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British Jewish Groups Rejoicing After Ritual Slaughter Avoids Censure

March 15, 2005
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Jewish groups are welcoming the British government’s decision to reject a recommendation to ban kosher slaughter as a victory for their unified campaign. The threat to ritual slaughter, known as shechitah, was raised after a June 2003 report from the government-sponsored Farm Animal Welfare Council advised that the practice should be outlawed.

The council had argued that shechitah and the Muslim method of halal slaughter — both of which demand the animal be fully conscious when its throat is cut — contravened British laws against animal cruelty, which mandate that all animals butchered in Britain must be electrically stunned before they are killed.

But a specially formed Jewish coalition, Shechita UK, fought the recommendation by emphasizing scientific evidence that shechitah — which involves cutting an animal’s throat with a surgically sharp blade, leading to rapid loss of consciousness — is a humane method of slaughter.

The British authorities initially appeared inclined to accept the council’s assertions, the result of a four-year investigation, that “animals (especially cattle) slaughtered without pre-stunning are likely to experience very significant pain and distress.”

But in its final statement, issued last week, the government emphasized that it was “committed to respect for the rights of religious groups.”

Describing the council report as “inaccurate and biased,” Henry Grunwald, the chairman of Shechita UK, said, “The government’s response means that the Jewish community can continue freely to practice the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter for food in this country.

“We are pleased that the government has recognized and understood our concerns,” he added.

Jewish leaders say the campaign not only has served to preserve the right of British Jews to produce and eat kosher meat, but also highlighted a rare example of community unity.

Shechita UK took pains to incorporate members of the Board of Deputies — the representative body of Anglo Jewry — along with various shechitah bodies and all the British authorities that oversee kosher food.

“It’s been a real example of cooperation,” said Shechita UK’s campaign director, Shimon Cohen. “The Orthodox community from left to right pulled together in a major way and had the full support of the progressive community. This is the first time anyone can remember that we all sat around together and actually delivered something.”

The last serious challenge to kosher slaughter in Britain came in 1985, when the council recommended that the government “require that the Jewish and Muslim communities review their methods of slaughter so as to develop alternatives which permit effective stunning.”

The community overturned that threat, but the lessons learned in fighting that campaign — “It’s vital to be united,” Cohen said — were put to use in the latest lobbying effort.

European animal rights laws demand that livestock must be stunned before slaughter, but most countries — except Sweden and Switzerland — make exceptions on the grounds of religious liberty.

However, kosher slaughter is seen by the public to be an act of cruelty to animals.

It was that view that was the main focus for the Shechita UK campaign, which set out to put across the concept of shechitah as a compassionate method of slaughter.

There may be further challenges ahead, though, with the council preparing to publish a report on the slaughter of “white meat” animals, which includes poultry.

“The work of Shechita UK is not yet complete,” said Grunwald. “We believe that shechitah should be unequivocally acknowledged as a humane method of animal slaughter for food.”

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