A Re-Veal-ing Detail: Challenging Matthew Syed on Kosher Slaughter

Campaigns against non-stun kosher and halal slaughter in Britain tend to come from three camps: animal welfare groups; the political right (broadly defined); and the secular centre-left. An example of the third of these is this piece by Matthew Syed (£), which was published by The Times at one minute past midnight on 1 January 2015. It seems an odd topic with which to usher in a New Year. I believe Syed’s argument, though doubtless well-intentioned, is fundamentally flawed. Below is my attempt to show why. For the sake of simplicity, I have largely restricted my own argument to Jewish stuff only – i.e. Judaism, kosher slaughter, and antisemitism – though a similar argument could be made in relation to Islam, halal slaughter and anti-Muslim prejudice.

We start with the title and sub-heading:

The slippery slope from halal meat to FGM

If we exempt ritual slaughter from animal welfare laws we open the door to far worse crimes

Well, that is certainly a provocative header – as it was surely intended to be. However, Syed himself probably didn’t write it. So let’s dive into the article itself. All emphases are mine.

I’ll be honest: I love meat. I like steak medium rare, lamb pink, and I am not averse to the occasional veal Milanese, particularly when it is served at Brocca, a rather nice Italian restaurant I know.

Veal, you say? That’s a fascinating throw-away comment. We’ll return to that at the end.

But, like most carnivores in this country, I also believe that animals should be slaughtered humanely. In fact, I think it is imperative.

“Most”? Here, Syed puts us on the look-out for some meat-eaters who do not believe that animals should be slaughtered humanely. Who could be so horrible? We shall find out whom he means, soon enough.

The law, unsurprisingly, takes the same view. Animal welfare legislation requires animals to be stunned before slaughter in order to minimise suffering. The stunning renders the animals largely impervious to pain before they are killed. There are also other rules and regulations that seek a balance between the rights of the animal and the practicalities of eating meat on a mass scale.

Here, Syed appears to use two terms synonymously, though they in fact have quite different meaningsAnimal welfare activists say that humans can eat meat, but should treat animals humanely. Animal rights activists say that humans should not eat meat at all. Given that Syed has already said he eats meat, I assume he is concerned with animal welfare rather than with animal rights. If his real concern is animal rights, he should go vegan, and encourage others to do the same.

Some campaigners reckon that the law should go further to protect animals; others think that it is already too onerous.

But this is the stuff of democracy, isn’t it? People with different opinions trying to reach a conclusion based on something approaching rational deliberation. And for those who disagree with the conclusion, there is always the opportunity to campaign, to proselytise, and, indeed, to stand for parliament if they so wish. That is how you change the law.

Fine.

But it isn’t the only way. When it comes to meat, it turns out that there are exemptions. Jewish and Muslim sensibilities about ritual slaughter are given protected status, despite these practices being inhumane. Kosher meat is taken from animals that are never stunned pre-slaughter. Halal animals are stunned sometimes, but not always. Both types of meat are routinely served in restaurants, without labelling. The exception was granted on grounds of religious freedom.

Here, Syed reveals the identity of those carnivores who, apparently, do not believe that animals should be slaughtered humanely: Jews and Muslims, whose respective slaughter methods either never, or only sometimes, stun animals pre-slaughter; an exemption which is enshrined in law. “Sensibilities” seems an odd choice of word with which to characterise an important component of Judaism. Is Mr Syed suggesting that Jews are a bit too touchy?

At the risk of sounding just so touchy: why has Mr Syed chosen the term “ritual slaughter”? As David Fraser explains on page xi of his excellent book, Anti-Shechita Prosecutions in the Anglo-American World, 1855-1913this term is morally fraught: there is a long history of slippage, and a connection made, between the medieval blood libel, and discourse about kosher (and halal) slaughter. The medieval blood libel charged Jews with the ritual murder of Christian children. Discourse about kosher/halal slaughter frequently repackages this trope, although it is now animals, rather than children, who are the victims. Doubtless this is not in Syed’s mind: the term is, after all widely used. Fraser nonetheless prefers the term, “the Jewish mode of slaughter”.

