view counter
Shechita Controversy Has Wider Implications
Mon, 08/19/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Konstanty Gebert
Konstanty Gebert

Warsaw — No matter the outcome of the current controversy over the Polish Parliament’s attempt to ban ritual slaughter — Jews and Muslims might end up losing the right to kill animals according to their respective religious traditions — the issue has symbolic and practical value both for Poland’s small Jewish community and for Jews in other countries.

Shechita directly affects only a small number of Polish Jews, the halachically observant part of the country’s post-communist Jewish revival. Yet the move by the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, to retain the country’s ban on ritual slaughter has served as a reminder of the precarious position of the minority Jewish community in a majority Catholic land.

A government-sponsored bill, which would maintain an earlier exemption of ritual slaughter from the ban on slaughtering animals without stunning them first, was defeated, due to sizable defections from the ranks of the ruling party. (Jewish laws of shechita prevent stunning; the concept is to slaughter the animal quickly by knife so as to prevent prolonged suffering.)

Anti-Semitism was not a motive in the parliamentary debate, yet legislators showed a breathtaking indifference to the impact the law will have on the everyday lives of religious Polish Jews and Muslims. The main motive of the ban was animal welfare, with disgusting videos of slaughter, often of unclear origin, serving to bolster the argument. Unfortunately, lawmakers were largely unresponsive to the tireless efforts of Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who spent days on end in Parliament in an attempt to explain and convince.

On the Internet, however, the climate grew vicious. When Rabbi Schudrich stated something that seemed obvious — that if the ban is maintained he will no longer be able to perform his functions and therefore will have to resign — his words were misreported as “threatening to leave.”

Until the Sejm vote, the legal situation was unclear, with legal experts and government spokespeople assuring that the ban, effective since Jan. 1, in fact does not affect slaughter “for the internal needs” of the Jewish community. It was only once the government bill failed that the crisis became real. Of the more than 3,300 posts that appeared online in reaction to the rabbi’s statement, only six expressed regret; the others were overjoyed at this “good riddance” and some expressed the hope that “he will take all the other kikes with him.”

The controversy has, to some degree, isolated the American-born rabbi who has played a major role in the Jewish renaissance here for two decades. For reasons of internal Jewish politics, EJA, a Chabad-dominated European organization, has called for the rabbi’s resignation, and some intellectual leaders of Poland’s Progressive and secular Jewish community have been lukewarm in their support for the Orthodox rabbi or outright antagonistic.

For Jews outside of Poland, any attempt to restrict Jewish life or practice brings fears of renewed anti-Semitism in a country once home to the world’s largest Jewish population, where for years before the Holocaust acts of anti-Semitism were condoned by the Church and political leaders, and where, under German occupation in World War II, the death camps were located.

Attempts to ban shechita have a long and shameful history. During the interwar period, after an initial failure, a law was eventually passed which would have outlawed shechita as of 1942. It was an explicit move to make life difficult for Jews and therefore stimulate their emigration, even if animal welfare arguments were also used.

Article 35 of the current Polish Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and exercise of religion. But a 2002 law on prevention of cruelty to animals forbade slaughter without pre-stunning the animal. An exception to the law was made for so-called “household slaughter” conducted in farmsteads for the needs of the families. A subsequent regulation by the minister of justice exempted ritual slaughter from that ban, but in 2012 that regulation was determined by the courts to be unconstitutional. Furthermore, this year a binding EU regulation banned slaughter without stunning, while allowing member states to request exemptions for ritual slaughter.

Poland failed to file for such an exemption. Since 2004, the ritual slaughter of animals for export grew, and Poland was one of the largest exporters of kosher meat to Israel and of halal meat to several Muslim countries, including Turkey, Egypt and Iran. As the scale of the industry grew, animal rights activists mounted a campaign against it, asserting that animals were treated inhumanely in slaughterhouses.

In Poland in particular the animal rights argument is rank hypocrisy. Hunting — in other words, inflicting suffering to animals for pleasure — remains legal. So does homestead slaughter, routinely performed without any stunning at all, and without any concern for the suffering of the animal.

The debate over the Sejm’s recent anti-shechita bill was stunningly ill informed. Apart from the untrue allegation that shechita is particularly, and possibly intentionally, cruel, it was incorrectly argued that shechita is banned in the U.S. It was also widely alleged that the Jewish community, or the chief rabbi, makes a fortune out of granting hekshers, or kosher supervision certificates. Not even when the U.S. ambassador denied the ban allegation, and the chief rabbi stated that certificates are given for free, were these arguments withdrawn, nor did their proponents apologize.

Last month, the Government Legislation Center, an advisory body, declared itself unable to give an opinion on whether the implicit guarantees of the legality of shechita are still binding, given the unequivocal opinion of the Sejm on slaughter without stunning. Thus the matter will have to go to the Constitutional Court, a process that will take months. The Jewish community, the Peasant Party (representing meat industry interests) and the EJA have all announced they will appeal to the court.

