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    Anti-Shechita Prosecutions in the Anglo-American World, 1855-1913 (book review)

    ANTI-SHECHITA PROSECUTIONS IN THE ANGLO-AMERICAN WORLD, 1855-1913: “A major attack on Jewish freedoms…”
    David Fraser
    Academic Studies Press, 2018

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 2019, Vol. XXIV, Part 2.

    Professor David Fraser of the University of Nottingham has painstakingly researched and written an important and fascinating work on religious freedom.

    He has traced a series of Anglo-American cases (including one from Australia) which portray the ongoing tug-of-war between animal rights champions and Jewish communities, with the point at issue being whether the Jewish method of animal slaughter for food is cruel and inhumane.

    It is not a new story, even in Australia, though hardly anyone has ever heard of the attempt in 1882 to brand a Sydney shochet, Rev. Phillip Philippstein, as a criminal. (Note that Philippstein’s surname is misspelled by Fraser throughout the book.)

    Philippstein was the Great Synagogue’s senior shochet for forty years. He carried out a range of ministerial functions as an assistant (and occasional deputy) for Rev. Alexander Barnard Davis.

    The Australian case which Fraser describes arose out of shechitah performed by Philippstein at Glebe Abattoir. The case was heard at the Water Police Court on 11 September 1882. The prosecution claimed that the Jewish method of slaughter practised by the shochet constituted “unnecessary and gross cruelty”, aggravated by the method of casting the animal before slaughter. The bench acquitted Philippstein, presumably impressed by the fact that the Jewish method had been in a sense legalised by longstanding custom in New South Wales.

    The Philippstein case is hardly known, if at all, by Australian Jewish historians, and Fraser should have asked why. When writing his Australian chapter, he should have consulted community historians, whose insights on Australian Jewish history would have been helpful and, indeed, would have ensured that he got all his facts right.

    For some reason he allows himself a digression about shechitah in Adelaide, and one wonders what has happened to the rest of Australia; unfortunately, the anti-shechitah campaigns have never been limited to New South Wales and South Australia. Fraser should also have provided a full context within which to examine the overall situation and status of Jews and Judaism against a backdrop of national history.

    In all the Anglo-American cases that Fraser depicts, a community shochet was accused of cruelty but not all were acquitted. In each case there were three stages: a claim that shechitah– especially because the animal was not pre-stunned – was cruel; a learned defence arguing that the Jewish method was humane; and a judicial decision. These cases tended to reflect a general feeling of antipathy to Jews, who saw the prosecution’s claims as “a major attack on Jewish freedoms” (a quotation which forms the sub-title of Fraser’s book).

    Fraser argues that it is not only conventional antisemitism which creates the problem but a “blood trope” whereby there is a sort of moral equivalence between the blood of animals and the blood of Jesus. If there is a “blood trope”, the historians of Christian antisemitism should spell it out. Non-Christian antisemites – if they are logical – should ignore it, but antisemitism, like other forms of prejudice, is not known for rationality. Fraser points out that critics tend to use pejorative terms like “Jewish ritual slaughter” where less emotive language would be an improvement.

    The book focusses on the question, “Are Jews breaking the civil law when they perform shechitah?” If the criterion is cruelty, surely the ubiquitous pro-shechitah views of scientific experts should carry immense weight. Fraser does not consider the opposite question, “Aren’t the practitioners of trefah (non-kosher) slaughter breaking the law?” Nobody seems to have thought of litigating this question, presumably because meat-eating is so widespread that hardly anyone spares a thought for the ethics of meat production.

    There is a parallel question: “How far can Jewish law allow the civil law to intervene in Jewish religious matters?” Are there limits to the Talmudic principle, dina d’malchuta dina (“The law of the land is the law”)? Fraser does not address this point, but in Jewish law the credibility of dina d’malchuta applies only to matters where a national government has a direct interest, such as paying one’s taxes, not to matters of religious belief or practice.

    There is a significant ideological issue in Australia as elsewhere, which is the question of how far and where do Jewish and civil law intersect? This question has significant ramifications that range from circumcision, head-covering and clothing, marriage and divorce, worship and education, to death and burial. The more that immigration produces ethnic variety, the more this question arises.

    Fraser has done a good job with this book despite the questions he leaves unanswered.

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