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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Intolerance or Inconvenience

15th century depiction of Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for consumption. [Public domain]

I used to pass daily by an abattoir on my way into Jerusalem. The cattle could be seen forlornly trudging single file along a narrow concrete passage to their awaiting destiny. Whenever I looked their way (which I tried to avoid doing) I felt a sharp pang of guilt and an appropriate degree of shame at my own hypocrisy - knowing that animal slaughter is inhumane but remaining complicit in the crime by not changing my eating habits. Today I follow with anticipation, a large degree of hope and no small degree of scepticism, the various attempts in developing a meat substitute that actually tastes and feels like the real thing.

Animal slaughter is inhumane. That is a fact, and I don't believe that it is any less so if the animal is slaughtered by applying a rapid transverse incision with a surgically sharp instrument in order to sever the major structures and vessels at the neck, as is done in Jewish ritual slaughter (Schechitah), or by a preliminary stunning of the animal by hammer blow or bolt pistol. One way or another the animal suffers, and much of its suffering indeed precedes the actual slaughter.

Sometimes, it seems, opposition to Jewish ritual slaughter is in reality a matter of intolerance. On 1st January 1894 Schechitah was banned in Switzerland following a plebiscite the previous year.* The ban was introduced by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of the canton of Aargau where most of the Swiss Jews resided at the time. They called Jewish ritual slaughter inhumane, because it did not allow for an animal to be rendered unconscious before being killed. Jewish authorities claimed that the swiftness of death by Schechitah is in fact less cruel to animals than the method that was generally used, and made mandatory in Aargau in 1867, by which the animals had to first be stunned with a hammer blow to the head (later replaced by the use of a bolt pistol - the “captive bolt” device which fires a metal rod into the brain). For poultry the usual method of stunning is by applying an electric shock.

Belgium has recently introduced a similar ban, joining other European nations including Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia, and some non-European nations such as New Zealand. Both Germany and Holland have restricted exceptions to the European Union regulations that require animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter. So, this conflict is still very much in the news. I have no doubt that there are many who honestly have the animals' welfare in mind, but with the continued increase of antisemitism, it seems likely that in some cases this is not the prime motivation in opposing Jewish ritual slaughter. In Switzerland a strange logic that exempts poultry from the ban, and the fact that the import of kosher meat from outside its borders was and continues to be permitted, suggests that the still-applied ban was not really motivated by consideration for animals. More likely, at the time of its introduction it was aimed at putting an end to the growing emigration of Jews to Switzerland from czarist Russia.

A similar ban appears to have existed in Frankish Acre. We learn this from a letter in the Cairo Geniza in which a Jew in Acre wrote: "…the uncircumcised do not allow us to slaughter".* But perhaps in this case it was not so much a matter of consideration for the animals, or of intolerance, as of inconvenience. In the Middle Ages animal welfare was probably not a major issue. There certainly was discrimination against Jewish communities within the crusader states, but in fact, to some degree Jews under Frankish rule appear to have been rather better off than their compatriots in the West, and indeed compared to Jews living under Muslim rule.** Joshua Prawer notes for example that anti-Jewish legislation such as that passed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that required the wearing by Jews of an identifying badge, does not appear to have been imposed in the kingdom of Jerusalem, whereas in both the West and in the Muslim East strictly upheld and humiliating dress regulations were enforced.*** With that in mind, perhaps Geniza scholar, Shlomo Dov Goitein was right in regarding the prohibition of Schechitah in Acre as being in part the withdrawal of a privilege rather than an act of discrimination.**** He noted that, as in Cairo and in Jerusalem under Muslim rule, the ban may have been imposed because of the inconvenience of granting the Jews a separate slaughterhouse or section of the market. Indeed, as there are no other references to it in contemporary sources, the ban on Schechitah in Acre may not have been imposed at all.

* David B. Green, Haaretz: See also S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. I, 1967, p. 430, n. 87.

**This might seem remarkable considering the highly antisemitic events of the First Crusade, but it points to the very different circumstances of a mass movement motivated by religious fervour and the reality of permanent settlement as a minority in hostile surroundings.

*** Joshua Prawer, The History of the Jews in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford, 1988, pp. 104-5.

**** S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. II, 1971, p. 282.

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