It was the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving. Downtown offices in Washington had emptied out for the weekend. My secretary buzzed and told me that a Mr. Donald McNeil of The New York Times was on the phone. It was a new name. I had recently dealt with the Times on various Jewish issues including the investigation of AIPAC and the lawsuit we brought against sponsors of terrorism in Israel. I didn’t recognize the name McNeil, but I took the call anyway.
McNeil said he was trying to reach AgriProcessors, the kosher meat-processing plant in Iowa, for a statement for a story he was doing. He explained that he had received a video taken ‘undercover’ by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the AgriProcessors plant, and that he wanted AgriProcessors’ response, if any, to the video.
McNeil then sent me an e-mail in which he said:
The specific allegations from PETA is that the slaughters caught on the tape (and there are more than a dozen of them – I lost count) violates both the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and Jewish law. The rabbis in Israel to whom they have shown the tape agree that it violated Jewish law, and cited two reasons: 1) a non-Jew made the second cut in the animal’s neck to pull out the trachea or esophagus, so the animal did not die only of the shochet’s cut, as required, and 2) letting the animals drop out of the drum still alive and thrashing with their entrails hanging out means the animals did not die instantly and painlessly, so the killings were not lawful and the meat is not kosher. It’s these allegations I am seeking a reply or comment to from AgriProcessors.
I called Sholom Rubashkin, the principal officer of AgriProcessors (owned by the Rubashkin family), who had no knowledge of this video. I then called McNeil and asked for a copy of the video. He said he had no video-copying machine (and that surprisingly there was none in the Times building), but that he would be willing to show the video to a representative of AgriProcessors at the Times building. He suggested Friday afternoon because he was taking the video to interview someone ‘out-of-town’ on Friday morning. I told him that no one could come see the video Friday afternoon because Shabbat came in about 4 pm. He said he would make it available Friday morning for a representative of AgriProcessors.
I asked him who were the ‘rabbis in Israel’ PETA was citing for the conclusions regarding Jewish law and that ‘the meat is not kosher.’ He identified Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, and Rabbi David Rosen, who had been the chief rabbi of Ireland and is now in charge of interfaith dialogue for the American Jewish Committee.
I asked him, in response, whether PETA had notified him that these two rabbis were well known as vegetarians, who ate no meat of any kind. Rabbi Rosen had even subscribed in print to the proposition that slaughtering an animal for food is an aveirah.
On Thursday – Thanksgiving Day – I consulted with AgriProcessors as to who in New York should accept the invitation to see the video. Rabbi Chaim Kohn, the chief dayan of Khal Adath Yeshurun in New York City, is the rav hamachshir for the Ruashkin plant. He had just returned from South America and was willing to visit the Times on Friday morning. I decided to change my family plans for the weekend and fly to New York to accompany Rabbi Kohn and see the video myself.
McNeil invited us into a small office where we watched the video together. The film began with a title that read ‘Kosher Slaughterhouse, Summer 2004.’ Then came snippets, each headed ‘Incident # ___’ with a specific date. The undercover PETA agent had been in the plant for seven weeks, and the film showed selected ‘incidents’ that he had caught on video. The first showed a steer in a revolving pen receiving a shechita cut from a shochet. A second person approached, after the shechita cut, and made another cut into the slaughtered animal. He then appeared to remove some part from inside the animal. The suggestion that this removal was improper or cruel had not been made by McNeil and, from the video, there was no reason to think that the animal felt any more pain from this removal than an appendicitis victim under anesthesia feels when his appendix is removed.
I knew that animals whose throats are cut by a shochet totally lose consciousness and any sense of pain between two and six seconds after the cut is made. Both Rabbi Kohn and I noted that scientific fact in conversations with McNeil while the film was running. He seemed unpersuaded. ‘Look at that animal thrashing around and bellowing,’ he said. ‘How can you say it is not feeling pain?’ The first animal on the video even got to its feet and walked off into a corner before it fell over.
Other ‘incidents’ selected by PETA for the video showed steer after the shechita cut moving their legs in ‘thrashing’ motions. Rabbi Kohn told McNeil that animals continue to look as if they are alive even after they can feel nothing because no blood flows to the brain. He explained that a second cut is made after the shochet completes the first cut – which accomplishes the kosher shechita – in order to speed up the bleeding and insure quick loss of consciousness.
In answer to the allegations McNeil had made in the e-mail to me, we told him that the person who followed the shochet and made the second cut was not killing the animal, as he had believed. The only pain was in the eye of the beholder because the animal had lost consciousness from anemia of the brain. When we left, McNeil had no statement from us or from AgriProcessors that satisfied his agenda. We felt we had effectively refuted PETA̓s allegations.
On Saturday night I called the Orthodox Union rabbi who was most centrally involved in kashrut. He was in Jerusalem at the OU convention, and I awakened him at 1:15 a.m. his time. He told me that a New York Times reporter named McNeil had asked to interview him and show him a video, but when he told McNeil that he would not be back in the U.S. before Monday, McNeil said that there was no purpose to an interview because his story would be published in The New York Times on Monday.
On Sunday morning I called Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen in Israel. He told me on the phone (and then confirmed in an e-mail) that a purported ‘baal teshuvah’ named Tal Ronen had shown him a video, refused to tell him where it was taken, and said that he wanted to communicate with the rav hamachshir at the slaughterhouse to tell him how to improve his shechita.
Rabbi Cohen had expressed his opinion based on that representation, without being able to view the shechita personally or more closely than shown on the video. (It now turns out that Tal Ronen is the PETA employee who sent out the PETA video. Rabbi Cohen has written to PETA forbidding use of his name and his opinion.)
