January 23, 2005

PETA vs. shechita

By: Michael M. Rosen

Animal slaughter is not a pretty sight by any means. But a scandal rocked the Jewish world earlier this month when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a secretly recorded videotape of the Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse of the largest American producer of kosher meat, alleging that its practices amounted to outright animal cruelty.

PETA’s charges indeed raise some important questions. But its behavior in conducting its investigation, coupled with inflammatory past statements, suggests that the group has marked shechita — Jewish ritual slaughter — for extinction.

The tempest blew in when one of PETA’s members went undercover with a videocamera to AgriProcessors Inc., a cattle plant that sells strictly kosher meat under the Rubashkin label. The investigator filmed what appeared to be slaughterers using a knife to sever a cow’s carotid artery, trachea, and esophagus.

PETA showed the tape to several religious authorities here and in Israel, disgusting several of them and prompting vehement criticism of the plant’s practices. (The video is available on PETA’s website and is extremely gruesome). The organization followed up its covert operation by filing a legal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Several Orthodox Jewish groups, who jointly supervise the plant, scrambled to control the damage and issued a joint statement reaffirming the safety, humanity, and cleanliness of the Postville slaughterhouse. The rabbis stressed that shechita, which consists of a deep incision in an animal’s neck with a perfectly sharp knife, renders the animal insensate or unconscious within seconds.

They also vowed to stamp out the unauthorized practice of tracheal and esophagal tearing, a method that is not required for proper kosher slaughtering but which may, in spite of appearances, ease the animal’s pain by quickening the bleeding and rapidly reducing bloodflow to the brain. Iowa’s secretary of agriculture reportedly visited Postville and issued a clean bill of health.

But other aspects of the investigation have begun to emerge that discredit PETA’s investigative tactics, primarily its solicitation of endorsement from two prominent rabbis (both of whom, incidentally, turned out to be vegetarians). One of them told AgriProcessors’ attorney that the PETA operative who approached him for comment disguised himself as a born-again Orthodox Jew curious about Judaism’s approach to animal rights. PETA has also amended its USDA complaint to include an investigation into the role played by Jewish religious organizations.

And while PETA insists it’s intention is not to ban shechita, there is ample reason to doubt its sincerity. In early 2003, the group weighed in on the Arab-Israeli conflict after Palestinian terrorists detonated a bomb-laden donkey in an effort to murder Israelis on a nearby bus. The organization’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, fired off a letter to Yasser Arafat, addressing him as “Your Excellency” and asking him to kindly “leave the animals out of this conflict.” Newkirk declined to criticize the attempted slaughter of people, claiming that “it’s not my business to inject myself into human wars.”

Then later in 2003, PETA launched a new anti-meat campaign entitled “Holocaust on Your Plate.” Activists displayed photographs of concentration camps alongside bloody slaughterhouse shots. PETA argued that “just as the Nazis tried to ‘dehumanize’ Jews by forcing them to live in filthy, crowded conditions, animals on today’s factory farms are stripped of all that is enjoyable and natural to them.”

Needless to say, these outrageous statements provoked indignation among Jewish groups. And many are convinced that against this backdrop the current investigation represents the first skirmish in a battle to outlaw shechita in the U.S. much as several European countries have already done.

Such a move would spell disaster for the ritually observant Jewish community, run against the grain of American legal tradition, and render an injustice to Jewish notions of kindness to animals.

From a legal standpoint, while PETA paints shechita as an exception to USDA regulations, federal law affirmatively declares that Jewish ritual slaughter is “hereby found to be humane.” Debate over the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, passed by Congress in the late 1950’s, featured a speech on the floor of the Senate by Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) in which the senator stated that not only is shechita “accepted as a humane method of slaughter, but it is so established by scientific research.”

Admittedly, science and slaughter methods have advanced over the past forty-plus years. But Judaism pioneered animal right by outlawing tza’ar ba’alei chayim — cruelty to living beings. Hunting for sport or consumption is strictly proscribed. Animals, like people, must refrain from work and being worked on the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy, one taking eggs from a nest is commanded first to send away the mother bird. Some rabbis even extend to animals the Passover prohibition against consuming leavened food.

The profound esteem in which Judaism holds all life emerges in the laws of shechita, which aim primarily to minimize the animal’s suffering. Thus, to the extent that PETA’s video exposes genuine shortcomings in the shechita process, those concerns must vigorously be addressed. But the group’s tactics and flippant attitude to Jewish people are shameful.

While PETA itself grudgingly acknowledges that “the whole purpose of shechita is to avoid unnecessary pain to the animal,” in this case the group has, as always, put animals before humans. But Judaism, in the words of the Agudath Israel organization, “introduced human society to the concept of humane treatment of animals and … is well ahead of organizations such as PETA in its concern for welfare of all living beings.”

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego.