The far-right Freedom Party in Austria recently proposed a controversial law. The law would have regulated the consumption of Kosher and Halal meat in Lower Austria, one of nine states in the country of Austria. The proposed law, on its face, targeted religious Jews and Muslims. Only they, by contrast to all other meat consumers, would have had to register for the privilege, receive a limited quantity of their desired commodity, and prove that they lived in Lower Austria. Austria has reportedly rejected the proposed law. In this column, I will consider why “even” a vegan like myself regards the introduction of such a legal regime as an alarming development.
I first learned about the proposed law while I was spending (i.e., wasting) time on Facebook. One of my many vegan Facebook friends whom I do not know IRL (as the kids say), posted something about the draft legislation. This person praised the proposed law, and she suggested that the worst offenders against animals should have to register and become pariahs. I believe that she compared the legislation in question to sex offender registries. Somewhat incongruously, she appears to be an Israeli citizen.
Proponents of the Lower Austrian bill argued that it would have promoted the welfare of animals. If it did that, then one would have had to decide, in evaluating it, whether to prioritize concerns about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia or whether to prioritize concerns about animal protection. For good or ill, though, this proposal did not require anyone to make choices about priorities, because it promoted only one objective, as we shall see below.
The difference between Kosher and Halal meat and other meat is that Kosher and Halal are subject to various special requirements. The relevant requirement, for our purposes, holds that when slaughtering an animal, slaughterers must (according to Judaism and some interpretations of Islam) make sure that each animal is conscious at the time that they cut her throat. In Austria, a member of the European Union, the law requires slaughterers to stun each animal before slaughtering him, with the (presumed) goal of reducing the animal’s suffering. Religious Jews and Muslims can typically perform their religious methods of slaughter by exemption from the rule requiring pre-slaughter stunning.
First, a few priors. As some readers may know, I became vegan over a decade ago, because I came to the realization that slaughtering animals (along with the other cruelties we inflict on our fellow earthlings) represents a violent atrocity against innocent, sentient beings who share essential, morally relevant capacities with members of our own species. I am also Jewish and was observant throughout my childhood. My parents were Holocaust survivors, my father conducted an underground rescue operation that saved the lives of over a thousand fellow Jews (including my mother), and the Nazis murdered my four grandparents, my five uncles, and one of my two aunts.
I mention these facts about my background, because they may bear on my view of the proposed Lower Austrian law, even as they simultaneously inform my thinking on questions of animal welfare, anti-Semitism, and Austria—the land of Hitler’s birth and, following Anschluss with Nazi Germany, an important participant in the project of exterminating Europe’s Jews.
One might reasonably think that stunning an animal before slaughtering her is, in that context, a mercy, one that is important enough to require across the board. In the United States, that would mean that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which requires stunning large mammals prior to slaughter, would apply without exceptions. Should Jews and Muslims really have a religious right to inflict more suffering on animals because their religions require it? Must we exempt the pious from other laws against animal cruelty as well? Should devout people be able to kick a dog or drown a cat, if their faiths require that?
The short answer is that the stunning requirement delivers less than it promises. First, consider that in the US, the federal law requiring stunning before slaughter already has an enormous exemption written right into it—for all birds, including chickens (many more of whom become corpses at a slaughterhouse than any other land animal), ducks, geese, doves, and others—and an exemption for all aquatic species. The “Humane” Methods of Slaughter Act thus fails to “protect” the overwhelming majority of animals whom we kill in this country.
Second and relevant to any place where consumers demand a large quantity of meat, a combination of kill-line speeds and the lack of extensive training for slaughterhouse workers, witnessed in detail in such books as Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz and, more recently, Every Twelve Seconds, by Timothy Pachirat, means that animals who theoretically benefit from being stunned before having their throats cut are in fact fully conscious when stabbed in the throat or chest. An animal might therefore be writhing in pain, eyes wide with terror, drooling, hanging upside down, and suspended by one leg. An animal might endure repeated failed attempts to stun him, attempts that are themselves terrifying and painful, whether they involve a captive bolt gun aimed at the forehead, an electric shock, or poison gas. The unluckiest of all remain conscious even when their throats are cut, after which they might choke on their own blood, burn in a scalding tank, or experience being skinned alive.
