By Jemma WAYNE, Author and journalist
The UK’s Jewish community is used to being singled out for scolding. Despite the fact that Israeli and Jewish are not the same thing, and despite far greater atrocities committed around the world than those perpetrated by Israel, we are used to receiving a disproportionate amount of scrutiny. And flak. Last week’s uproar about religious slaughter would, at first glance, seem just another example. Countless worse animal cruelties take place, yet it is the singular perceived brutality perpetrated by Jews and Muslims that is a top vet’s top priority. Forgive us if we’re not surprised.
For those who missed it, the President-elect of the British Veterinary Association called for a ban on slaughtering animals without first stunning them – in effect prohibiting kosher and halal slaughter. It was, he said, one of the most important issues on the BVA’s radar. The plethora of blogs and tweets in response to this call (along the lines of, if Jews and Muslims don’t like British rules, we can go home) reveal the Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism just waiting for an outlet.
It is not paranoid to feel discrimination. However, we cannot allow the prejudice of others to blind us into a knee-jerk reaction. We cannot forget that such bigotry is a minority (if vocal) view.
And we cannot use such narrow-mindedness as an excuse to look narrowly ourselves. It would be wrong not to examine our own practices.
There are multiple questions to answer. The first is whether or not it is true that the method of slaughter employed in shechita is less humane than conventional abattoirs. The BVA insists it is, that because the animal is not stunned, they experience the pain of the slit, they will gasp for breath and suffer excessive pain.
Groups in support of religious slaughter argue that in up to 31 percent of cases, stunning is ineffective and can itself cause the animal huge suffering. They also suggest that the condition in which animals are kept in many standard abattoirs is far less humane than those maintained by religious slaughter houses – raising further animal welfare issues including overcrowding, and the trauma of herded animals smelling blood and witnessing slaughter. Given the minority of animals reared for religious slaughter, these “conventional” cruelties affect far more animals than those servicing the Jewish and Muslim communities.
So, given the discrepancy of opinion about pain suffered at the point of death, can we better define the science? Can we more clearly determine which method is really worse for the animal, and whether or not that difference is significant? Second, in consideration of abattoir conditions, when an animal is raised for the purpose of being killed, is the manner of its life more or less important than the manner of its death? The latter question requires philosophy, the former science. But without answering them both, it is impossible to properly examine the validity of clinging to our practices.
As the gory details of these animals’ fates are described, it feels harder to justify their suffering for our ritual. Yet it is worth remembering that we are dealing merely with increments of suffering. As a civilisation we long ago decided that animals serve us, in life and death. The uncertainty is only over how much suffering and for what purpose? Food, clothes, medicine, cosmetics?
If it turns out that the suffering through religious slaughter is not significantly worse than those killed conventionally, or that the superior conditions in which they are kept in life outweigh a marginal difference at death, then perhaps the BVA needs to think again about their chosen target.
If, however, the accusations are true and our rituals do cause excessive pain, we as a community must not shy away from the evidence, nor the responsibility to correct it. No matter how ingrained a part of our religious practice shechita laws are, they cannot be impervious to modern humanitarian standards. We would never endorse female circumcision simply because it is religious practice. Nor should we blindly protect our customs. Religion doesn’t, and shouldn’t, exist within a vacuum. It must evolve and adapt. Where shechita is concerned, we must, first, demand the science.
But then, regardless of what prejudice the scrutiny did or did not spring from, we must be just as demanding in an examination of ourselves.