Human Rights v Animal Rights

November 25, 2010 by David Zwartz
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On Monday, the New Zealand High Court in Wellington will hear the case brought by the country’s Jewish community to argue its rights to perform Shechita…currently effectively banned due to a clause in the nation’s Animal Welfare Code.  David Zwartz writes for J-Wire…

David Zwartz

We like to think of present-day New Zealand as a generally tolerant and benign place for its ethnic and religious minorities, with only occasional outbursts of mosque graffiti, Jewish grave desecration, or individual racist attacks – all of which are publicly condemned.

The blatantly racist official attitude to Chinese immigrants lasted for over a century from the 1850s until ending in 2002 with the apology from Helen Clark’s government.

What about this country’s attitude to Jews? An even smaller minority than NZ Chinese, Jews came to New Zealand as immigrants from 1840 onwards, often as refugees. Like the Chinese, they brought with them their religion, heritage, and work ethic. It can be said as a matter of fact, without boasting, that Jews over the last 180 years have added significantly to New Zealand’s development.

As was stated at a Parliamentary celebration of Jewish New Year in September 2008:

“Read the Otago Daily Times, eat your Vogel’s toast and take a Glaxo B12 vitamin supplement, whilst sitting at the kitchen table you bought at Levenes, or the old one from Smith + Brown Maple, and then put the Holeproof socks you bought at Hallensteins into the Fisher and Paykel washing machine, or relax at the end of the day with a Steinlager, and you are enjoying the endeavours of some of [New Zealand’s Jewish] industrial pioneers.”

Add to this the record of public service in politics and law, science and medicine, philanthropy and the arts (not forgetting filmmaking) and it would seem that New Zealand has gained not-at-all-outrageous fortune from its Jewish citizens.

Which makes it all the more extraordinary that the NZ Jewish community is now preparing to fight a High Court case to preserve its right to Shechita, the killing of animals for kosher meat (meat which satisfies Jewish Dietary Laws).

Shechita is carried out according to strict rules of respect and compassion for the animal, by an experienced and certified shochet. He uses a specially long and highly sharpened knife so that the killing cut causes painless death.

Shechita has been practised by Jews for thousands of years, and in New Zealand since 1843. It is part of the attitude to animal welfare referred to in the Bible and other Jewish teachings. Among these are feeding your animals at the end of the day before you yourself eat; not working them on the Sabbath; and only eating an animal which is healthy and uninjured (so observant Jews do not eat battery hens).

The method of animal killing closest to Shechita is homekill – carried out legally by farmers throughout New Zealand.

In 2001 the Ministry of Agriculture began a review of the Animal Welfare Code for commercial slaughter. There was long consultation, including with representatives of the NZ Jewish community. In 2009, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) reported the final revised version to the Minister, recommending a dispensation for Shechita, saying it was necessary to allow Jewish people to manifest their religion and belief (as provided for in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990).

The Minister of Agriculture turned down this recommendation and the Code was issued on 28 May 2010 without allowing any dispensation for Shechita.

After unsuccessfully attempting negotiation with the Government, the Jewish community decided it was necessary to take legal action. At the beginning of August, following agreement between the community’s lawyers and the Crown, a High Court judge ordered interim relief from the Code. This allows Shechita to continue until the outcome of the impending High Court case is known.

In taking legal action, the Jewish community is not just protecting its own “right to manifest [Jewish] religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private” as section 15 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act states.

It is asserting the right of any minority ethnic or religious group to carry out its religion without interference from the state, as can be expected in a free and democratic society.

There is considerable irony in the Agriculture Minister’s action in banning Shechita, while his government recently voted against a Bill that proposed to outlaw the cruelty of sow crates.

Some opponents of Shechita have pointed out that not all Jews in the world, or in New Zealand, observe the Jewish Dietary Laws. There is nothing surprising about this. Most people know that all major religions have different streams of belief – such as Catholics and Protestants within Christianity; Sunni and Shia Islam; and Theraveda, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism.

But while there may be individual dissenting voices, the action against the ban on Shechita in New Zealand is supported by the whole Jewish community whether they follow the Dietary Laws or not. This is because NZ Jews see the ban as a direct attack on the freedom to practice Judaism in New Zealand in a way that has been possible since 1843, and as a direct threat to the future of the NZ Jewish community.

If a ban on Shechita is upheld, New Zealand’s reputation as a country concerned about human rights will be severely damaged.

David Zwartz is Chairperson of the Wellington Regional Jewish Council

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