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German Jews, Muslims United Behind Ruling on Ritual Slaughter

January 16, 2002
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Jewish and Muslim groups here are applauding the reversal of a law that banned Islamic ritual slaughter in Germany.

Tuesday’s decision by the high court in Karlsruhe was seen as an affirmation of religious freedom in Germany and Europe.

But German animal rights groups decried the ruling and said they would not cease their quest for a European ban on forms of ritual slaughter they consider cruel to animals. They said they will take their campaign across Europe and to the European Union.

The court decision, which overturned a 1995 law forbidding Islamic ritual slaughter in Germany, came in response to a suit brought by a Turkish butcher, Ruestem Altinkuepe.

He claimed Germany was restricting his religious freedom and his ability to earn a living by forbidding him from performing ritual slaughter.

Jewish ritual slaughter is permitted in Germany.

The Central Council of Muslims in Germany praised the Jan. 15 decision for “making it possible once again for Muslims in Germany to carry out ritual slaughter according to Islamic instructions.”

“This decision indicates an even-handed treatment of Muslims with other religious communities and secures their basic right to practice their faith,” the group said in a statement.

Pinchas Kornfeld, chairman of the Belgium-based European Board of Shechita — Hebrew for Jewish ritual slaughter — said his board also praised the decision and hoped it confirmed the E.U. regulation that protects the right to ritual slaughter.

Animal protection groups reacted with dismay to the decision, but the German Animal Protection League and the Union Against Abuse of Animals said they would continue trying to ban ritual slaughter across Europe.

“I was shocked by the decision,” said Jorg Styrie, a vice president of the Union Against Abuse of Animals. “This is a backward step, not a forward step. It will not make us change our direction, but it will make our work a lot harder.”

Styrie said he had received 12 phone calls from angry animal rights activists after the decision was announced.

“I heard a lot of xenophobic statements against Muslims,” Styrie said.

He said that some people who live in Muslim communities in Germany have complained that during certain festivals their neighbors slaughter animals in their garages, and that blood flows onto the street.

At least 2 million Muslims live in Germany, most of them of Turkish origin. There are about 100,000 Jews in Germany, most of whom are non-observant and do not restrict their diet to kosher food.

Kosher slaughter is legal throughout Europe, except in Switzerland and Sweden. The Swiss government recently launched a campaign to end a century-old law barring Jewish ritual slaughter, but the move created a heated outcry.

In 1995, Germany declared the strict Islamic method of slaughter illegal, in part because lawmakers determined that Islam was not as clear as Judaism in forbidding the slaughter of an unconscious animal, and therefore determined that it should be possible for Muslim butchers to produce halal meat under the existing German law.

Aside from the exception for kosher slaughter, Germany requires that an animal be rendered unconscious before slaughter.

Both the German Animal Protection League and the Union Against Abuse of Animals cite studies that they say show an animal suffers more during ritual slaughter than if it is killed after being stunned.

They say the animal panics as it is forced into an unnatural position for the slaughter, that it continues to feel pain despite the slashing cut of a ritual slaughterer’s knife, and that the animal often breathes in its own blood as it flows from the wound.

Proponents of kashrut deny that an animal feels any more pain through kosher slaughter than through other methods. To make their case, they cite studies in which animals’ brain waves were measured during slaughter.

But such arguments often fall on deaf ears, says Rabbi Israel Meir Levinger, chairman of the European Kashrus Commission.

“I talked a few weeks ago with the president of an animal protection group in Switzerland, and he said to me, ‘You are right, from a scientific view shechita is not bad, but emotionally, people won’t have it,’ ” said Levinger, who lives in Basel, Switzerland.

His 1996 book, “Shechita in the Light of the Year 2000,” has become a reference for both supporters and opponents of shechita.

One group that cites Levinger in its fight against shechita is the German Animal Protection League.

“We would like a complete ban, but with the consent of all religious groups,” said Marion Steinbach, a spokesperson for the League. Steinbach said German animal rights groups plan to coordinate with related organizations across Europe, bringing their campaign to the European Union seat in Brussels.

“It may be time for religions to think over the way things are done,” Styrie said. “I have to ask if it is possible today within Judaism to anaesthetize the animal first. I am of the opinion that religion must examine itself, examine its teachings.”

Aware that Hitler’s first anti-Jewish regulations were prohibitions on shechita, German animal-rights advocates say they are not anti-Semitic.

“I can understand that there is an anti-Semitic background,” Steinbach said, “and we want to distance ourselves from that completely. We are an animal protection society. Our goal is to reduce the suffering of animals.”

Kornfeld said he was “not worrying” about new threats to kashrut in Europe.

“In the last 10 years we had a few problems, and thank God we succeeded in stopping them,” he said.

“We are in permanent contact with the animal protection people, and we try to bring them scientific evidence to show them that shechita is not worse than any other way of killing animals, and I would say even better,” Kornfeld said.

But, he acknowledged, banning shechita “will always be on someone’s agenda.”

In Germany, butchers are required to stun an animal, usually with a bolt fired into the brain, so that it is unconscious before slaughter. An exception was granted for the kosher form of slaughter, because a kosher butcher requires training and a license and is presumed to take precautions against an animal’s suffering.

While similar to kashrut, the Islamic method of butchering does not require the same level of training, experts say.

In addition, Islamic scholars in Mecca and Cairo ruled several years ago that stunning an animal before slaughtering it did not interfere with the proscription against eating meat from an animal that had died on its own. Germany therefore felt justified in passing the 1995 law.

The recent court case stemmed from the fact that the rulings from Mecca and Cairo are not accepted by many religious Muslims.

Banning this form of slaughter would be “a problem for us Muslims, just as much as it would be for our fellow Jewish citizens,” said Mohammed Herzog, a spokesman for the Berlin-based Islamic Society of German-Speaking Muslims.

Those in Germany who wish to eat meat slaughtered according to Islamic law usually get it from other countries, he said.

“I know the animal protection groups are against it, but the Jewish and Muslim way is the better way,” Herzog added. “The animal does not suffer as much as with the electric bolt.”

Levinger said Jewish and Islamic groups in Europe cooperate only to a limited extent on fighting bans of shechita, in part because their methods of slaughter are not identical.

“Since there are many millions of Muslims in Europe, it is worthwhile to work with them,” Levinger said. “But we do not want people to equate their shechita with ours.”

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