Freedom of Religion

Ukip ban on non-stun slaughter will affect Jews more than Muslims


When David Cameron spoke at the Knesset almost a year ago, he was unequivocal in his opposition to anti-Israel boycotts; his support for a two-state solution; and his denunciation of Israel’s enemies. And he also vowed to guard the religious liberty of Jews in defence of shechita – the ritual slaughter of animals in accordance with Mosaic Law (Deut 12:21; 14:21; Num 11:22) – against the crusading animal-rights lobby and the British Veterinary Association, who are of the view that religious slaughter is bestial, barbaric and inhumane. The Prime Minister said:

“I’ve stood up to protect Jewish practices too. The Jewish community has been an absolute exemplar in integrating into British life in every way but integration doesn’t mean that you have to give up things that you hold very dear in your religion. When people challenged kosher Shechita. I have defended it. I fought as a back-bench Member of Parliament against the last attempt to do something to change this. And there’s no way I’m allowing that to change now I’m Prime Minister. On my watch Shechita is safe in the UK.‬”

Nigel Farage defends shechita, too. Or he does when he’s talking to The Jewish Chronicle. Now, however, Ukip has decided to ban it. Actually, their policy is aimed specifically at a prohibition on halal slaughter; Jews are apparently “caught in the crossfire; collateral damage. You know what I mean”. These are the the words of the party’s agricultural spokesman, Stuart Agnew MEP, who explains:

“There are more votes to be gained, and I expect that’s what they were looking for. We’ll have lost the Jewish vote for sure, they won’t support us now for sure – we won’t get any now. But we might gain votes elsewhere – and that’s what they’re after, general election votes. It’s an emotional issue.”

It must be quite refreshing for Jews to be collateral damage: they are usually the necessary target, not an ancillary one. But if Ukip think this policy will cost them only a few thousand Jewish votes, they are profoundly mistaken, for ritual slaughter strikes at the very foundations of religious liberty.

It is impossible to watch without feelings of indignation and disgust Channel 4’s secret filming of the halal barbarism practised in the Bowood Yorkshire Lamb slaughterhouse in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. That is not an exhortation to view the footage, which many will find upsetting, showing, as it does, “sheep being kicked in the face, smashed headfirst into solid barriers and picked up and hurled by the legs.. one worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, contravening Islamic practice. One worker took up to five attempts to sever blood vessels of one animal”. Employees are also featured jeering and taunting the sheep with knives. It is primitive, brutal, barbarous behaviour, which is bound to lead to renewed demands for mandatory stunning to prevent unnecessary suffering – with no religious exemptions. The stoking of bit of anti-Muslim sentiment is collateral damage. “You know what I mean.”

What Ukip appears to be ignorant of is the fact that the vast majority of halal slaughter in the UK is carried out in accordance with British Veterinary Association and RSPCA requirements: pre-slaughter stunning before ‘Allahu Akbar’ neck-slicing is not only common; it is the norm, not least because Islamic scholars do not generally believe that a stunned animal is rendered inedible. EU figures from 2006 indicated that “75% of cattle, 93% of sheep and 100% of chickens slaughtered in the UK for halal meat were stunned prior to their deaths. Figures produced by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2011 give a similar picture: 84%, 81% and 88%, respectively”. It remains around the 80% mark. Orthodox Jews, however, would no more eat a pre-slaughter stunned lamb than they would tuck into roadkill: it is considered ‘ritually unclean’. Precisely 0% of kosher cattle, 0% of kosher sheep and 0% of kosher chicken is stunned prior to slaughter. Ergo, Ukip’s ban impinges upon the freedom of Jews far more than it does Muslims. The collateral become the cardinal.

Human participant observers cannot know whether un-stunned slaughter causes unnecessary pain and distress, for all we can apprehend visually is the animal bleeding to death, which can take more than a few minutes. And this obviously produces steady streams and then rivers of blood, which is a truly awful sight for a generation more used to buying sanitised supermarket meat neatly set out on blue polystyrene trays and wrapped hygienically in clingfilm. But human perception ought not to nullify millennia of tradition: the popular myth must be informed by more than sensory positivism.

Yet it is written:

A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel (Prov 12:10).

Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds (Prov 27:23).

If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him (Exod 23:5).

