Campaigns against kosher: a looming threat?

Cow sits in a field (Jewish News)
Cow sits in a field (Jewish News)

Following December’s General Election, many British Jews felt relief that an ‘existential threat’posed by the Labour Party had been vanquished. Two subsequent events prohibit complacency: Britain’s formal departure from the European Union, and the appointment of George Eustice MP as the Environment Secretary. Together, they herald a new threat: namely, a British ban on shechita (kosher slaughter).

Shechita and dhabiha
Shechita is performed by means of a single, swift cut to the neck with a very sharp knife. Importantly, and in contrast to “non-religious” slaughter, the animal is not stunned beforehand, because, according to Jewish religious law, this renders the animal treif – i.e. not kosher – meaning that it cannot be eaten by observant Jews. Some strands of Islam also prohibit pre-stunning in relation to dhabiha (halal slaughter, which is performed in a similar way). This has long exercised animal welfare groups, who claim that it is inhumane to slaughter animals without stunning them first.
Shechita and Brexit
UK slaughter methods will, at least until the end of the Brexit transition period, remain governed by EU legislation. This requires all animals to be stunned before slaughter, but allows member states to grant exemptions to Jews and Muslims for the purposes of shechita and dhabiha. Some EU Member States, such as Denmark and Slovenia, grant no such exemptions. In such states, EU rules on free movement of goods enable Jewish communities to import kosher meat. By contrast, the UK does allow Jews (and Muslims) to slaughter without pre-stunning – and also to import kosher meat from abroad.
Outside the EU, this could change significantly. The UK government could ban shechita. It could also ban imports or, alternatively, impose high tariffs. Such changes would make it far harder – if not impossible – for British Jews to access kosher meat.
The impact of a ban
The worst-case scenario – a ban on both domestic production and on imports – would essentially force observant Jews to go vegetarian, or to compromise their faith, or to emigrate! Is this why kosher and halal slaughter has long been a pre-occupation of the far right?
Clearly, not all those who favour a ban are from that stable. Others include the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association, and the National Secular Society.  Nonetheless, a ban on shechita would criminalise an important aspect of orthodox Judaism and therefore signal to observant Jews, in the strongest possible way, that they were unwelcome in Britain. Regardless of motive, a ban on shechita would therefore – much like BDS – always have an antisemitic effect. Campaigns against kosher would generate anti-Semitic discourse: the “othering” of observant Jews as cruel, backwards people, who do not truly belong to the “nation of animal lovers” that is the “Christian” UK! It would be an unusual form of antisemitism, in that Jews would find themselves in the dock alongside Muslims; or perhaps, conversely, it would be an unusual form of Islamophobia.
The Eustice Manifesto?
The previous Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, pledged to protect shechita. By contrast, George Eustice has called for a free Parliamentary vote on whether to make stunning of all animals before slaughter obligatory. There is therefore a real prospect that shechita – and the Jews who practise it – could come under intense pressure.
The case for the defence
Various arguments can be made against a ban.
The first is that the UK, as a tolerant, liberal democracy, should uphold religious freedom – including that of minorities. Those (of all faiths and none) who believe in religious liberty should call on the government to oppose a ban.
A second argument is that campaigns to outlaw non-stun slaughter are at best highly selective and at worst hypocritical. Modern factory farming methods inflict intense suffering upon animals throughout their lives. Against this backdrop, any pain experienced in their final few moments by a comparatively small number of animals slaughtered by Jews and Muslims, is far from the most pressing animal welfare issue of our times. Only the vegans truly have the moral high ground on this one!
Perhaps most importantly, the scientific case against non-stun slaughter is significantly weaker than advocates for a ban claim. What seems clear is that the British Jewish community may soon need to steel itself once again – this time, to defend the practice of shechita.



About the Author
James Mendelsohn teaches Law at the University of the West of England.