Shehita Under Fire

In the Netherlands, where Jews have lived for 400 years, ritual slaughter has suddenly become an issue of animal welfare, politics, and possibly anti-Semitism

Shehita in the Netherlands (photo credit: Michael Kooren/Reuters)
Shehita in the Netherlands
(photo credit: Michael Kooren/Reuters)
IF THE DUTCH ANIMAL PARTY, the only political party in Europe devoted exclusively to animal rights, has its way, the current upsurge in Jewish life in the Netherlands could be impeded. The minuscule party, with only two of the 120 members of the Dutch parliament, has managed to gather overwhelming support in parliament for a bill that would ban animal slaughter without prior stunning.
Since shehita (kosher slaughtering) does not allow for the stunning procedure, if passed, this new law would effectively put an end to freshly slaughtered kosher meat in the Netherlands.
In its first reading on April 13, the bill was supported by almost all parties; only the three Christian parties, including the ruling Christian Democrats, voted against the proposal. Leading towards the second readings in the lower house and ratification in the upper house, the Christian Democrats have scheduled a number of hearings into the scientific evidence presented by the Animal Party and to hear experts from different sides of the argument.
Thus, the future of the bill remains unclear. But the extensive support it has already received in the first reading has been enough to put the Jewish community on edge.
“The community doesn’t feel welcome anymore,” Dayan (religious judge) Raphael Evers tells The Jerusalem Report. “Jews are afraid that brit mila [circumcision] will be next on the agenda. It is becoming ever harder to be Jewish in the Netherlands.”
The Dutch welcomed persecuted Jews from Antwerp in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Netherlands has always been known for its open, tolerant mentality. The Jewish community has enjoyed the right to perform ritual animal slaughter for almost four centuries, with the brutal exception of the five years of Nazi occupation. Indeed, in 1674, the first Jew to settle in The Hague was a kosher butcher.
ACCORDING TO RECENT DEMOGRAPHIC research by the Jewish Welfare Society (JWS), the only nationwide organization of Jewish social services, there are approximately 50,000 Jews in the Netherlands; immigrants from Israel make up almost 10 percent. And yet, despite its small size, not a week passes without a media focus on the community, whether in the context of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the rise in anti-Semitism in the Netherlands or the alleged Jewish electoral support for Geert Wilders’s Islamophobic Freedom Party.
Most Dutch Jews live a fairly secular life and seem to be bellwethers of sociological trends. They are less likely to get married, have fewer children and experience a higher rate of divorce than the rest of the population, according to the JWS. Only 4 percent of the Jewish community is Orthodox and buys only kosher meat.
With so few Jews observing the kosher laws, the Jewish community slaughters only about 2,000 animals every year, or less than 0.0001 percent of the total animals killed each year. But protests against the impending legislation are not limited to the Orthodox community. In a letter addressed to the parliament, Rabbi Menno ten Brink, a member of the Reform community in Amsterdam, points out that kashrut is an essential part of Jewish religious life. “Banning kosher slaughter in the Netherlands affects me deeply. I feel limited in my Jewish life, a way of life that generations before me have been allowed to live,” he declares.
Given the small numbers of Jews who observe kashrut, if the legislation passes, it is the Muslim community in the Netherlands that will suffer the most. In the Netherlands, there are about 740,000 people of Turkish and Moroccan descent out of a total population of 16.7 million, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Most of them prefer to eat meat that is halal, which means that it been ritually slaughtered in a manner that is very similar to kosher ritual slaughter.
However, unlike kosher slaughter, some liberal Muslim scholars do allow for post-stunning, in which the animal is stunned after the cut to the throat, providing a form of anaesthetic, which is not an option for kosher slaughter.
