World News

New Slaughtering Rules Pit Dutch Religious Freedoms Against Animal Rights

Posted December 31, 2017 7:03 p.m. EST

AMSTERDAM — For 60 years, the Sal Meyer deli in Amsterdam has been serving kosher foods like its signature pekelvlees, a fatty corned beef steeped in meat juices and served with a bun.

The deli is one of the few kosher restaurants left in Amsterdam, a city that once had such a vibrant Jewish community that it still retains the nickname Mokum, the Yiddish word for “safe haven.” People travel from miles away to meet their friends there, and the deli holds a small community together in a country where 80 percent of the Jewish population was killed during World War II.

“This is a very important place for the Jewish community, and the fact that we have the meat that is still approved by the rabbi is an important thing for our customers,” said Martijn Koppert, a co-owner of the restaurant. “It’s really part of the community life.”

But starting Monday, keeping customers satisfied may get more difficult, not just for Sal Meyer but also for kosher and halal butchers across the Netherlands.

Observant Jews and Muslims follow religious laws that dictate that they eat the meat of animals that have been slaughtered according to strict rules, including that the animals are conscious and healthy when their throats are cut. Animal rights activists say the practice causes unnecessary suffering.

Responding to pressure from the activists, Jewish and Muslim groups have agreed to make changes in an effort to preserve their slaughtering practices.

It has come to illustrate a broader debate across Europe that has pitted advocates of religious freedom and minority rights against a growing movement for animal rights.

Many other European countries — including Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden — also have laws or rules on the books banning or limiting religious slaughter. Some are quite old — Switzerland’s rules, for example, date from the 1890s. Others were instituted in the 1930s under Nazi rule.

But in recent years, animal rights activists have campaigned for stricter limits or outright bans on methods they consider cruel.

The Dutch Party for the Animals, which has five seats in Parliament, first pushed for changes in 2010. The measure was passed by the lower house and then rejected by the senate, which nevertheless issued a resolution requiring the religious groups involved to develop slaughter practices with more consciousness toward animal welfare.

Even though a compromise solution was developed, the Dutch animal rights party is again planning to introduce legislation early this year in an attempt to ban religious slaughter.

Recently, two regional parliaments in Belgium passed laws to end religious slaughter starting in 2019, though both measures face legal challenges in Belgian courts.

In countries with painful histories of anti-Semitism, and at time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment runs high, some fear that the changes, even if they are intended for animal protection, will add to tensions with minority communities.

“Some of those who try and ban our customs are in essence trying to make Europe more uncomfortable for Jews, because the essence and centrality of our life are our ancient traditions, and if our customs are not welcome nor are our communities,” Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, wrote in a statement to The New York Times.

Some Muslims groups feel similarly.

“I don’t think it is anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim in essence, but it will, I think, be understood by some Muslim communities as a kind of Muslim hate or anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Rasit Bal, chairman of the Council of Muslim Organizations, representing members of 450 Dutch mosques. “It will be associated with social tensions and placed in an already polarized relationship, and they will say, ‘See, they are trying to make it impossible for us to be Muslims here.’ ”

At the same time, Bal said he doubted that the new rules would have much impact on the production of halal meat. “We already have huge diversity when we look to the definition of halal,” he said. “So it won’t affect the community life.”

That may be less true for kosher meat production in the Netherlands. Of the 500 million animals slaughtered every year for consumption in the Netherlands, about 1.6 million to 2 million are used for halal, while only 3,000 are for kosher meat.

There is only one slaughterhouse in the Netherlands where meat is slaughtered for kosher consumption, and that is done only one day a week. Slagerij Marcus in Amsterdam is the only kosher butcher left in the Netherlands. It supplies the Sal Meyer deli and other kosher restaurants elsewhere in the country.

Motti Rosenzweig, the single slaughterer, or shochet, kills his animals by using an extremely sharp knife to slice through the carotid artery and jugular vein, severing the trachea and esophagus. (Halal slaughtering is performed similarly.)

The new rules dictate that if an animal is not insensitive to pain within 40 seconds of slaughter, based on measures called “induced eyelid reflex” and “cornea reflex,” it must be shot.

“If you shoot it before you slaughter, it’s not kosher at all,” Rosenzweig said. “They want to shoot it after it’s slaughtered, and that’s where the problem starts. They’re shooting a piece of metal into the brain and they call that stunning.”

“You tell me what’s more humane,” he said.

The new rules also state that the number of animals killed for kosher and halal meat must be limited to the amount “necessary to meet the actual need of the religious communities present in the Netherlands.” Slagerij Marcus, which relies on exports for 40 percent of its income, may find it difficult to stay in business, said Herman Loonstein, a lawyer for the butcher.

Each side cites scientific evidence to support its slaughtering methods, but measuring the level of suffering an animal experiences is an inexact science at best.

Shimon Cohen, a spokesman on kosher slaughter issues for the European Jewish Congress, said that all parties to the agreement “are to be congratulated” for working out a solution that allows religious slaughter to continue within the guidelines.

But not everyone is satisfied. The Party for the Animals, which first introduced the proposal in the Dutch Parliament seven years ago, said the accord did not go far enough.

“This is just to green wash a bad practice,” the party’s leader, Marianne Thieme, said in a telephone interview. “It’s just trying to make it look better than it is.”

She said she was planning to reintroduce legislation in late January or early February to ban religious slaughter. “It’s not legitimate any longer that treatment of an animal depends on the religious beliefs of its slaughterer,” she said. Ruben Vis, director of the Organization of Jewish Communities in the Netherlands, said that he had not yet heard that the Party for the Animals intends to renew its legislative effort to ban religious slaughter.

“The Jewish community’s reaction will be, ‘Not again, we’re targeted again,’ ” he said. “We have worked with the government to find a balance between our expression of freedom of religion and the general principle of the care for animals. I consider it as the best possible outcome.”

A fresh round of changes would only add to the uncertain climate for kosher businesses like the Sal Meyer deli and its supplier, Marcus Slagerij.

Koppert, the co-owner of the restaurant, said that he’s not sure what he would do if kosher meat became harder to get in the Netherlands. “But we managed so far for 60 years, so we will face the challenge,” he said.

“We will search for alternatives if we have to, but that’s not what we want,” he added. “It would take a big part of the history and the tradition and the sense of community out of the shop.”