A number of European countries have recently sought, with some success, to ban the ritual slaughter of four-legged animals by Muslims and Jews. Denmark did so in February, following Poland in January. Proponents framed the discussion in terms of animal welfare. They have a point. Executed properly, animals suffer less when stunned — that is, rendered unconscious — before they are slaughtered. Mainstream interpretations of Muslim and Jewish law prohibit this practice.
Yet the bans on ritual slaughter, which are meant to protect animals from pain, have much more to do with excluding certain ethnic and religious groups and should therefore raise concern, even among activists who would normally support them.
As a vegan, I oppose industrial meat processing for its abject cruelty and indifference to animals. I should therefore support all initiatives that in any way ameliorate the suffering of those animals our society has deemed livestock. Just like the proponents of the ban, I, too, prefer that butchers stun cattle before they brandish their knives. I am even sympathetic to the Australian solution of “stunning” livestock immediately after ritual slaughter, to minimize suffering, while remaining within the bounds of religious law. Finland has provided a similar accommodation for its Jewish community since 1934.
Nonetheless, I strongly oppose banning ritual slaughter. For me, this has little to do with religious freedom. Though a bedrock of our society, religious freedom also has its limits. We outlaw female genital mutilation and compel parents to provide medical care for their children, even if they oppose doing so on religious grounds. Considered in isolation, if stunning is a “kinder and gentler” way to kill, I would insist upon its adoption despite the religious objections.
Yet we must first answer a few questions. What does it mean for predominantly Christian and post-Christian societies to ban Muslim and Jewish ritual slaughter when cruelty is inherent to the entire system of industrial animal farming, from birth until death? Why have activists seized upon this issue so fervently, and, more importantly, so successfully?
I stand with my European allies in their fight for the welfare of animals. But I am deeply concerned when they draw the lines of acceptable behavior along ethno-religious divides. They characterize Jewish and Muslim slaughter as barbaric, and their foodways — a centerpiece of cultural practice and identification — as lying outside the norm. In a time of rising ethno-nationalism on that continent, the attempt to ban ritual slaughter is yet another, tired volley in a discourse that says, simply and cruelly, “This is Europe: Assimilate completely or leave.”
Jewish and Muslim activists have joined together in opposing these bans, as they affect both communities. The bans, however, are aimed primarily at European Muslims and Muslims in Europe. They compose a far larger minority than Jews, and one less accepted by the majority. Indeed, the bans have arisen from the same hysteria that has, in part, ignited anti-circumcision campaigns in Europe. Some Finish anti-ritual slaughter activists have gone so far as to compare male circumcision and female genital mutilation, both of which they associate with Islam.
We should debate the merits of protecting young boys from potentially dangerous body modification without consent, just as we discuss all other areas of child welfare concern. Our conversation about ritual animal slaughter should proceed similarly and begin with the following question: Why draw divisive lines between communities already in tension when we can advocate for animal (and child) welfare by other means?
To that end, the attempts to ban ritual slaughter (and circumcision) are actually counterproductive. They amount to the projection of the very real concerns that we rightly have about the inherent cruelty of our own societies onto its internal “others.” This sort of activism stifles and diffuses important discussions, because it does not encourage the majority to re-evaluate its own choices. It offers, rather, confirmation to Christians and post-Christians alike that their culture is already more enlightened than others. How will banning a set of practices in which most citizens do not engage encourage those same individuals to think critically about their own behaviors? We must choose a different starting point. We can win tougher battles and achieve more profound results.
What is to be done? Those of us who identify as Jewish and animal-welfare/rights activists should oppose the efforts to ban ritual slaughter wherever they arise. Yet we should also avoid joining forces with Jewish and Muslim activists who see no problem in ritual slaughter and seek its perpetuation. They are not our allies.
This is a time for us to raise our voices as Jews within the animal-welfare/rights community, to stand firmly against bigotry and the easy solutions that it seems to offer. This is also a time for us to encourage our own Jewish communities to cease the practice of ritual slaughter voluntarily by refraining from consuming animal products.
To the public, we must speak as particular universalists, interested in constructing a more inclusive and just society. The perception of Jews as a people that have endured millennia of discrimination will add weight to our voices. Within our own communities, we must build avenues of influence for our many talented rabbis, philosophers and teachers, who articulate our values in a Jewish vernacular.
Jacob Ari Labendz is a doctoral candidate at Washington University in St. Louis where he focuses on statecraft, ethnicity, and religion in modern Europe. He is also on the advisory committee of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute.