The European Court of Justice’s verdict on the legality of the bans on Shechita in the Wallonia and Flanders regions of Belgium was always going to be a landmark ruling. Unfortunately, it did not go the way we wanted, and it will make future legal efforts to protect Shechita much more challenging.
We have all known that EU Legislation 1099/2009 which provided for EU member states to allow Shechita also allowed for EU member states to impose their own National Rules which could indeed ban Shechita. Such is the importance of continued professional lobbying efforts at national Government level. So, although the ECJ judgement upheld the right of the Belgian court to impose the ban, what is shocking is that the Court has sought to define what is Shechita. It has declared that a reversible mechanical stun to the animal before Shechita, is in keeping with principles regarding freedom of religion. Mechanical stunning of animals has no place in Jewish law and it is absurd to tell a community, sure you can do Shechita, as long as you do it the way we tell you to. Yet that is now the freedom of religion that the European Court of Justice ascribes. We here in the UK have to be grateful, whatever our political stance may be, that Prime Minister Johnson has declared that Britain’s future partnership with the EU “cannot involve any kind of alignment of ECJ jurisdiction.”
The ruling seems full of contradictions. Not only does it go against the opinion of the Advocate General, and defines how we should perform our own religious practice but it also creates a hierarchy of animal welfare measures and dismisses reams of scientific evidence. The ruling is clear that no matter what hunting or other animal welfare considerations a country ignores, it can still target the tiny number of animals who are killed using the Shechita method (less than 0.01% in the UK). This means that thousands of animals can be hunted and killed using brutal methods like clubbing or shooting from a distance, whilst Shechita is still banned. This argument is not only counterintuitive but leads to serious questions about the way that the European Institutions protect our religious rights.
Today’s judgement also ignores the significant body of science that supports Shechita as a humane method of slaughter. The reason the United States of America considers Shechita one of a number of legal methods of animal slaughter for food is not because it ignores the science, but because US law recognises that all methods of slaughter have strengths and significant weaknesses. It is childish to suggest the science is conclusive. Even the animal welfare community now focuses on improving all methods slaughter and many welfare activists in the UK no longer even call for a ban on Shechita, with some recognising that the Shechita method is preferential for some species.
Those who support today’s decision will point to the fact that imports of kosher meat will not be affected. Whilst this may be true in principle, it is worrying that a Court can prevent a Jewish community from being self-sufficient. We have seen during the ongoing pandemic that supply chains are fragile. Belgium itself suffered kosher meat shortages over Pesach.
Whilst the European Court of Justice’s decision would seem to endorse the opinion of so many Brexiteers that we are better off outside of its jurisdiction, leaving the European Union will not remove us from this precedent as this judgement is the only one of its kind internationally. Any other country could well take this ruling into account when making decisions on the legality of any ban on Shechita.
The legal status of Shechita in the UK has always been as a derogation to the law, rather than a separate legal method. That means there is a legal requirement for mechanical stunning except for the food of religious communities. Although parts of the animal welfare lobby would love us to believe this was down to the science, it never was. The reasoning in the 1930s when the legislation was passed was simply that the Jewish community at the time was so small, with Shechita operating in small butchers across parts of the UK, only a derogation was needed.
We are incredibly fortunate that successive UK Governments have been clear and committed to Shechita continuing in the United Kingdom. As a Jewish community we have fantastic relationships at every level of Government, and we are grateful that there is cross-party support for Shechita. To that end, today’s ruling will not have any immediate effect on our meat supply. However, we have seen, most recently in Poland in 2014, that sometimes legal mechanisms are required to protect Shechita and that route now appears to be blocked.
Those who oppose Shechita will no doubt use this judgement as a catalyst for their work and we must therefore redouble our efforts to promote Shechita as a humane method of animal slaughter for food. It will not be straight forward as legislation is recalibrated post-Brexit, but Shechita UK will continue our work with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that we can continue to practice our religion in a free and safe manner as we have for generations.
Shimon Cohen, Shechita UK’s Campaign Director