Animal advocacy, religious teaching, & cultural insecurity collide in Belgium
BRUSSELS, Belgium––Is Belgium moving rapidly to ban slaughter without pre-stunning out of concern for animals, or are prohibitions of the traditional kosher and halal slaughter methods rooted in latent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia?
Slaughter without pre-stunning becomes illegal
Whatever the political truth is, legal reality is that slaughter without pre-stunning has been prohibited by unanimous vote of the legislature in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking northern half of Belgium, since January 1, 2019.
Slaughter without pre-stunning will be prohibited in Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half of Belgium, after September 1, 2019, under legislation adopted by a 69% majority of the Wallonian parliament in 2017.
The third and most cosmopolitan Belgian legislative district, the Brussels-Capital Region, is home to the headquarters of the European Union, and has no relevant law, but whether and how stunning requirements should be regulated is a matter of ongoing debate, both there and throughout much of the rest of Europe.
Explains the Law Library of Congress web page Legal Restrictions on Religious Slaughter in Europe, “The Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Animals for Slaughter and the European Union provide that animals should be stunned before they are slaughtered.”
Pre-stunning evolved to protect slaughtermen
However, both the Council of Europe and the European Union “also provide that member states may allow derogations from the stunning requirement to allow for ritual slaughter,” specifically kosher and halal slaughter as required by Judaic and Islamic religious laws originally prescribed by Moses and Mohammed specifically to minimize the suffering of slaughtered animals.
Methods of pre-stunning evolved millennia later, mostly to protect slaughtermen from injury, and initially consisted of nothing more subtle or gentle than a man crushing an animal’s skull with a sledge hammer.
By the mid-19th century, however, pre-stunning came to be widely seen, especially in the U.S. and Europe, as a means of reducing animal suffering––especially after the introduction of mechanical stunning methods, which could be more easily used without the animal becoming aware of what was about to happen.
Among the pre-stunning methods accepted under European Union rules are gassing with carbon dioxide, now widely used to kill poultry and pigs; stunning by electroshock, long part of the standard method of slaughtering poultry but more effective in evacuating the birds’ bowels than in rendering them insensitive to fear and pain; and shooting each animal with a captive bolt, meaning a metal rod that penetrates into the animal’s brain, then retracts to be used on the next animal in the slaughter line.
Hitler halted kosher slaughter
“Legislation requiring stunning prior to slaughter began to be adopted in parts of Europe in the late nineteenth century,” continues Legal Restrictions on Religious Slaughter in Europe. “In 1933, Adolf Hitler banned the slaughter of animals in Germany without prior stunning, which led to an anguished rabbinic debate on whether observant Jews could eat meat slaughtered with prior stunning under these circumstances. The rabbis reached a general consensus that prior stunning was unacceptable even under the extreme situation of Nazi Germany. Since then, virtually no rabbinic authorities have found that stunning prior to slaughter is consistent with Jewish doctrine.
“Under Islamic law,” Legal Restrictions on Religious Slaughter in Europe adds, “some authorities reject all forms of stunning prior to slaughter, while other authorities accept certain types of prior stunning.”
“Pre-stunning injures the animal”
Explained Jerusalem Post writer Jeremy Sharon, commenting on the Belgian legislation,
“Jewish [and Islamic] law requires that an animal be healthy and uninjured before slaughter, but pre-stunning injures the animal and therefore cannot be used.”
Said Belgian rabbi and European Jewish Association chair Menachem Margolin, to the Jewish Chronicle, “To have the government interfere in this way is damaging to the reputation of the Jewish people as a community. It implies that we as a group are irresponsible with the welfare of animals and need government supervision.”
Precedent for banning circumcision?
Margolin pointed out that Belgian Jews could continue to import kosher meat from the Netherlands, Britain, France, Hungary, and Ireland, all of which already supply meat to Belgian kosher and halal markets, but worried that banning kosher slaughter could become a precedent for other restrictions on traditional Jewish practice, particularly circumcision.
Antwerp rabbi Yaakov David Schmahl expressed similar concerns.
Joos Roets, an attorney who represents several Islamic institutions in a legal challenge to the Flemish and Wallonian laws, told The New York Times that he and his clients view the requirement of pre-stunning as a measure meant “to stigmatize some religious groups rather than to protect animals from suffering. The government could have taken other steps to protect animals,” Roets said, “without violating Belgian freedom of religion.”
“Anti-immigrant & Islamophobic”
Objected the World Jewish Congress, “The ban marks the latest in a series of measures which restrict Jewish religious practices in some European countries and this is a very worrying trend. In some European countries today, most notably France, the debate surrounding this issue is also linked to anti-immigrant and particularly Islamophobic sentiment, targeting halal slaughter, with shechita [kosher slaughter] becoming collateral damage.”
“Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland already prohibit non-stunned slaughter,” pointed out FoodIngredientsFirst.com writer Gaynor Selby. “Denmark introduced a ban on slaughter without pre-stunning in February 2014, citing animal rights concerns,” but continues to allow the import of meat slaughtered elsewhere according kosher and halal requirements.
Hunters cause more slow animal deaths
Similar legislation is pending in Finland, opposed by the World Jewish Congress, which notes that far more animals suffer lingering deaths through legal hunting than in ritual slaughter.
The Norwegian law “prohibiting slaughter without pre-stunning on a national level was adopted by the Norwegian parliament in 1929,” Selby recalled, paraphrasing World Jewish Congress statements, “amid a highly charged anti-Semitic atmosphere, with a significant campaign against the Jewish community.”
Polish ban on kosher & halal overturned
Similar conditions prevailed in Sweden, which introduced a pre-stunning requirement in 1938, and collaborated with the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940.
Poland banned kosher and halal slaughter in 2013, over the objection of the Polish council of Catholic bishops that “Jewish religious communities and believers of Islam are entitled to preserve and implement their fundamental rights to freedom of religion and worship.”
The Supreme Court of Poland overturned the ban in 2014.
Alliance of convenience
The political truth behind prohibitions of kosher and halal slaughter may reflect an alliance of convenience among opponents with uncomfortably mixed motives. The Flemish pre-stunning requirement, for instance, was introduced by Ben Weyts, described by the Catholic News Agency as “a right-wing Flemish nationalist.”
Weyts, as Belgian animal welfare minister, in 2015 prohibited halal slaughter except in licensed slaughterhouses. This in effect banned public displays of inept amateur slaughter, seen around the world at the Eid and Ramadan holidays each year, which have tended to give the halal method a bad reputation.
“Want to keep living in the Middle Ages”
Weyts’ decree was substantially identical to others issued annually in many Muslim majority nations, where public slaughter falling well short of halal standards was already a problem in Mohammed’s time, and was denounced by Mohammed himself in several Hadiths (verses from the collected sayings of Mohammed.)
Nonetheless, the Weyts order was unsuccessfully challenged in court by several Belgian Islamic organizations.
The Flemish ban on slaughter of any sort without pre-stunning was pushed to passage by, among others, Ann De Greef, who in 1992 cofounded the Belgian-based organization Global Action in the Interest of Animals.
Alleged De Greef to the Catholic News Agency, “They [Jews and Muslims] want to keep living in the Middle Ages and continue to slaughter without stunning — as the technique didn’t yet exist back then — without having to answer to the law.”
Kosher & halal were among first laws meant to minimize animal suffering
But Jews and Muslims who strictly observe kosher and halal slaughter requirements have already been answering to much stricter animal welfare and slaughter laws than the rest of the world for most of the past 3,400 years.
Extensive undercover videography done by animal advocates over the past 30 years has shown time and again that kosher and halal slaughterhouses routinely flout the rules, but the same has been shown of slaughterhouses that at least nominally do pre-stunning.
Vegans and vegetarians, Muslims, Jews, and anti-Semites and Islamophobes are all politically influential minority factions in Belgium, as in much of the rest of Europe.
Vegans and vegetarians, about 850,000 strong, make up a fast-growing 7% of the Belgian population according to some recent surveys, just beginning to become politically mobilized.
Belgian Muslim anxiety about the underlying meaning of banning halal slaughter follows upon angst over a 2011 law that prohibited wearing face-covering attire in public, including the Niqāb and burqa worn by women in some traditional Islamic societies, mandated in some Islamicist nations. The ban was upheld by both the Belgian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Half a million Muslims
About 500,000 Muslims live in Belgium, most of them immigrants or the children of immigrants. Together, Muslims make up circa 4% of the Belgian population, including as much as 25% of the population of Brussels, but––though lumped together by “nationalists” responsible for anti-Muslim incidents, reportedly occurring at the rate of about two per day––are scarcely a united constituency.
A 2005 Université Libre de Bruxelles study found that only about 10% of the Muslims in Belgium were religiously observant.
Many Belgian Muslims are well-educated, culturally Europeanized in most respects, residing in Belgium precisely because they do not wish to live in the restrictive atmosphere of their Muslim majority homelands.
Other Belgian Muslims, however, form an alienated underclass, with an estimated unemployment rate as high as 28%. Some openly support violent Islamicism, including acts of terror against the Belgian Jewish community.
