After intense rounds of lobbying by Jewish leaders from across Europe, community officials awaited the outcome of a crucial vote that could potentially lead to the banning of Jewish ritual animal slaughter in Holland.

The scheduled Tuesday vote – Jewish leaders were hopeful that it would be postponed – by the Dutch Parliament’s lower house would follow several meetings between backers and opponents of a proposal introduced by a small animal-rights party to prohibit the slaughter of animals who were not stunned before killing. Such a requirement would run afoul of Jewish law, and the bill sparked feverish efforts on the part of the country’s small Jewish community to refute claims that animals kosher slaughtering practices were inhumane.

On June 16, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks joined Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, at a roundtable discussion hosted by the parliamentary committee debating the bill. Sacks argued that such a ban would limit the religious freedom of the Jews of Holland, a country traditionally known for its religious tolerance.

“Holland was the source of religious liberty in the 18th century and where Jews escaping from exile went,” said Sacks. “For the Dutch Parliament to in effect ban a central part of Jewish life would be a hugely retrograde step.”

Jacobs noted that Jewish law puts a premium on the humane treatment of animals. He explained how frequent unannounced inspections are aimed at ensuring the proper treatment of animals both before and during slaughter. If the tiniest of nicks are found on a slaughterer’s blade, he pointed out, that butcher would be fired.

“Concern about animal welfare within Jewish law is paramount,” emphasized Jacobs.

Cornell University Prof. Joe Rigenstin also addressed the committee and explained how the evidence against unstunned slaughter is inconclusive.

Last week, legislators proposed an amendment to allow un-stunned religious slaughter provided that the method could be shown to cause no more pain than prevailing non-kosher slaughtering practices. But even that compromise has Jewish leaders up in arms for what they say is an arbitrary assault on one slaughtering method versus another.

The Jewish community issued an open invitation for legislators to visit the country’s only kosher slaughterhouse to view the process for themselves. Representatives of only one party showed up.

Historian Amanda Kluveld wrote in the daily newspaper De Volkskrant that asking for such proof was legally questionable. Scientific proof should be brought, she argued, by those who proposed the law in the first place.

“If you’re telling me that what I’m doing is cruel, then bring forth the evidence,” echoed Shimon Cohen, campaign director for Shechita UK, which represents kosher slaughterhouses in the United Kingdom and has spent the past five years defending ritual slaughter throughout Europe. “Provided they can’t prove these methods are cruel, they have no right under Article IX of the European of Human Rights to outlaw them.”

According to Jacobs, the one piece of science that the animal-rights party has pinned its efforts on has since been debunked and is currently the target of a High Court lawsuit. The institution that supposedly sponsored the research, the University of Wageningen, denied any connection to it, and the report’s author stated that his conclusions couldn’t be considered as having been derived from “pure scientific research.”

Small Progress

The latest developments in Holland follow a small victory for the European Jewish community, which successfully lobbied the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union to postpone debate on requiring meat produced from animals slaughtered without stunning to be labeled as such.

“The indications that we have now received from the EU are for now positive,” Cohen announced two weeks ago. “We will monitor the progress of this. We are however, very conscious that the matter has only been deferred and we need the community to be fully engaged in the coming months.”

Despite the success at the EU level, Sacks is worried that trends in Holland, especially if the Dutch Parliament approves a ban, could portend greater efforts to ban ritual slaughter across the continent.

“We are worried that it could spread,” said Sacks. “There has been a nonstop campaign by animal welfare activists to have all forms of ritual slaughter banned. They fought for it in the 1990s and it comes up from time to time. It has to be fought everywhere because if it’s lost anywhere it has a potential domino effect.”

Meanwhile, many Jews in Holland are wondering what other religious freedoms will be taken away. A debate on Jewish ritual circumcision has already been in the papers.

Said Jacobs: “People are asking: ‘Why should we stay here?’ ”