The ongoing debate about the right of minority religious communities to freely practice their traditions will be closely watched in other European countries, where ritual slaughter also is subject to possible restriction.

Konstanty Gebert, a veteran journalist and Jewish community activist in Poland, is former editor of the monthly Midrasz magazine and author of ten books.


Polish Jews, Ritual Slaughter, Shechita

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


"The unspoken truth here is that these ancient rituals today represent barberic life of the past. Slitting an animals through just enought to drain the blood from its body before it dies in the name of religion. Its not even a question weather the animal suffers or not but the barberic immagery assocaited with the practice."

Clearly not nearly as barbaric as anything you have done to the English language. Pseudo intellectualism is very transparent.

The recent Polish government ban of shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) overlooks some important considerations.

First, it ignores the many problems related to stunning, their preferred method of slaughter. These are thoroughly covered in the book, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, by Gail Eisnitz. Through many interviews with slaughterhouse workers and USDA inspectors, she carefully documents in gut wrenching, chilling detail the widespread, unspeakable torture and death at U.S. slaughterhouses where animals are stunned prior to slaughter.
Many workers admit to becoming sadistic and cruel under the horrible conditions of their daily efforts.
Eisnitz's closing comment, "Now you know, and you can help end these atrocities," is still applicable today. While her research involved only U.S. slaughterhouses, it is likely in today’s highly competitive markets that conditions in Polish and other country’s slaughterhouses are not very different.

Second, the Polish government ignores the many factors in the shechita process designed to minimize pain. Animals are to be killed by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), a religious Jew who is especially trained and certified. He kills the animal with a single stroke, using a very sharp knife that is inspected frequently to make sure there are no imperfections, causing a rapid loss of consciousness and a minimum of pain.

Unfortunately, as in non-kosher slaughterhouses, shechita is not always carried out perfectly under current mass production conditions. The horrible treatment of animals at the largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, revealed by undercover videos, is one example. And even when shechita is properly carried out, animals are killed to create products that are very harmful to human health. Also, shechita involves the final seconds of the animals’ lives, but the many months of mistreatment of the animals on factory farms should also be considered. While Jewish Vegetarians of North America, of which I am president emeritus, opposes all forms of slaughter, because animal-based diets and agriculture are inconsistent with basic Jewish teachings on health, compassion, environmental sustainability, and conservation of resources, we protest when shechita is selected for special criticism or is banned.

Third, the Polish government’s fails to extend its commendable, though misguided, concern for animal welfare during the final minutes prior to slaughter to the many abuses that occur for months on factory farms in Poland and other countries. Just a few examples: (1) Male chicks at egg-laying hatcheries are killed almost immediately after birth, since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh. (2) Dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continue ‘giving’ milk, and (3) their babies are taken away almost immediately, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions.

If the Polish government wants to improve conditions for as many animals as possible, they should take steps to reduce the consumption of meat and other animal products. Besides reducing the number of animals suffering on factory farms, this would have additional benefits, including better health, reduced climate change and other threats to the environment, and more efficient use of land, grain, water, and energy.

As the President of the Dubiecko (Debezck) Heritage Society,i have travelled to Poland on eight different occasions in the past decade.I have spent most of my time in Krakow and very little in Warsaw the seat of government and the Sejm.I have encountered little if any overt anti-Semitism.That is not to say that it does not exist.
Each major city has a different atmosphere. The capital city of Poland is Warsaw.I have always found the city to be dank ,steel gray,cloudy, and cold filled with scary skin-heads and much anti-Semitic graffiti.The haunting memories of the ghetto uprising does't help matters.Here is case in point where irrational anti-Semitism,however,even trumps the income of millions of Zlotys into the Polish economy from the Schecita industry.That is how strong hate can be !
At the end of this mess I believe schecita will be restored and Poland will provide real
kosher meet to Europe and Israel as it has done in the past.Until this mess Poland was the most welcoming of this industry in all of Europe.
The question is why do schecita in Poland ?The quick answers are much cattle, much grazing land, good labor force,tax incentives and more economic reasons.
I hope sanity will once again prevail.If not it's Poland's loss.We Jews always manage to
find another place.

@ charles hoffman:

-->It's Poland. It will never be hospitable to Jews.
You never know. Poland was hospitable to Jews for 1000 years. Or at least till she lost her independence at the end of 18th century. It is estimated that 80% of all Jews have their roots in Poland.

-->And now that Jews can move to Israel and be welcomed with open arms, there's no excuse for staying there.

Really? I don't see many Polish Jews or Poles lining up for Israeli citizenship. But I see thousands of Israelis lining up for Polish citizenship:,7340,L-4243495,00.html

The unspoken truth here is that these ancient rituals today represent barberic life of the past. Slitting an animals through just enought to drain the blood from its body before it dies in the name of religion. Its not even a question weather the animal suffers or not but the barberic immagery assocaited with the practice.

It's Poland. It will never be hospitable to Jews. And now that Jews can move to Israel and be welcomed with open arms, there's no excuse for staying there.

Lesson 1 - leave
Lesson 2 - see Lesson 1