New Zealand Jews plan to fight for shechitah

Chickens being kosher slaughtered on New Zealand's South Island in 2009. A new law banning shechitah is being challenged by the country's Jews.

SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – Barring a last-minute policy reversal, Jewish leaders in New Zealand appear certain to launch legal action against the government over its controversial new law banning kosher slaughter.

Six Jewish leaders were granted a 30-minute meeting a week ago with Prime Minister John Key, the son of a Jewish refugee, to discuss the fallout from the May 27 decision to outlaw kosher slaughter, or shechitah. The meeting in Auckland concluded with the delegation informing Key, who does not practice Judaism, that the small Jewish community would be left with “no option” but to take legal action “if there was no solution forthcoming.”

The prime minister “acknowledged that this may be the only course open to us,” New Zealand Jewish Council chair Geoff Levy said in a statement.

It now appears likely that Key will face a potentially embarrassing legal showdown that has been described as a test case for shechitah.

The controversy erupted in late May when Agriculture Minister David Carter overruled advice from the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee to exempt shechitah from a new animal welfare commercial slaughter code. Whereas shechitah previously had been listed as exempt, just as it is under the Humane Slaughter Act in America, Carter decided last month to annul all exemptions.

Under the new code, which was made effective immediately, all commercially killed animals must be stunned before slaughter to “ensure that the animals are treated humanely.”

The move shocked the New Zealand Jewish community, which numbers fewer than 7,000.

Although kosher meat can be imported from Australia, no chicken is allowed in. Fewer than 100 beef cattle and lambs and several thousand chickens were slaughtered by shechitah annually. Sydney-based Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, who supervises kosher certification of products in New Zealand, described the ban as “outrageous.”

“Hunting is still permitted for deer and ducks, and that is certainly not humane,” he said. “The government, using flawed science, institutes a new code and the only people affected by this are the Jews. People are wondering what their real motivation is.”

His comments came as the European Parliament voted to mandate that all kosher meat on the continent be labeled “meat from slaughter without stunning” – a move blasted by some Jewish officials as discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the dustup in New Zealand over shechitah has sparked a rift with Australian Jewish leaders over its crisis management strategy.

“I’m terrified they’ve mismanaged it,” a senior Australian Jewish organizational leader said of New Zealand Jewry on condition of anonymity. “They just don’t have the expertise.”

In a diplomatically worded statement, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry said, “They are handling things in their own way and we are closely monitoring the situation. The denial of fundamental rights to kosher consumers in New Zealand has the potential for adverse effects further afield, including Australia.” Shechitah UK chair Henry Grunwald said his organization, as well as British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, had been asked to assist with religious, legal and scientific advice.

Describing the new code as “an insult,” Grunwald wrote in the Jewish Chronicle, “It succumbs to the popular myth that shechitah is painful, ignoring ample evidence to the contrary.

“The risk of other Western democracies following New Zealand’s example is real,” he warned. Levy said attempts to resolve the crisis were continuing. “If we can settle the matter politically, so much the better,” he said.

A number of legal avenues remained open, he noted. The ban appears to violate New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, which protects freedom of religion. It also could be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act, which contains provisions for religious rights, as well as the Human Rights Act, which protects against discrimination.

Carter reportedly apologized to the Jewish community last week for his June 14 speech, in which he said, “We may have upset a relatively small religious minority, and I do appreciate their strong feelings for this issue. But frankly I don’t think any animal should suffer in the slaughter process.”

Other countries that have banned shechitah include Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.