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Kosher Rules

The Dutch parliament moved last week to prohibit the ritual slaughter of animals, putting the notoriously tolerant Netherlands on a path to ban a practice key to both Jewish and Muslim observance

Lauren Comiteau
July 06, 2011
A butcher shop in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.(Flickr/Bart van Damme)
A butcher shop in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.(Flickr/Bart van Damme)

It’s 5:30 in the morning on a late-June Monday, and Motty Rosenzweig, 45, has already sharpened his knives for another day’s work. The only kosher slaughterer, or shochet, in the Netherlands, he kills approximately 3,000 calves, sheep, and cows yearly for the kosher-observant population in this country of about 50,000 Jews, 6,000 of whom are estimated to be Orthodox. His employer, the Jewish Community of Amsterdam, rents a windowless space within a larger slaughterhouse in the west of the city. When Rosenzweig closes up shop in the afternoon, a halal slaughterer will take his place.

But Rosenzweig’s job, and that of his halal counterpart, are now on the line: Last week, the lower house of the parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban ritual slaughter, by a margin of 116 to 30. (The upper house still must approve the legislation before it becomes law.) A majority of Dutch voters say they support the ban, which will be more noticeable in the much larger Muslim community, which numbers more than a million.

On the eve of the vote, members of the Dutch parliament were invited to observe the ritual, an attempt by Rosenzweig’s bosses to show their opponents that their animals don’t suffer. Only one legislator turned up, from the tiny Christian Union party.

Marianne Thieme, leader of the country’s animal-rights party, had no interest in attending. “I don’t want subjective observations,” Thieme says. “I want scientific proof.” Her Party for Animals is small, with only two parliament members, but it managed to galvanize the anti-ritual slaughter on the grounds that it causes unnecessary suffering to animals. If the law goes into effect, it will require that all animals must be stunned, or anesthetized, before they’re slaughtered. Both the kosher laws governing slaughter, or Sh’hitah, and halal laws dictate that animals be fully conscious when killed. “Maybe theirs was the best way to slaughter 3,000 years ago, but not now,” says Thieme.

“It’s depressing,” says Binyomin Jacobs, chief rabbi of the Netherlands, pointing out that one of the first laws enacted by the Nazis in 1940 closed ritual slaughterhouses. (Seventy percent of Holland’s Jews were killed during World War II, including Rosenzweig’s grandfather, who was also a shochet.)

“Religion in a secular country is easy to attack,” says Ronnie Eisenmann, head of the board of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam. “If you say Jews and Muslims do medieval things, then of course people are against it.” And Muslim leaders agree. “Besides the direct and irreversible restriction of freedom of belief, the fate of two world religions is totally left to officials, scientists, veterinarians, and owners of slaughterhouses,” the Contact Committee for Muslims and Government, a liaison group, said in a statement.

The law, as passed, does include one potential loophole: If it can be proven that animals who are slaughtered by kosher or halal ritual feel no more pain than animals who are stunned, then ritual slaughter could continue. “But how can you prove that?” asks Jacobs. He said that kosher slaughter respects animals, not only during the kill, but before: Animals can’t be wounded while transported (or else the meat is unusable), and they go one by one to the slaughter (they’re not allowed to see the animal in front of them get killed).

Ritual slaughterers receive an extensive education, training for several years under a master and requiring certification. “Motty had 10 years of training before becoming a slaughterer,” says David Serphos, the former director of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam. “He studied for two years how to sharpen his knife before getting near a chicken.”

“The knife used is sharp and smooth so the cut itself does not cause any pain,” Rosenzweig says. “The blood pressure immediately drops, and in a few seconds the animal is unconscious.” He is proud of his family’s shochet roots in the Netherlands, but he already works several days a week in Belgium and France; he thinks his professional days in his hometown are numbered. “The feeling I get here is, ‘Do it our way or leave,’ ” he says.

In recent years, the Netherlands, like many European countries, has seen a major influx of Muslim immigrants, and this influx has at times led to tensions. But Thieme says that her party’s concern is for the well-being of animals, not against religion. “The freedom of religion is not unrestricted,” she says. Roos Vonk, a professor of psychology at Radboud University, recalls being a member of an animal rights group in the early 1980s; its members considered taking on ritual slaughter but didn’t dare. “It was impossible then to say anything against Muslims and minorities,” Vonk says. “The whole of Holland would roll over you. We didn’t want to appear racist. But that was before Pim Fortuyn”—the right-wing populist who rose to prominence a decade ago on his anti-Muslim positions. (He was murdered during the 2002 election campaign.)

In the week leading up to the ritual-slaughter vote, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared multiculturalism dead, his Cabinet announced plans to cut funding for programs aiding immigrants (a move that three-quarters of the Dutch say they support), and the popular anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders was acquitted on charges of inciting racial hatred for comparing the Quran to Mein Kampf, among other things. The country once thought of as among the most liberal and tolerant in the world is now known for its increasingly conservative and populist mindset.

“I sympathize with anyone trying to make sense of the emotional state of this country’s population,” says Tom Eijsbouts, professor of law at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Leiden. “People seek certainty in the extremes.” He views the ritual-slaughter ban as a misguided attempt by the Dutch public to deal with its discomfort over the mass production of animals. “It seems to me that the bad feelings have been diverted to a non-essential aesthetic issue of slaughter without stunning,” he says. And the Netherlands is not alone; Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have banned ritual slaughter, too.

Marcus Butchers, the only kosher butcher shop in Amsterdam, is located in the south of the city. It’s a stone’s throw from the house on Merwedeplein where Anne Frank and her family lived before they went into hiding. The store’s manager, Luuk Koole, hopes that the ban won’t pass the senate and become law. If it does, he says he’ll have no choice but to start importing meat. “I’m not so afraid for business,” he says, “but our prices will go up if we have to import.”

A customer, Rabbi Chaim Rodrigues Pereira, was buying kosher sausage and veal for Shabbat. “I don’t think it’s anti-Semitism,” he says of the ban. (He chalks it up to a modern emphasis on animal welfare, which he supports.) “But if they tell us we may not slaughter kosher, they know we’ll go to Belgium, where they’ll have to slaughter more. They want civility in Holland but they don’t care if they do it in Belgium or France.”

If there is an upside to the slaughter saga, it’s that opposition to the ban has brought the Jewish and Muslim communities closer together. “Working together may be a big word, but we are on the same side,” says Ronnie Eisenmann. “In a secular society, the Jewish community has more in common with Muslims than the Dutch—family, special education, circumcision, ritual slaughter. We’re both more conservative.”

Lauren Comiteau has been reporting from the Netherlands for Time, CBS Radio, the CBC, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications, others since 1996.

CORRECTION, July 11: Anne Frank and her family lived on Merwedeplein before they went into hiding. This error has been corrected.

Lauren Comiteau has been reporting from the Netherlands for Time, CBS Radio, the CBC, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications, others since 1996.