Syed then asserts, but does not demonstrate, that slaughter without pre-stunning is inhumane. Clearly, this is crucial to his argument. But is he right? A number of scholars have argued cogently that the Jewish mode of slaughter is a humane means of dispatching an animal. Whilst Syed acknowledges such scholars (and their Muslim counterparts) later, he all but fails to engage with their arguments in a meaningful way.

Now I want to point out here that I don’t have any problem with religion. If you think that there is a divine rule that bans you from eating animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but “Allah”’; or animals that weren’t killed by men trained for the purpose; or carcasses that haven’t been patted on the head by a rabbi, that is your business. Hell, you can eat your food while balancing a copy of the Holy Book on your head if you really want to.

The first sentence sounds ever so slightly like special pleading. Doth he protest a little too much?

But I do have a problem with the law having get-out clauses. I do have a problem with rules being swerved around. The law is not a pick’n’mix counter. 

Here, Syed appears to conflate two different things. A “get-out clause” is when Parliament exempts certain groups from provisions which, rightly, apply to everyone else. For example, a policeman can, in certain situations, drive at 80 mph down the motorway without committing a road traffic offence. “Swerving around rules”, or treating the law as a “pick’n’mix counter”, on the other hand, is what I do when, after driving at 80mph for most of my journey, I reduce my speed to 70mph just before I pass a speed camera.

In the context of animal slaughter, English law has, for decades, allowed Jews to slaughter animals without pre-stunning: a get-out clause. However,  they must still adhere to detailed regulations; to ignore those detailed regulations would be to “swerve around the rules”. Is Syed objecting to the exemption itself, or is he accusing Jews of flouting the detailed regulations, or is he doing both? A lack of precision is not the most serious flaw in Syed’s article; it is a flaw nonetheless.

The right to religious freedom is not an absolute right to do what you like, whether killing animals inhumanely, barring gay couples from your B&B; or forcing your daughter into a marriage she doesn’t want. Religious customs, like secular ones, must operate within limits.

Echoing Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Syed asserts that religious freedom is not limitless. Whilst few would disagree with him, his examples seem incongruous. Is the Jewish mode of slaughtering of an animal for food – even if it is as inhumane as Syed claims – really on a par with excluding gay couples from a B&B, or with forced marriage? Is what happens to animals truly morally equivalent to what happens to humans? If that is what Syed truly believes – should he not go vegan?

And when those who make the laws start to grant exemptions, however well intended, it is not just animals that suffer; it is all of us. Just look at how this legislative fear of offending religious sensibilities has shaded into a deeper cultural impotence when it comes to standing up to crimes such as female genital mutilation, “honour” abuses and the more ludicrous aspects of Sharia. Look at how it has caused us to pull our punches on issues such as the burka.

Here, again, Syed asserts without demonstrating. In what way has a specific, longstanding, narrow and carefully caveated exemption on pre-stunning, led to a failure to take a firm line on the other cultural issues he mentions? Where is the evidence?

If legislative inconsistency on slaughter methods leads to “cultural impotence”, is the reverse true – that legislative consistency on slaughter methods  leads to “cultural potency”? At the risk of falling foul of Godwin’s Law: prior to 1933, Germany required all animals to be stunned before slaughter, but granted an exemption to Jews. One of the first things the Nazis did, upon coming to power, was to abolish this exemption. What does Syed make of this? 

Secular liberalism, we should remember, is not a wishy-washy doctrine. It is a positive, muscular and rather wonderful creed. It is about the principle of “live and let live”, but within limits. When people behave in illiberal ways; when they trample on the rights of others (human or animal); when they try to exempt themselves from the law, we should confront them. Indeed, religious freedom itself can only survive in a society when it is protected from the illiberal tendencies of others.

