Not as En Vogue Anymore: Religious Freedom in Europe
As someone who has grown up in Israel, there are certain things that I have taken for granted. I have always lived in a Jewish, Zionist environment. If I wished it, I could always find a minyan for daily prayers. Shabbat and Jewish holidays were always days when businesses were closed and employees rested, but most relevant to the issue at hand, there was never a shortage of kosher meat.
Truth be told, since I arrived in the United Kingdom over eighteen months ago, I have never wanted for kosher meat. Kosher butchers and delis are never short of everything from chicken and beef, to salami and chopped liver. However, since joining the Jewish Leadership Council nearly four months ago, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the fact that access to meat that is slaughtered in accordance with halacha is something that cannot necessarily be taken for granted across Europe. Indeed, across the EU access to religiously slaughtered meat – be it for Jews or for Muslims – is increasingly being challenged.
To be clear, in the United Kingdom today there is broad cross-party support for ensuring that shechita – religious slaughter – is protected. In recent meetings organised by the JLC with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both party leaders went on the record to reiterate their firm commitment to protecting shechita from any threat, whether originating in this country or from the EU or its institutions. Indeed, at the 2013 President’s Dinner of the Board of Deputies, the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP publicly and unequivocally reassured attendees that those who seek to ban kosher slaughter in the UK “will not succeed”. If so, one might ask: why need we be concerned?
Unfortunately, the legality and legitimacy of shechita has been challenged across Europe in recent years. A growing number of European countries, including Belgium, France, Finland (the Aland Islands), Latvia, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, and Sweden have placed varying limitations on this religious practice. Last month, Denmark decided to ban kosher and halal slaughter, as its Food and Agriculture Minister, Dan Jorgensen, asserted that: “animal rights come before religion”. And only last week, the President-Elect of the British Veterinary Association called for the banning of religious slaughter. No doubt, the killing of animals for human consumption ought to be done in a way that minimises animals’ pain and suffering. But before EU member-states go all out to ban shechita, politicians and policy-makers should determine the extent to which alternative methods of slaughter are, in fact, “more humane,” and understand the proportionate scale of the number of animals slaughtered in accordance with shechita every year.
Numbers, Alternatives, and a Lack of Self Reflection
The 2011 Animal Welfare Survey commissioned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that some 40 million cattle, sheep, pigs and calves and approximately 900 million poultry are killed each year in the UK. According to a report commissioned by the Israeli Knesset in 2012, kosher slaughtered meat accounts for only 0.3 per cent of all the red meat sold for human consumption in Britain. Thus, the number of animals killed in accordance with Jewish religious practice is comparatively tiny to begin with. In its sampling, the FSA found that of the small number of red-meat animals killed in accordance with shechita, only 10 per cent experienced any complications during their slaughter and required stunning after bleeding.
As a contrast, the European Safety Authority’s “Welfare Aspects of Animal Stunning and Killing Methods” report found that the failure rate of stunning methods used in the general population ranges from 6.6 to 31 per cent. In other words, the European report means that at least 2.6 million animals suffer unnecessarily from errors in stunning while being slaughtered. Anyone who honestly wants to ensure that animals are slaughtered in the most humane way ought to focus on finding ways to ensure that the stunning of animals can be carried out as error-free as possible.
Focusing on Shechita: Symptomatic of a Lack of Tolerance of Religion
Attempting to assuage readers’ concerns, the Economist recently argued that Denmark’s ban on shechita is not as controversial as it was made out to be. According to the publication’s logic, because the ban does not prohibit importing kosher and halal meat – allowing Jews and Muslims to access meat in accordance with their tradition – and because Jewish and Muslim slaughterhouses do not exist in Denmark – as a result of insufficient domestic demand to justify their operation – the ban is “much ado about not much”. However, this claim either disregards or is ignorant of a notion clearly stated in a recent piece by Lord Finkelstein: “animals welfare is critical, but humans matter too”.
As my predecessor at the JLC argued recently in an article: “There is a growing cohort of people who call themselves ‘liberals’, yet decry anything to do with religion… religion – something which cannot be proven – is seen as basically irrational”. Indeed, the focus on the disproportionately small number of animals killed through religious slaughter may point to another strand in this trend. Living in a truly liberal society requires believers not to infringe upon non-believers’ rights and freedoms. Equally, however, those who do not believe must allow religious individuals to practice their faith. Both sides must work together to ensure that animals are treated as humanely as possible and that the freedom to slaughter animals based on religious practice is guaranteed in principle in the United Kingdom and in every country across Europe. The balancing act between freedom from belief and freedom to believe is constant and we must ensure that our societies remain true to the values of liberal democracy that we hold so dear.*
* The campaign to protect the right to shechita in the United Kingdom is led by Shechita UK. The JLC supports Shechita UK’s work and helps advance its agenda on this issue.
 Food Standards Agency, “Results of the 2011 FSA Animal Welfare Survey in Great Britain,” (22 May 2012) available: http://multimedia.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/board/fsa120508.pdf [accessed: 21 February 2014].