I do not know for a fact that slaughter in Austria is as horrific as it is in the United States, but I have little reason to think it is much better there. If I am right, then virtually every animal who undergoes slaughter will suffer unspeakable pain, terror, and the possibility of torture as well. The legal requirement of stunning does not effectively protect animals from that, and stunning can be unreliable. In this context, refusing to allow Jews and Muslims to vary the process somewhat seems arbitrary. This is especially so, given the religious requirement of a very sharp knife on the animal’s throat, thus avoiding at least the torture that can sometimes afflict a “stunned” animal at the very end.
There is an even more basic reason to question proponents’ claims that the proposed Lower Austrian law would have promoted animal welfare. The law would not have even refused Jews and Muslims their meat in the end. It would simply have required those who wanted that meat to register as religious Jews and Muslims and to settle for somewhat less meat than they might have liked to have. If we assume that Jews and Muslims are the “worst” animal abusers, as my Facebook friend contended, then it seems very strange for the law to permit them to continue their animal abuse so long as they register for the privilege. Would we similarly require sex offenders to register for child molestation and then allow them to continue their sexual assaults?
Of course not, because we actually care about protecting children from molestation. By contrast, we do not seem to care very much about protecting animals from the cruelty that over 150 million of them confront each day that slaughterhouses remain open.
I do want to say something about a question that some vegans might have. Why, they might wonder, wouldn’t religious Jews and Muslims simply have become vegan if the law had passed, rather than subjecting themselves to a transparently racist regime of registration and rations? I agree with one part of the question’s premise: everyone could benefit from becoming vegan, and “everyone” includes observant Jews and Muslims. Jewish Veg and the Vegan Muslim Initiative highlight the extent to which Jewish and Islamic values are not only consistent with but positively supportive of veganism.
Still, it is crucial for vegans to recognize, as a matter of justice, that Jews and Muslims are entitled to be free of laws that target them for their religious identities, and the proposed Austrian law plainly did exactly that. Though it may have seemed “neutral” on its face, singling out one cruel form of slaughter over all others, coupled with requiring Kosher and Halal meat consumers to register as such, make the targeting clear. That is enough reason to oppose the law, notwithstanding the fact that becoming vegan could have helped people escape from the clutches of the legislation, had it passed.
Sadly, the far-right Lower Austrians and the religious Jews and Muslims all appeared to share one assumption: that one must eat animal products in general and meat in particular to thrive. The proponents of the law anticipated that they could “catch” the Jews and Muslims by requiring registration as a condition for meat access, and the targets of the law felt that they would have been compelled to register if the law had passed. It did not appear to occur to either group that the law’s targets could have made the law irrelevant to them by becoming vegan.
That blind spot makes the echoes of Europe’s darkest hour relevant for another, admittedly odd, reason. It turns out that in addition to committing war crimes and genocide, the Nazis inadvertently improved the diet of some of the people in the countries they occupied. Consider a natural experiment in heart disease control.
After invading and occupying Norway, the Nazis seized the farmed animals there—the “livestock”—and removed them from the country, presumably to feed Germans. During this six-year period, when the people of Norway were cooking and eating dramatically less animal-derived food than they had been before, the number of deaths due either to heart attack or stroke in Norway plummeted. It is hard to imagine what other concomitants of Nazi occupation might have been responsible for this change—Did people feel less stress under occupation? Did they avoid “carbs”? Did they all join a gym? When the war ended and the consumption of animals and their secretions resumed, the rates of heart disease deaths rapidly returned to their pre-war levels.
This is all to say that one can sometimes make lemonade out of even the bitterest of lemons. Yet we still must view the lemons with clear eyes and an understanding of what they mean. It is in this spirit that we can understand the supposedly animal-welfare-motivated proposed law that would have required Jews and Muslims to register for their meat.
The proposal reflected hatred of the sort (though less extreme than) that which characterized Nazi marches that ended in murder and lynch mobs that tortured and killed innocents. It thus needed to be stopped, without condition, as it was. It was never a pro-animal proposal in the first place.
To suggest, as some have, that Nazis cared about the wellbeing of animals (they did not) or that Hitler was a vegetarian (he was not) or that Austria’s far-right party was trying to reduce the misery of animals, is a sort of libel against the animal rights movement, suggesting, as it does, that there is something deeply coherent about a racist or genocidal person or group extending their circle of compassion to include nonhuman animals. People do sometimes believe what they want to believe, what sounds right to them. We must all be on guard for that human tendency.