LONDON — A debate over kosher slaughter in Britain is pitting animal-rights activists against Jewish community leaders, and placing the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities on the same side of the fence.
Next month, the British government is expected to consider a report from an animal-rights advisory group that will ask for a ban on shechitah, or kosher slaughter, in the country. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, which monitors animal welfare issues on the government’s behalf, last called for a ban on shechitah in 1985 but was unsuccessful. This time, however, Jewish leaders fear that the current political climate — where left-wing protesters have tapped public sentiment against everything from fox-hunting to Israeli settlements, globalization to the bombing of Baghdad — may make approval of the recommendations more likely.
“This is part of a confluence of interests, including the animal-rights and other lobbies, who are perfectly happy to make trouble for us,” said Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the country’s main Jewish representative body. “I think the government would want to take very great care before accepting this recommendation, which would certainly alienate the entire Jewish community and most of the Muslim community.”
Opposition politicians have seized on the issue as an opportunity to tear traditionally left-leaning Jewish and Muslim voters away from Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labor. Beleaguered Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith recently told the weekly London Jewish News that his Tories “will oppose unacceptable restrictions on shechitah.”
The Board of Deputies, the government-recognized spokesman for the nation’s 270,000-strong Jewish community, has sought to coordinate its lobbying efforts with the much larger Muslim community, which numbers some 1.6 million, Nagler said. To a degree, mutual interest on ritual slaughter has overcome mutual animosity over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the presence of radically anti-Israel — and in some cases antisemitic — Muslim clerics in Britain.
“We are trying to work in concert,” Nagler said. “This is one of the issues where we recognize that we have common interests.”
Some observers have noted that while observance of halal, the Muslim dietary law, is more widespread among British Muslims than observance of kashrut is among British Jews, the Jewish community has been considerably more vociferous in opposing the animal welfare council.
One reason lies in the subtle differences between the rules of halal and kashrut. Although animal council has not yet published its report, it has said the report will reiterate concerns raised in 1985, when it demanded that all animals be electrically stunned before they are killed. Rabbinic law explicitly requires that animals must be conscious when slaughtered. Some interpretations of Islamic law allow for stunning, and so British Muslim organizations may be inclined to flexibility on the issue. Officials at several halal oversight groups in Britain did not return calls for comment.
For its part, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which commissioned the four-year animal council study — examining a range of other issues in addition to slaughter — has assured Jewish and Muslim leaders that it has no intention of accepting council’s recommendations without a full review.
“The fact that we receive the report does not mean that we enact the recommendations,” said a spokeswoman for the department. “The government will review this and come to a decision as to where to act and where not to act. I’m sure that other people will be able to put their thoughts in as well.”
The Board of Deputies, along with Muslim groups, has written to the government about its concerns but has so far received only a “wait-and-see” reply, Nagler said.
The board has also worked with animal council, providing information on and demonstrations of shechitah, but to no avail.
“We thought that we had convinced them that shechitah is at least as humane a method of slaughter as any other,” Nagler said.
In an interview with the London Jewish News, council chair Judy MacArthur Clarke suggested that her group had never found the board’s arguments persuasive.
“We have listened very carefully to the evidence put forward by the religious communities and have visited slaughterhouses and observed the methods used,” she told the newspaper. “But we remain unconvinced that this is a humane means of killing an animal.”
Virtually all kosher and halal meat consumed in Britain is slaughtered locally. A ban would force observant Jews and Muslims to rely on imported meat, which would grow increasingly expensive.