are difficult to make kosher — is sold to regular butchers. Labeling the meat as slaughtered under religious guidelines would make clear to consumers that the animal was intended for Jewish consumption.
“Labeling does not seem so bad at first glance, but in fact it stigmatizes Jewish slaughter,” Kornfeld said. “It’s like putting a yellow star on the animals. If this goes through, it’s the end of kosher slaughter in Belgium.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.