Jews have always had regard for the welfare of their animals. The concept of ‘Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim’ prohibits cruelty to animals. Those lobby groups which oppose shechita (including, now, Ukip) don’t appear to appreciate that Judaism has always taken animal welfare seriously, and did so centuries before the West began to legislate against animal cruelty. Their teachings on animal welfare and slaughter were handed down from God to Moses, mediated and interpreted via the traditions of the Oral Torah and Rabbinic legal opinion.

Good grief, Jews are even forbidden to hunt for sport: where does Ukip now stand on fox-hunting with hounds?

The modern obsession with stunning is understandable in a society which judges everything by appearances: we see the animal rendered apparently insentient, but there is no guarantee that it is insensible to pain. What goes on in many regulated and licensed slaughter houses is quite shocking. Indeed, there are just as many (if not more) deficient non-halal abattoirs as there are barbaric halal ones: the difference is that we judge a Muslim swinging a knife differently from the way we evaluate the white butcher who routinely botches bolts fired into brains.

It is also widely known that stunning can fail, and that many thousands of animals have to be re-stunned in order to actualise the necessary show of insensibility. Double-stunning is an obvious cause of distress to the animal. In Jewish kosher slaughter, there is no need for a ‘second try’: shechita produces an effective and irreversible stun as well as being a humane and efficient method of slaughter. The method of cutting the arteries in the neck, which causes the animal to drop to its knees (almost as if it were stunned), is perceptibly less brutal than a stun-bolt to the head or electric shock to the brain, before being hauled upside down half-conscious and conveyed along animal death row to have its throat slit.

The debate (what there is of it) tends to minimise (or completely ignore) the suffering caused to animals by our ‘compassionate’ procedures. Stunning an animal is not like a serene visit to Dignitas.  A Jewish vet explains in ‘How to be kind to animals‘:

..On the specifics of slaughter I can speak with a little personal experience. Like many young UK vets in the 1980s, I did a share of (cattle) slaughterhouse supervision. (It’s easy money for veterinary practices, but not the sort of work the principal wants to do.) Unlike many of my colleagues, along with conventional slaughter I also saw the kosher variety. In every case I witnessed I was struck by the way the animals appeared to pass out instantly: complete muscle relaxation accompanying the massive blood loss from the severing of both carotid arteries and both jugular veins. That’s not a guarantee of unconsciousness, and there is some research evidence that it can persist a while longer, but it strongly suggests to me that in the great majority of cases at least, coherent brain activity stops very quickly. Conventional stunning, when it goes well, does just as good a job. The catch is right where you think it is: When it goes well. Stunning involves either firing a steel bolt through the skull and into the brain , or hitting the skull with what is essentially a pneumatic hammer to cause concussion. The brain of a cow is not a particularly large target, and it’s not that easy to immobilise the head. Mis-strikes—and therefore repeated strikes on a conscious animal—are not that rare.

..The work of conventional slaughter is done by young men in their teens and twenties—not a famously empathetic demographic. They are early school leavers, low paid, lightly trained and marking time in a dead-end job (again, no pun…). They watch or cause death all day, every day, and sensitivity to the animals is not much in evidence. Kosher slaughter has this one, big advantage: it’s done by a man who had other job options, a man whose day’s focus is not killing and a paycheck but obedience to his god. In this case, a god who has commanded a very sharp knife and attention to rules that hope to minimise suffering and maintain the dignity of both the animal and the man. Yes, abuses occur, but if I’m forced to bet, my money will be on the prayerful man rather than the time-serving boy.

Bloody religious practices like ritual slaughter and circumcision tend to confirm the worst of secularist prejudices: that they, being enlightened and compassionate, are superior to the religious, being ignorant and cruel. Restrictions on freedom will always be imposed according of the dictates of the prevailing worldview, to reinforce and sustain the dominance of that worldview. Since there exists no rationally determined nominally objective set of restrictions, it is the dominant mindset that prevails.

But un-stunned slaughter is not the law of Allah but of YHWH. And shooting a bolt into an animal’s brain is neither particularly Christian nor British. By attempting to shake off the constant and condescending allegations of racism which are heaped upon it daily, Ukip has just condescended to the most constant racial prejudice in history. If Nigel Farage gives way to Compassion in World Farming, the Farm Animal Welfare Council or the British Veterinary Association – as his stated policy currently does – then the prohibition on un-stunned kosher and halal meat will surely and swiftly be followed by demands for the banning of non-medical circumcision. After all, if animals should not suffer pain and distress, why should human boys suffer child abuse?