Examples include a 1980 grenade attack by a Syrian-born Palestinian on a group of 40 Jewish children who were waiting in Antwerp for a bus to take them to summer camp, which killed one child and wounded 20.
A 2014 shooting rampage by a French citizen of Algerian ancestry at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels killed four people.
Other incidents in 2014 included an arson at a Brussels synagogue and a mob attack on a plaque commemorating Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, 1940-1944.
Jews are the oldest established minority culture in Belgium, of cultural and economic influence since the Middle Ages, but the 30,000 to 35,000 Jews remaining in Belgium are only about half as numerous as Jews were before the Holocaust, when about 25,000 Belgian Jews were deported to their deaths.
Among the Jews who fled Belgium ahead of the Nazis was Henry Spira, widely seen as “father of the animal rights movement.” Born in Antwerp, Spira was the son of a diamond trader. His mother was daughter of the head rabbi of Hamburg, Germany.
Spira encouraged Temple Grandin to improve kosher technique
Though Spira himself became vegan in 1974, he influentially encouraged the then-young slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin to develop the double-rail restraint system widely used since circa 1980 to expedite traditional kosher and halal slaughter. This was Grandin’s first major career success.
As Spira died in 1998, what he might have thought about the Belgian pre-slaughter laws cannot be known, but his longtime friend and fellow vegan advocate Richard H. Schwartz offered some thoughts in the January 8, 2019 edition of the Jerusalem Post.
“Overlooks important considerations”
“The recent Belgian government ban of shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) overlooks some important considerations,” Schwartz began. “First, it ignores the many problems related to stunning.
“Second,” Schwartz wrote, “the Belgian government ignores the many factors in the shechita process designed to minimize pain. Animals are to be killed by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), a religious Jew who is especially trained and certified. He kills the animal with a single stroke, using a very sharp knife that is inspected frequently to make sure there are no imperfections, causing a rapid loss of consciousness and a minimum of pain.
“Not always carried out perfectly”
“Unfortunately, as in non-kosher slaughterhouses,” Schwartz acknowledged, “shechita is not always carried out perfectly under current mass production conditions. The horrible treatment of animals at the largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, revealed by undercover videos [in 2004] is one example.
“Also, shechita involves the final seconds of the animals’ lives,” Schwartz pointed out, “but the many months (and sometimes years) of mistreatment of the animals on factory farms should also be considered.
“Jewish Veg, of which I am president emeritus, opposes all forms of slaughter,” Schwartz said, “because animal-based diets and agriculture are inconsistent with basic Jewish teachings on health, compassion, environmental sustainability and conservation of resources. But we protest when shechita is selected for special criticism or is banned.
“Should take steps to reduce meat consumption”
“The Belgian government fails to extend its commendable, though misguided, concern for animal welfare during the final minutes prior to slaughter to the many abuses that occur for months, or years, on factory farms in Belgium and other countries,” Schwartz added.
“If the Belgian government wants to improve conditions for as many animals as possible, they should take steps to reduce the consumption of meat and other animal products,” Schwartz emphasized.
“Given that Belgium has admitted complicity in the Holocaust,” Schwartz concluded, “Belgium should be especially ashamed about banning an ancient Jewish practice.”
Barbara Kay responds
Reviewing Schwartz’s 2016 book Who Stole My Religion: Revitalizing Judaism and applying Jewish values to help heal our imperiled planet, Jewish political writer Barbara Kay, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, disagreed with Schwartz at length that adopting veganism or even vegetarianism is implied by an observant interpretation of Judaism in the current cultural contest.
But Schwartz “certainly does make a good case for Belgium’s inhumane practices in general being a far greater problem than Jewish ritual slaughter.” Kay told ANIMALS 24-7.
“Demand is the captain of this bloody ship”
“As Schwartz implies, if done correctly, kosher slaughter has its raison d’être in diminishing inhumanity of the kind he describes,” Kay continued. “Obviously, when done on a mass scale, standards of care fall by the wayside. Clearly, before banning any one form of slaughter, the need is for an overhaul of the regulations of the industry altogether. I presume that the beef industry is a tough political customer to deal with, and demand is the captain of this bloody ship.
“Personally, I have no issue at all with kashrut [Jewish food law] being forced to adapt to any method that is demonstrably more humane,” Kay said, “as I am sure smart people can find some ritual loophole if there is good faith on both sides. If I were the king of the world, the three things I would order are: animal contentment in life, meaning space, hygiene, and optimally natural nutrition; conditions that keep the animal in ignorance of his fate until it happens (no hoisting of a conscious animal); and a clean instant kill.
“I realize very few animals are lucky enough to experience those metrics,” Kay finished. “Kashrut is supposed to be a clean, instant kill.”