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British Jews Uniting to Fight Campaign to Ban Kosher Slaughter

November 10, 2003
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A campaign to repeal laws that guarantee the right to practice kosher slaughter, or shechitah, has prompted a rare show of unity among Britain’s Jews.

Currently all animals slaughtered for food in Britain must be stunned before their throats are cut, except for those killed by kosher and halal methods, the latter for the Muslim form of ritual slaughter.

Both religions forbid stunning, which they believe causes unacceptable suffering to the animal. And both have been the targets of a campaign by groups that say religious slaughter is inhumane.

The leaders of the newly formed Shechita UK, which brings together representatives of the groups fighting to keep shechitah and the kosher meat it produces legal, say they intend not just to defend the practice against the stunning recommendations but to prove that the kosher method of slaughter is as humane, if not more so, than the methods practiced in non-religious slaughterhouses.

“Together we will not just protect shechitah, but promote it,” said Henry Grunwald, president of the Jewish Board of Deputies and honorary chairman of the new group.

It is a battle that Shechita UK will have to fight vigorously. In Europe, religious slaughter is often seen as cruel and unnecessary by the wider public as well as by many animal-rights groups.

“There has been a groundswell of interest by the public in animal-rights issues, but little is known or understood about the Jewish method of slaughter and the perception of shechitah needs to change,” said Chanoch Kesselman, vice president of the Campaign for the Protection Shechita — one of the groups, along with the Board of Deputies and the National Council of Shechita Boards, that is part of the new umbrella group.

When shechitah was last seriously threatened in 1985, the government had to deal with a number of different Jewish organizations — an approach that Shechita UK says weakened the community’s effectiveness.

“We now speak with one voice, one educated voice,” Kesselman said.

Organizers hope that a London-based public relations firm will help them persuade animal-rights groups, lawmakers and the public that shechitah is a humane method of slaughter.

The team is led by Shimon Cohen, who is aware from his involvement in previous attempts to outlaw religious slaughter in the United Kingdom that simply defending the right to practice shechitah will not guarantee its place in law.

“The days of merely reacting to the threat to shechitah is over,” Cohen said. “What we are going to put out is a positive message, not just a defensive one.”

Cohen said he wants Shechita UK to argue that there is no contradiction between the animals’ welfare and kosher slaughter.

British legislation on slaughterhouses enshrines the principle that “it is an absolute offense to cause or permit an animal avoidable excitement, pain or suffering.”

Both sides are adamant that humane treatment of animals is sacrosanct to their method of slaughter.

Shechita UK points to the fact that a number of scientific studies, most of them American, have concluded that stunning, which is meant to make the animal unconscious before cutting the throat, can sometimes cause great distress. The studies also say that shechitah, in draining the blood quickly by a precision cut, minimizes pain, since consciousness is lost rapidly.

Convincing the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the government-sponsored advisory body that wants to outlaw religious slaughter, will be no easy task. Judy MacArthur Clark, chairwoman of FAWC, told JTA that her organization’s support for stunning is solid.

“There is absolutely no evidence to prove that shechitah is a more humane method of killing an animal than the pre-stunning,” said MacArthur Clark, who rejected the validity of the U.S. studies favorable to religious slaughter.

“How can you consider that cutting all the major tissues in an animal’s throat will not cause great pain to an animal?” she asked.

So far, the government has not responded officially to FAWC’s recommendations — which, although they carry significant scientific and political weight, do not have the power of law.

Nonetheless, MacArthur Clark said she is confident that the authorities would take FAWC’s opposition to religious slaughter very seriously.

Another adversary of shechitah is Vegetarians International Voice for Animals, a lobbying group that supports FAWC’s stance and recently launched its own campaign against religious slaughter.

The group’s associate director, Tony Wardle, described shechitah as “barbaric.”

“It is appalling that in this day and age a group can defend a medieval practice that has been shown overwhelmingly by scientific study to be inhumane,” Wardle told JTA.

Although the animal welfare activist said he would be interested in seeing kosher slaughter in person — an initiative Shechita UK hopes to promote among Jewish and non-Jewish media and activists alike — Wardle said he had seen a video of shechitah that made him “want to vomit.”

The British Veterinary Association has also welcomed the FAWC recommendations.

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