Very early Sunday morning I also called Reb Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice-president of Agudath Israel of America, at the Agudath Israel convention in Connecticut. He immediately recognized the immense threat to shechita presented by PETA’s attack on Rubashkin and the need for total Jewish unity in defense of halachic shechta.
There was still one session left in the Agudath Israel convention, and Reb Zwiebel presented to it a strongly worded condemnation of PETA and support for AgriProcessors. The resolution passed unanimously. I e-mailed the Agudath Israel resolution and the facts regarding Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen’s statement to McNeil at The New York Times. I received no acknowledgment.
But no story appeared in Monday’s New York Times. And no story appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times. Mr. McNeil had no support for his agenda. He could not write about the PETA video if the people he interviewed uniformly told him there was nothing wrong with the shechita.
And then the Orthodox Union delegation returned from Jerusalem. Wednesday’s New York Times reported that McNeil had interviewed two OU rabbis. Although they said that the slaughter on the tape ‘ppeared kosher because the shochet checked to make sure he had severed both the trachea and esophagus,’ they added what McNeil wanted to hear: ‘[T]hey were willing to revisit the plant and study whether tearing the throat or letting steers thrash on the ground violated Talmudic proscriptions against cruelty.’
For good measure, the OU officials added that the OU ‘prefers a type of pen designed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in which steers are killed standing up with their weight supported.’ They did not bother telling McNeil that the revolving pen used in the Rubashkin plant, in which the steer is turned upside down, results in shechita munachat, which is the only shechita that the rabbinate in Israel accepts and which is closer to the way shechita has been practiced for many centuries.
Now that he had some support for PETA’s attack, McNeil wrote an article that appeared in Wednesday’s New York Times headlined ‘Videos Cited in Calling Kosher Slaughterhouse Inhumane.’ McNeil described Rabbi Kohn dismissively as an employee of the AgriProcessors plant – totally ignoring the rabbi’s very impressive credentials that I had provided to McNeil at the beginning of our Friday meeting.
McNeil did not mention the Agudath Israel resolution or any other response given by us to PETA’s allegation of cruelty. (Nor did he mention that there were grim historical precedents for attacks on shechita. It was the first subject on which Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1933 passed laws aimed at Jews. I had loaned McNeil the book on shechita co-authored by my father Dr. Isaac Lewin, z”l, when attacks began being made on it in Europe and the United States. It collected voluminous scientific evidence supporting the humanity of Jewish kosher slaughter and traced Nazi Germany’s ‘humane’ legislation prohibiting shechita.)
And then on Friday, McNeil and the Times followed up with the result of a damaging interview with an OU rabbi who occupied a higher rung in the OU hierarchy. This higher authority told him that the OU ‘would ask a major kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa to change the way it kills animals.’ The OU official did not say that there was anything halachically wrong with Rubashkin’s shechita. He only said – in words that no one could utter without knowing that they were incendiary – that the procedure on the video was ‘especially inhumane’ and ‘generally unacceptable.’ Not surprisingly, a PETA official was immediately quoted as saying that this was ‘excellent’ news.
Public relations on this subject then became a disaster. Although there was not a single kashrut authority who expressed any doubt about the shechita shown on the video and an OU delegation to the plant was impressed with what it saw, the message conveyed to the general public and to the kosher community was that something was halachically amiss at the Rubashkin plant. In an editorial the following week, after a blizzard of reports that AgriProcessors was forced to change its process because of objections from the OU, the Jerusalem Post asserted that the OU had been ‘lax’ in its kashrut supervision andAgriProcessors had been guilty of ‘faulty procedures’ in its shechita.
To add insult to injury, when rabbis and certifying authorities sought quickly to issue a unified public statement defending the kashrut of the process followed in the Rubashkin plant, the OU representatives delayed issuance of the statement because they wanted it to include a declaration that removal of the trachea would no longer be practiced.
Whatever one might think of the impact of seeing a trachea or some other portion of an animal’s intestines removed soon after shechita, no Orthodox rabbi claimed that this invalidated the shechita.
Nonetheless, the clarifying unified statement was substantially delayed and press accounts condemning Rubashkin were permitted to swell while this debate with the OU rabbis was going on. They urged issuance of a statement that would implicitly condemn the practice that was being followed at the AgriProcessors plant even though it did not impugn the validity of the shechita and some respected rabbinical opinion supported removal of the trachea as halachically desirable to facilitate bleeding and to reduce the absorption of blood into the meat.
It is clear as day that PETA’s agenda is to abolish all use of animals for food. PETA activists are going after the AgriProcessors’ plant because it is an easy target in their drive to garner emotional support. If they can force a change in the most traditional form of kosher slaughter practiced in the United States, they will move on to eliminate the kosher slaughter practiced in the plants that use the ASPCA restraining pen that the OU assertedly ‘prefers’ and will find fault with practices in plants that use that pen.
This is, in the words of America’s Founding Fathers, a ‘first experiment with our liberties’ in this country, and it is folly to respond to it in any manner other than with total and unconditional opposition.
There is little doubt that AgriProcessors has been victimized by PETA, which is now riding high and which sent Mr. Rubashkin an arrogant letter on December 6 demanding that he terminate use of the revolving pen (thereby interfering directly with a halachic preference), give his shochtim sensitivity training, require them to shoot animals that move after shechita, prohibit touching a slaughtered animal until it is totally motionless, and hire a named veterinary-medicine professor as a supervisor over kosher slaughter.
AgriProcessors has also been the victim – albeit less intentionally – of Orthodox rabbis who are unwilling or unable to abide by Avtalyon’s wise caution: ‘Chachamim, hizaharu bedivreichem’ (Scholars, be cautious with your words!).
Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who has appeared before the Supreme Court in many Orthodox causes and represents AgriProcessors in its battle with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”
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