A few weeks ago, the Party for the Animals submitted a private law to the Dutch parliament to prohibit religious slaughter without stunning the animal first. The party has two seats in Parliament. This should not be surprising in a country where - according to a National Geographic study - the average dog owner prefers the relationship to his pet above that of his human partner.
Almost all ritual slaughter of an estimated two million animals in the Netherlands is performed by Muslims. The number of kosher slaughtered cows, sheep and goats is between 1,500 and 3,000. Jews, however, would be the sole victims if the law passes, as kosher slaughter does not permit prior stunning. Most and perhaps even all Muslims accept eating meat of Halal-slaughtered animals that have been stunned before.
Thus, as in so many cases in contemporary Europe, the small organized Jewish community was sucked into a debate that originated from the size of the Muslim community, attitudes toward it and the way some Muslims conduct themselves.
The arguments in the parliamentary debate reflect the state of norms and values in the partly post-Christian Netherlands. The discussion was permeated by a highly selective focus on one element of animal welfare, statements on the borders of freedom of religion, and how obsolescent it is. Included also were specific anti-Islam feelings, as well as observations on the misconduct of mainly Muslims in their slaughter practices.
In the parliamentary debate, the representative of the Green Left party stated that a great omission exists because the rights of animals are not mentioned in the Dutch constitution. Another supporter of the law, from the D66 Left Liberals party, claimed that it should make no difference for the animal which religion its slaughterer observes.
Most extreme was Dion Graus of the anti-Islam Freedom party who calls himself “the ambassador” of animals. He opposes all ritual slaughter, including with stunning, and said that he was not sure that animals were not stressed when an imam was standing next to them. He justified this by claiming that “animals have a sixth sense.”
The main scientific document quoted was a report by the University of Wageningen from 2008 based entirely on literature study. All its very heterogeneous research data are from outside The Netherlands. No local ones were available. The only and highly obsolete figures mentioned on the number of kosher animals slaughtered in the country dated from 1984, which do not reflect the present situation.
Hypocrisy reigns supreme
The debate showed the paucity of relevant data available. No estimates, even rough ones, were available listing how many million animals are presently slaughtered in The Netherlands annually. The Wageningen study claims that of 10% of all animals slaughtered, stunning is not done correctly. In the Netherlands, this would translate into the improper slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals. One parliamentarian said that most of the two million ritually slaughtered animals were stunned before slaughter, another that this was the figure for religious slaughter without stunning.
In the debate there were many complaints about the industrialized way millions of animals are raised in The Netherlands. The Wageningen study mentioned the stress animals undergo during transport to the slaughter house. It did not, however, compare this with stress during the slaughter itself. Parliamentarians mentioned poor supervision of the slaughter houses. To that one can add how highly unappetizing the meatpacking industry is. After visiting a plant of one major European meatpacker, I stopped eating meat decades ago.
Despite its extreme marginality, kosher slaughter occupied a major place in the debate. Graus used his opposition to kosher slaughter as an instrument to prove that his party was not only Islam bashers, but attacked Jews equally. This statement came despite the fact that his party leader, Geert Wilders, frequently claims that Dutch civilization is a Judeo-Christian one.
There are many questions that need to be raised regarding consistency or hypocrisy of other parties supporting this bill as well. The Green Left party does not require its members to be vegetarians. In Beyond Beef, a pioneering book by Jeremy Rifkin from 1992, the author pointed out that raising cattle on a massive scale was one of the world’s greatest environmental burdens. It is thus reasonable to expect from members of all green parties that they eliminate meat from their diets to contribute to a more sustainable society.
There is a major question as well regarding the left-liberals of D66. The Wageningen study pointed out that kosher slaughter of chickens - by far the largest category of animals slaughtered - is less stressful than regular or Halal slaughter. As the party believes that all animals have the right to be slaughtered by the most merciful means, D66 should now promote only kosher slaughter of all chickens in The Netherlands.
The Dutch religious slaughter debate is rapidly becoming an issue of international attention in the Jewish world. This does not do the image of the country much good. The more so, as additional information about the powerlessness of the government to stop the harassment in the public domain of recognizably dressed Jews is revealed.
The Wiesenthal center sent a letter in favor of kosher slaughter to the leaders of the parties that support the proposed law. The European Jewish Congress made a public statement. UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks sent a letter to all Dutch parliamentarians, while the Anti Defamation League wrote to the Dutch prime minister on the issue. Former World Jewish Congress Vice Chairman Isi Leibler published an open letter to Wilders. In the past decades, no other issue concerning Jews in the Netherlands has raised so much interest from foreign Jewish organizations and leaders.
In the past, all anti-ritual slaughter legislation in Europe was built on an outspoken anti-Semitic basis. In Switzerland, ritual slaughter was forbidden in order to tell Jews that they were not welcome. Norway, a country with a lengthy anti-Semitic tradition, adopted such a law in 1929 even before Nazi Germany. It remains in effect until today.
However, in contrast, Norwegians continue to kill whales in a cruel manner in which the animal may suffer for many minutes. Both in Germany under Nazi rule and in the occupied Netherlands, ritual slaughter was prohibited, to be undone after Germany’s defeat.
This time the proposed law is not motivated by anti-Semitism, but by selective emotional elements in a partly irrational environment. For Jews eating kosher, the results would however be the same. De facto it is an anti-Semitic proposal even if that is not its aim.
The law may not pass this time. However, it will garner at least 40% of the votes of Dutch parliamentarians. And, equally importantly, what started in The Netherlands may soon spill over into other European countries.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld holds a PhD. in Environmental Studies. Several of his books deal with environmental issues, including how Judaism relates to the environment
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