DESPITE DUTCH LIBERALISM, this is not the first time that shehita has come under fire in the Netherlands. Evelien Gans, professor of modern Jewish history at Amsterdam University, tells The Report that the debate over ritual slaughter began at the end of the 19th century. At times, she says, the opposition to the ritual methods stemmed from anti-Semitism, but more often, “stereotypical imagery of ritual slaughter as a barbaric and primitive custom was raised. Animal rights activists talked of ‘ancient and wild peoples’ that had no place in a civilized society.”
The rise of Nazi ideology and the occupation of the Netherlands led to a ban on ritual slaughter. “The Nazis used this as an instrument of their anti-Semitic propaganda,” Gans says. On April 1, 1933, as one of the first anti- Jewish measures issued by the Nazi regime, ritual slaughter was banned in Germany. “The Nazi film ‘Der Ewige Jude’ contains images of a Jewish slaughterhouse that make you sick – and that was the idea. The voice-over proudly announces that due to the ban on ritual slaughter ‘the Jewish spirit and Jewish blood will never again spoil German blood,’” she says.
After the war, animal welfare activists pleaded to maintain the ban. The government lifted the ban but the number of slaughterhouses that were allowed to perform ritual slaughter was reduced. “The fact that so few Dutch Jews had survived the war was used against them. Jewish butchers in small cities paid the price,” Gans says.
In 1949 and 1950, a new conflict arose as the Dutch government negotiated a trade agreement with the newly founded State of Israel that dealt with, among other things, the export of kosher meat. The animal welfare activists protested again, supported by the public health ministry, which contended that during the occupation Jews had agreed to stun animals during slaughter. “They argued that ‘what was kosher then should be considered as such now, and that Jews desire more than is necessary out of an excessive sense of Orthodoxy,’” Gans says.
Chief Rabbi Justus Tal, however, pointed out the Jews had no other choice during the occupation. “In such an emergency situation, where life is at stake, we have the right to say ‘yes,’” Tal wrote in public documents, adding, “Who would want to adopt the ways of the Germans when it comes to so-called compassion for animals?” In the end, then-minister of Agriculture Sicco Mansholt allowed economic interests to prevail and signed the agreement.
In the mid-1980s the debate flared up again. The head of the animal welfare society in the city of Hilversum noted in a report that Jews were allowed to eat non-kosher meat in emergency situations. A ban on ritual slaughter would create such an emergency situation, so there really wasn’t a problem. Gans relates that Hilversum further publicly noted that “Jews did not observe kashrut in the concentration camps, either.”
“One should never cry wolf when it comes to anti-Semitism and I certainly wouldn’t accuse Marianne Thieme [the head of the Animal Party] of such a thing,” says Gans, but adds, “I do notice a return of the tendency to view ritual slaughter as something backward and primitive. The daily ‘De Telegraaf,’ the Netherlands’ largest newspaper, has referred to the Bible as ‘a book that drips with blood; the cruelly slaughtered lambs just about drop off every page.’ Although the rules of kashrut are aimed at preventing coming into contact with blood, the stereotypical connection between Jews and blood is as old as creation,” Gans says.
Indeed, in a recent op-ed in “Het Reformatorish Dagblad,” a small Dutch-Reformed daily newspaper, Thieme wrote that Dayan Evers is on the side of ‘the bloody ritual of the throat cut.’”
LESS THAN 1 PERCENT OF THE animals killed for food consumption in the Netherlands are killed without prior stunning, which usually involves a pin shot through the head or an electronic shock, both of which render the animal unconscious. Critics of the Animal Party condemn the party’s position as hypocritical, noting that most animals in the Netherlands held for food production are raised on factory farms and are killed in conveyor-belt fashion. And approximately 10 percent of those animals don’t die on the first try, according to a fact sheet published by the Federation of Orthodox Jewish communities.
Diederik Boomsma, an Amsterdam councillor for the Christian Democrats, is angered by the proposed ban. “I feel heavy-hearted, even disgusted. This is not about animal welfare,” he tells The Report, but rather an expression of “a kind of folksy anti- Semitism, suggesting that ritual slaughter is a backward and atavistic method.”
