A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Is It Time to Ban Kosher Slaughter?

Anger in Netherlands over “religious discrimination”

By Michael Mountain

A passionate debate is taking place in Europe over which is more important: religious tradition or animal protection.

Two months ago, we wrote about a plan by the government of the Netherlands to put a stop to the ritual slaughter of animals by orthodox Jewish and Muslim organizations. These kosher and halal rules have their origins in Biblical laws that derive from even older Middle East customs. And animal protection groups have long argued that they constitute cruelty to animals.

Kosher and halal slaughter is already banned in several countries. The Dutch House of Representatives has now voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ban, and the Senate will take up the bill in September.

The kosher rules require a form of slaughter that cuts the throat of an animal, severs the jugular vein and carotid artery, and allows as much blood as possible to drain quickly. It derives from Biblical injunctions that emphasize that the blood of the animal is sacred to the deity. (e.g. “If any man … eats blood of any kind, I will set my face against him. For the life of the flesh is the blood. This blood I myself have given you to perform the rite of atonement.” Leviticus 17.)

These traditions date back to pre-Judaic times and, like other practices including circumcision, were common to many early Middle East and African cultures that practiced animal sacrifice. Some still do. Afro-Caribbean religious rituals, including Cuban Santeria, Palo, and Haitian Voodoo, found their way to the Americas as a mixture of Catholic and pre-Christian African beliefs. Their rituals reflect underlying similarities to the Muslim and Jewish practices, requiring the quick draining of the animal’s blood by an ordained priest or priestess, since the blood is the main part of the offering.

Another tradition, the Jewish practice of “kapparot,” prior to the Day of Atonement, involves swinging a chicken around your head three times and then handing it over to be slaughtered so that you may be blessed with a good, peaceful life.

Many other cultures defend cruelty to animals on the basis that what they do is part of a religious or cultural tradition. North American Inuit people claim that the hunting of whales is part of their tradition, and bullfighting and rodeo are commonly defended as a national heritage – as are the annual massacres of dolphins off the coasts of Taiji, Japan, and Denmark’s Faroe Islands.

If the ban on kosher/halal killing passes in Holland, Jewish leaders plan to challenge it in court, arguing that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Britain’s Chief Rabbi has already flown to Holland to support the Jewish community there. And even though Holland’s Jews are few in number – roughly 40,000 – and only a fraction of those follow kosher tradition, the issue is seen as the thin end of a dangerous wedge that could lead to a ban on other religious traditions. (There’s growing concern that it could lead to a ban on the circumcision of children until they’re old enough to give informed consent.)

Holland considers itself one of the most progressive of European countries – as regards both people and animals. Its people sheltered Jews from the Nazis when Germany invaded their country. So it’s galling to many members of the Dutch Parliament that they’re suddenly being accused of anti-Semitism by the Jewish community.

Those who practice kosher and halal slaughter argue that it provides a quick a painless death, and in some slaughterhouses that may be true. But by no means all. And many Jewish organizations today promote a vegetarian way of life as being the best way to uphold the spirit of the ancient kosher laws.

The question, then, arises: When does religious tradition trump the wellbeing of animals? And since numerous other ancient religious laws, from polygamy to slavery, have long been abandoned, what makes cruelty to animals any different?

Does religion trump animal protection? Or should practices that many people today consider antiquated, outmoded and cruel be made illegal?

More broadly, shouldn’t religious faiths that embrace universal ethics and morality as part of their core teachings be educating their followers that the key to a good, peaceful life lies in treating other living beings as we ourselves would want to be treated?

And shouldn’t any self-respecting religion be setting out to lead the way, rather than dragging its feet, in the promotion of kindness and respect toward all living creatures?