[Ed: Part One of this article was published here yesterday. Our correspondent Ceri Jayes asked us to re-publish the link to the Petition on ending animal cruelty so you can sign if you haven’t done so already, and hand the link around.]
This is how Rabbi Jonathan Romain at the Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, sees things changing:
‘As the ethics of wider society caught up with Jewish tradition, there have been instances where we have changed our methods [of slaughter] to maintain the principle of minimizing animal distress in the light of modern perspectives … A religious crossroads is looming in the distance, for which we have to prepare. The various methods of stunning have not yet been perfected. Sometimes they are very effective and save animals pain, sometimes they either do not work or are administered wrongly, leaving animals immobile but conscious, and even more terrified. There is not yet incontrovertible evidence that stunning is better than shechita, but if (or, rather, when) that times comes, we will need to weigh the moral principle of animal welfare against methods that may be centuries old, but might no longer be as validly Jewish as before. In that case, we should say the insistence an animal be healthy and free from blemish applies immediately before slaughter, which includes pre-stunning. This would allow Jews to both keep an important ritual observance and maintain their ethical integrity.’
So how many of Britain’s Jews would be profoundly distressed by a ban on all non-stun slaughter? What is the size of the group Mr Agnew is bending over backwards not to offend, thereby leaving kosher in place as a shield behind which halal – with animals hearing prayers before their throats are slashed – can endure?
According to the UK’s 2011 census, 263,346 people identified themselves as Jewish by religion – 0.43% of the total population. As defined by racial or cultural origins (taking into account the re-admission of European Jews during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, immigration from eastern Europe during the late 19th century, and refugee immigration from Germany, Austria, and the then Czechoslovakia in the 1930s), it’s probably much larger, but wholly secular and assimilated culturally. Getting a handle on these numbers is impossible, but it’s been estimated that the ultra-Orthodox population – the folks who take dietary laws seriously – accounts for a mere 16 percent of those 263,345: that’s approximately 42,000. How many of those stick to every dot and comma of kosher rules? What is clear is that most Jews – even some Orthodox ones – take a fairly relaxed view of kosher rituals, hence jokes such as these:
“A revered Renaissance Rabbi is stopped on a street in Warsaw by an old peasant woman who asks: ‘Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?’ The rabbi replies: ‘We’re not?!”
“If it tastes good, it’s probably not kosher.”
Most Orthodox Jews, I figure, would put up with a total ban as part of the price of living in a secular country, and one in which their freedom to worship as they wish is guaranteed, while some of those who take the non-stun tradition seriously might think about moving to Israel, a country they would probably find far too secular for their taste.
The case for a total non-stun ban is clear, so in resisting it Mr Agnew conjures an absurd solution premised on a clueless misunderstanding of the law on ritual slaughter.
British law, he says, must be enforced … and so say all of us! ‘It is illegal,’ he goes on, ‘for non-Muslims to eat non-stunned Halal meat, and non-Jews to eat non-stunned kosher meat.’
Is that so? No, it isn’t. Ritual slaughter is permitted by law when the intention is that the food will be eaten by Muslims and Jews. And, of course, suppliers, abattoirs, slaughterers, processors, and Orthodox clerics will say, ‘yes, guv, that’s our intention! What’s the problem?’
The problem is that there is, rightly, no law that prevents me eating the meat of my choosing. But undeterred by absence of a statute telling me what I can and can’t eat or drink, Mr Agnew says: ‘Any retail outlet or procurement agency that sells to the wrong customer will be heavily fined. Proof of religion will be required.’
Proof of religion? This is almost as incomprehensible as insisting animals hear prayers before having their throats cut. The last bit of paper I saw indicating somebody’s religion – or race – was the ID card/passport given to my mother and uncle after the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938; it has a bloody big J (in red) on it. No prizes for guessing what the J stands for: