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Shooting down religious freedom – The Sunday Age takes aim

June 26, 2011 – 10:03 pm46 Comments

Arguably, the only type of burger completely cruelty free is the 'meatless' burger

By Andrew Harris

It was only a few days ago, but it feels like it was in another life, on another planet, that I was watching Go Back to Where You Came From on SBS, marvelling that such a morality tale about the rights of asylum seekers and the gift of multiculturalism could only have been made in such a forward thinking, rational country as Australia. And then I unwrapped this morning’s Sunday Age.

The front-page headline of ‘Outrage grows on ritual killing'; the editorial pull quote of ‘religious freedom has its limits’– taking aim at kosher and halal slaughter is nothing new in contemporary newsmedia, but replete with a cartoon that could well have been reproduced from a lovingly thumbed back issue of Der Stürmer, today’s Sunday Age has raised the bar to terrifying new heights.

In the poorly researched Peter Munro feature, or in the sanctimonious editorial, you would have noticed a familiar line of inquisition – the apparently casual mention of ‘genital mutilation’ (read: circumcision, as practiced by Jews and Muslims since the beginning of Judaism and Islam); and of schechita as ‘profit-driven'; we can assemble the familiar picture of a bloodthirsty, money-hungry Jew who consistently fails to abide by the laws and morality of the land. The undertones read not dissimilarly for Muslims.

The real issue remains that if the The Sunday Age must throw journalistic integrity to the wind in place of attempting to a buoy rapidly sinking paper at a rapidly destabilising publisher, at least it should be done with the pretence of factual argument, and some sense of context.

Not long ago, across the Tasman, the New Zealand government put a halt on schechita. The New Zealand Jewish community’s meat supply ran empty, and it was only after it was revealed that the New Zealand Agriculture Minister had a conflict of interest that the ban was overturned.

In addition, it was found that the basis of the ban, a government-funded Massey University study, was fundamentally flawed. This was demonstrated by none other than animal ethics expert and animal rights champion Colorado State University’s Dr Temple Grandin, who is an advocate of kosher slaughter when it is  performed to the standards she has specified. Her paper, titled ‘Discussion of research that shows that Kosher or Halal Slaughter without stunning causes pain’, can be found here.

Closer to home, Australian food law expert Joe Lederman says that the assumption that penetrative captive bolt stunning reduces the pain of the animal is a myth. “Often the bolt misses the mark,” he says. “That would be the case even more so with a sheep. The bolt misses the skull, might go in the eye, and can be done again and again.”

Lederman says that there’s always been kosher slaughter in Australia, and legally enshrined recognition of kosher slaughter as a special slaughter method in Victoria and New South Wales. “It has always been accepted,” he says. There was examination and improvement in the methodology in the 1950s under the supervision of Jewish lay leadership and rabbinical leadership. “There has been continuous improvement and refinement. And there have been specific improvements to ensure that the animal is held completely immobile.”

Meanwhile, The Age has entirely missed the economic implication of its argument. Sure, Jews and Muslims may have to do without a local meat supply, but what about the jobs that would be lost in the process of this denial of religious freedom?

Daniel Lewis, general manager of Continental Kosher Butchers, a paying member of the Australian Meat Industry Council, whose chairman Terry Nolan made the inflammatory ‘profit-driven’ quote in the front-page article, utilises no fewer than three abattoirs in Victoria, and also directly employs more than 50 staff.

“You’re talking close to 120 people in Victoria,” Lewis says of the potential job losses if kosher slaughter were to be outlawed. And it’s not just the direct employees; it’s also the flow-on employment in delicatessens and supermarket meat departments, and the staff of the kashrut authority that oversees the process. If halal slaughter were to be banned, many more jobs would be lost; there are three times as many Muslims as Jews in Australia.

Lewis tells me that Western Australian abattoirs have already stopped facilitating schechita. There it was a ‘profit-driven’ issue – the kosher market is too small to argue with the publicity-sensitive meat industry.

In Victoria, he says, schechita constitutes a major proportion of a number of abattoirs’ income. The numbers of Jews are greater, and so are the numbers of Muslims. If we were going to unite to fight anything, this is it – otherwise, first they’ll take our meat, and then they’ll make us keep our foreskins. In the end, it’s all a matter of blood and knives, and that’s nothing new. Neither is the price of complacency.

Andrew Harris is a writer, editor and photographer based in Melbourne.

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