He adds that the Dutch media are biased against Israel in their reporting on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and this “adds oil to the fire.” Furthermore, Boomsma says, “It makes people feel morally superior and pure to oppose ritual slaughter. But they do eat meat. Rather than being honest and admitting that animals die for the purpose of human consumption, these supporters try to alleviate their conscience.”
Boomsma plans to distribute halal and kosher sandwiches to his fellow councillors to attract publicity and make his point.
“Stunning before slaughter doesn’t mean the animals are given an injection and are patted on the head,” argues Ronnie Eisenmann, lay chairman of the Orthodox Jewish community in Amsterdam. “The cow is shot through the head with a bullet or a pin. This often fails, which causes the animal to suffer more.”
Marcus Rosenzweig, the only shohet (ritual slaughterer) in the Netherlands, concurs. The animals do not receive, he points out, “an anesthetic through injection or a mask. A pin that is shot in the front part of the brain… immobilizes the animal, but it is not certain that the animal no longer feels any pain,” he told “NRC Next,” a Dutch liberal newspaper.
Rosenzweig argues passionately that the industrial slaughter method is much crueler. “I do my job with the utmost concentration and kill each animal separately and carefully,” he insists.
In support of its contention that ritual slaughter causes undue and unacceptable pain to the animal, the Animal Party relies heavily on research undertaken by Wageningen University, the Netherlands’ foremost agricultural university, and the Dutch and European associations of veterinarians.
But Evers, the ritual judge, refers to research by Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and a consultant on animal behavior also widely known for her work in autism advocacy.
In her well-known book, “Thinking in Pictures,” Grandin writes, “When shechita was performed on each steer, I was amazed that the animal did not move… I started holding the head of each animal with less and less pressure to see if it would move during shechita… In the hands of the best shochets, the animal does not make a sound or flinch, and drops unconscious in eight to 10 seconds.”
Evers also refers to the work of Albert Dahan, a lecturer at Leiden University, who claims that other stunning methods, such as electrocution, do paralyze, but do not desensitize the animal. And he adds, “Some research shows that the blood pressure in the brain is lowered within two seconds to such an extent that there is no pain sensation left… Some experts even argue that suffering increases, because the animal cannot express its pain.”
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE BILL passed its first reading in the lower chamber of parliament, four rabbis, A.J. Ralbag of the Netherlands, Binyomin Jacobs of the so-called Inter-Provincial Opperrabinaat, David Lieberman of France and French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernhein, convened a press conference. They contend that none of the Animal Party politicians have ever seen a shohet at work. Rather they rely on images of ritual slaughter carried out by Muslims. “The promotion film shown by the Animal Party against ritual slaughter has been filmed in secret, abroad, at a halal slaughterhouse.”
Similarly, they contend that the researchers at Wageningen have never spoken with them. “They base their conclusions on research done abroad,” the rabbis declared.
Niko Koffeman, the Animal Party’s only representative in the upper house of the Dutch parliament, tells The Report that his party’s chief aim is to put an end to exceptions to the Netherlands’ Animal Welfare Law. “If those exceptions create undue animal suffering, we have to end those exceptions,” he declares.
Those exceptions are, indeed, what permit kosher slaughter to take place, but Koffeman maintains that scientific literature is on the party’s side. “All the research carried out by independent scientists shows that ritual slaughter causes more pain to animals than slaughter with prior stunning.” He further maintains that the Jewish community is misrepresenting Grandin’s conclusions.
Interpretations of scientific literature aside, Jewish leaders say they feel betrayed. Speaking passionately at the press conference, Chief Rabbi Ralbag called out to the Dutch public.
“We [Jews] have been here for 400 years. You welcomed the Jews, you opened your arms. You are our bastion, our beacon,” he declared. “We never expected that the Netherlands, the land of freedom, would discriminate against our religion. I implore you, parliament and people, give us a chance to follow our religion.”