On August 20, 1893, the people of Switzerland voted to outlaw kosher ritual slaughter. The amendment of the federal constitition went into effect the following January 1, and remains the law of the land to this day.
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Jewish history in Switzerland goes back more than 800 years, but equal civil and political rights for Jews were enshrined in law only in 1874, when the constitution was revised, and freedom of religion was guaranteed for all. In that year, 1893, the number of Jews in Switzerland was only slightly more than 8,000, but a great exodus from czarist Russia was just beginning, and there were many Swiss concerned about an influx of Eastern Jews. Indeed, by 1910, the country's Jewish population had grown to 18,000.
The effort to ban kosher slaughter had its origins in the canton of Aargau, where most of the country’s Jews then lived. The Aargau Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals argued that Jewish ritual slaughter was inhumane, because it didn’t allow for an animal to be rendered unconscious before being killed.
Advocates of shechitah have always argued the opposite: that their method caused a minimum of suffering. The debate on that continues into the present, including in Israel.
Meanwhile, in 1867, Aargau and also the canton of St. Gallen adopted a law that effectively outlawed kosher slaughter by requiring that animals be stunned – initially, with a hammer blow to the head, in a later era, with a bolt pistol -- before being killed.
This was not compatible with kosher slaughter, as rabbinical authorities agree that an animal must be in good health at the moment of slaughter, which rules out the possibility of being unconscious. Kashrut experts also claim that the swiftness of the properly conducted ritual slaughter makes death almost immediate, thereby minimizing any endured by the animal.
Once the constitution was revised, allowing for freedom of religion, the Jewish leadership of Aargau petitioned the federal government to have the slaughtering ban annulled. Animal-rights groups, on the other hand, decided the time was ripe to extend the ban on shechitah to the rest of the country.
The public is consulted
To have the question submitted to the public in a referendum required the collection of 50,000 signatures on a petition. Animal-rights groups succeeded in accumulating 82,000 signatures.
As noted, the vote by plebiscite was held on August 20, 1893. According to a letter that appeared a short time later in the Spectator (U.K.), those in favor of the ban numbered 180,000, most of them in predominantly Protestant cantons, versus 120,000 who were opposed, who included many of the country’s Catholics.
The constitution was then amended to include the following clause: “The slaughter of animals without prior stunning before the withdrawal of blood is prohibited without exception for every type of slaughter and every species of animal.”
The ban did not extend to poultry, and it did not prohibit the importation of kosher meat, so that Switzerland’s small Jewish populations continued to be able to bring in kosher meat, generally from France and Germany. In 1918, after the restrictions posed by World War I made imported kosher meat unavailable, the Jewish community was given a temporary reprieve, and permitted to carry out shechitah within Switzerland. The special order allowing that expired in April 1920.
In general, the Swiss federal government has opposed the ban on kosher slaughter, and at various times, has committed itself to repealing the law, which lost its status as a constitutional amendment in the 1950s. But public sentiment has mitigated against any repeal. In 2002, for example, animal-rights groups quashed just such an attempt. On the other hand, a 2007 initiative to prohibit even the import of kosher meat was successfully rebuffed.
Today, Switzerland is joined in Europe by Sweden, Denmark and Norway in prohibiting slaughter of animals without prior stunning. New Zealand also has effectively outlawed shechitah, except in the case of poultry.