NEW YORK — In February and March, 2,500 Hasidic Jews from Eastern Europe, North America and Israel undertook a yearly pilgrimage to the small town of Lezajsk in southeastern Poland for the 228th anniversary of the death of one of the movement’s founders, Tsadik Elimelech Weisblum, who is buried in a tiny Jewish cemetery.
As they do every year, the pilgrims arrived on tour buses, rented rooms in private residences, prayed and drank kosher vodka from the town’s supermarket. But this year, the carnivores among them were out of luck. Long a major exporter of kosher meat, Poland followed other European countries in January to ban ritual slaughter.
The conflict over shechitah and dhabihah practices, as they are called in Hebrew and Arabic, center on one aspect of the process.
According to Jewish and Muslim dietary laws, an animal must be killed in a way that maintains its dignity and demonstrates the killer’s compassion. In ritual killing, the slaughterer kills the animal as quickly as possible to avoid prolonging its pain. In secular killing, the slaughterer stuns the animal to render it unconscious before the killing.
Although the two sides have been engaged in conflict for centuries, it is not an accident that the current battles in Europe over methods of slaughtering animals are raging in countries with increasing political involvement by members of religious minorities.
In a recent editorial in Haaretz, Daniella Peled writes, “Let’s be clear about one thing – this is all about fear of immigrant communities, the anxiety of an increasingly secular Europe that outsiders are coming to challenge their time-honored traditions. The question is one of politics, rather than animal welfare.”
There are three ways to stun an animal prior to slaughter. Slaughterers may use a gun to fire a metal bolt into the animal’s brain, use tongs to pass an electrical current through the animal’s brain and heart, or gas the animal.
In secular slaughter, the first option causes the loss of consciousness and is followed by shackling the animal, hanging it in the air and penetrating it by knife or, in the case of poultry, decapitating it. Electrical currents and gas are often used both to stun and kill the animal.
In ritual slaughter, which includes a traditional Islamic or Jewish blessing, the killing is expected to be quick, relatively painless and clean. The animal is not stunned before its throat is sliced using a single, long blade, and the animal’s blood is drained to eliminate germs.
These traditions forbid gassing an animal to death, for example, as gassing does not drain the blood of the animal and does not leave it conscious to receive a traditional blessing before death.
Animal rights activists argue that all slaughter causes undue suffering but that, in the absence of widespread support to outlaw all slaughterhouses, stunning is a necessary step in humane killing.
Laws on ritual slaughter vary across the European Union and Scandinavia. While the European Union recommends stunning animals before slaughter, it allows member states to make exceptions for religious reasons.
Sweden, for example, has banned ritual slaughter for decades. In France, politicians, including the 2012 presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, have campaigned on platforms for an end to ritual slaughter. In the Netherlands, a vote for a ban in the lower house of government was overturned in the upper house in 2011.
The months leading to the ban in Poland were dramatically contentious. Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004 who has overseen the growth of Poland’s Jewish community since 1992, threatened to leave the country if a ban was imposed. (He has not left.)
In Poland more than in other countries, the ban has had a noticeable effect on the country’s economy and international trade. Until the ban, Poland’s half-billion dollar industry had made it a major exporter of kosher and halal meat. The law forced the closing of 15 cattle and 12 poultry slaughterhouses, which had exported their products to Israel, Turkey and other countries.
The latest European country to ban religious slaughter is Denmark. The move is merely symbolic, however, as Denmark’s 8,000 Jews and Muslims have not had access to non-stunned domestic meat since the last slaughterhouse to forgo stunning closed in 2004.
Critics of the ban note that the Copenhagen Zoo recently made international headlines for killing a healthy giraffe, Marius, dismembering him and feeding him to lions in front of a group of schoolchildren. Announcing the killing on its website, the zoo described the method of slaughter: Marius was to be stunned and killed by a gun.
The decision on ritual slaughter has provoked more ire than the bans in other countries, perhaps because, in the absence of a slaughterhouse, it is considered more of a display of animosity toward Jews and Arabs than a win for animal rights groups.
In an editorial in the conservative online Israeli newsite, Arutz Sheva, Giulio Meotti writes, “Shakespeare's words in Hamlet ring true as Denmark bans kosher slaughter, but condoned butchering Jews. Behind the humanitarian mask, there is nothing.”
Britain, where ritual slaughter is currently allowed, is up next. In early March, the leader of the British Veterinary Association, John Blackwell, proposed a ban on the 6,000 killings performed according to shechitah and dhabihah laws each week in Britain.
Blackwell is quoted in mailonline.com: “We are looking for a meeting of minds to review the evidence base which clearly shows that slaughtering animals without stunning compromises welfare. If that can't happen then I would like labeling at the point of sale that gives the consumer informed choice. If that is not possible we would be looking for a ban for killing without stunning.”
If Britain reaches for the ban, Jewish and Muslim rights groups around the world are likely to disregard Blackwell’s animal rights platform as they strive to curb the creation of new laws throughout Europe.
Sheila Skaff is an adjunct assistant professor of film studies at Columbia University. She is author of the book, The Law of the Looking Glass: Cinema in Poland, 1896-1939 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008). She is writing a book on post-World War II media in Poland.