Where to begin with this paragaph? Jewish rights to religious liberty are balanced against “animal rights”. Syed again suggests that Jews are trying to exempt themselves from the law, rather than taking advantage of an exemption which Parliament itself granted decades ago. He all but charges observant Jews with “behav[ing] in illiberal ways”, in a manner which threatens religious freedom itself. This seems a grave charge to press on the basis of a practice which (a) has been legal for decades and (b) which affects the final few moments of a rather small number of animals. 

Of course, if religious groups wish to change the law, on animal slaughter or anything else, that is their right.

This is a strange sentence. It is not Jews and Muslims who are arguing for a change in the law, but Matthew Syed: specifically, it would seem, for what is now this Schedule in the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015 to be repealed.

But let them argue for it openly, like anyone else. To be fair, some Jewish and Islamic scholars have argued that ritual slaughter is not inhumane

In his penultimate paragraph, Syed acknowledges, for the first time, the possibility that the Jewish mode of slaughter may not, after all, be inhumane. Yet he raises this possibility, only to dismiss it straightaway:

but they have been powerfully contradicted by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the EU’s scientific panel on animal health and welfare, and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe.

As Syed’s article does not include hyperlinks (this is not a criticism, merely an observation), it is unclear which outputs of these organisations he is referring to, and therefore difficult to refute this comment precisely. We do know, however, that scholars such as Dr Temple Grandin, and Professor Joe Regenstein of Cornell University, have themselves “powerfully contradicted” the arguments made by animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association. Contrary to Syed’s suggestion, the science on slaughter without pre-stunning is not settled.

But this is how it should be. Let us have the give and take of rational debate. Let us decide on the basis of evidence and reason. And let us examine the arguments of religious groups on their merit, and without fear of being labelled antisemitic, anti-Islamic or anti-religious.

Only here – in the final sentence of an article in which he has used the loaded term “ritual slaughter”, has appeared to suggest that Jews need to compete for their rights with animals, suggested that there is a causal connection between allowing non-stun slaughter and a cultural impotence in facing “far worse crimes”, and charged observant Jews with illiberalism – does Syed raise the issue of antisemitism. He urges his readers not to be frightened of an (implied) accusation of antisemitism. Indeed, he has already pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, of offending Jewish sensibilities.

What he has not done is to consider whether, regardless of intention, a ban on kosher slaughter would have an antisemitic impact.  He has nowhere contemplated that a ban would quite literally criminalise an important aspect of Judaism; nor does he seem to have considered the effect this would have on observant Jews. They would be forced to make tough choices: to go vegetarian; to compromise on their own religious beliefs; to buy expensive imported kosher meat; or to emigrate! Is he even aware of the way in which the far-right has repeatedly seized upon this very issue? Is he aware that the topic is one that draws the attention of actual antisemites, like moths to a flame? Is Matthew Syed, in Orwell’s words, playing with fire without knowing that it is hot?

Before we finish, let’s return to that throw-away comment in his first paragraph: that he enjoys eating veal. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some of the things that might have happened to the calf that he carves with a smile:

  • Early separation from its mother, causing severe distress to both cow and calf
  • Being fed with a low-iron milk-based diet, in order to keep its flesh pale
  • Housing it on wooden slats without bedding material
  • Transportation on long journeys across Europe
  • Being kept in a small crate without enough room to turn around

Lots and lots and lots of other grisly things happen to the animals whose flavour he savours.

And so we can end with some more questions. What is it about kosher slaughter that exercises Matthew Syed, in a way that the numerous horrors of factory farming apparently do not? Why do the final few moments of a comparatively small number of animals slaughtered by Jews attract his ire, but not what happens to a far larger number of animals in the preceding 99.99% of their lives? If he himself enjoys the liberty to eat veal, is it really so much to ask that he defends the rights of Jews to freely practise their faith?

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