The decision by the European Parliament last week to legalise Jewish religious slaughter —shechita — in all EU member states is a victory for religious freedom. It also reflects a remarkable pooling of efforts by a disciplined coalition of pro-shechita lobbies: the European Jewish Congress, the Conference of European Rabbis, and last but by no means least, Shechita UK.
Shechita UK is itself a federation, born out of the schisms that affected shechita defence in the UK some 20 years ago. At that time, as political director of the Campaign for the Protection of Shechita, I found myself at loggerheads with the Board of Deputies — especially with its then president, Dr Kopelowitz, and its Ashkenazi religious authority, Lord Jakobovits — over both the manner in which shechita was being defended and by the Board’s refusal to listen to what Orthodox Jews in the country had to say.
Consequently, the Board’s authority to represent British Jewry on this issue was repudiated. Those of us concerned at the quite unnecessary concessions that were being offered in our name went over the heads of Dr Kopelowitz and Lord Jakobovits, and opened direct negotiations with Whitehall.
I believe we were right to do so. The rotary casting pen had to be abandoned, but in its place we now have the upright pen as sanctioned by eminent American rabbinical authorities. Draft regulations that would have practically criminalised the work of shochetim in this country were reworded. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, which had called for the prohibition of shechita, was outmanoeuvred and outgunned. But I should add that those of us at the centre of the CPS — notably its erudite and eloquent founders, the Kesselman brothers, and its own rabbinical adviser, Benjamin Vorst — deliberately politicised shechita defence. Shechita defence was, is and always will be a political rather than a scientific issue. For every “scientific” argument aired by the FAWC we produced an authoritative counter-argument. Moreover, the FAWC could not muster the votes at Westminster.
However, we did not prolong the schism. When Shechita UK was formed, the CPS was an enthusiastic founder member. And it has greatly benefited from the leadership of Henry Grunwald, the retiring president of the Deputies.
Mr Grunwald and I have had our differences but on shechita defence he has my unqualified praise. Followers of the shechita debate will know that, on March 25 2003, a dozen communal representatives, led by Mr Grunwald, walked out of a meeting with the FAWC. Mr Grunwald’s defiant speech was a gem of its kind. United he led us in to the meeting, and united, and inspired, he led us out.
Since then, the focus of the debate has moved to Europe. A great deal of work has been done behind the scenes, in Brussels. The European parliament’s agriculture committee was persuaded to amend a draft EU regulation that would otherwise have required pre-slaughter stunning — in effect, prohibiting shechita.
At present, five of the EU’s member states (Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden) ban shechita. If the wording agreed upon by the EU parliament last week survives to be approved by the Council of Ministers in June, the legality of shechita will be binding, without exception, on all member states — a victory of immeasurably symbolic as well as practical importance.
It is therefore with a heavy heart that I draw your attention to a last-ditch attempt to frustrate and undermine this victory, not by any so-called animal welfare faction, but by a handful of Jews operating under the umbrella of the Agudas Yisroel association of Belgium.
The ostensible objective of these individuals is (to quote from the Jewish Tribune) to ensure that shechita will continue to be practised “in accordance with unadulterated Jewish tradition”. This is coded language, reflecting (so it is said) the reluctance of certain rabbis to abandon the practice of casting an animal before slaughter. In principle, there is no halachic objection to slaughter where the animal remains upright, a method accepted by Orthodox Jewish communities throughout Britain — even by Agudas Yisroel UK.
What I suspect is going on is that a group of doubtless well-meaning individuals are miffed that they have not been given the prominence they believe they deserve in the machinery of European shechita defence.