The campaign regarding the caging of hens in Israel goes up one level: while the hand-wrestling with the Ministry of Agriculture is nearing its resolution, animal campaigners have managed to enlist support from unexpected quarters – several high-ranked rabbis demand significant improvements to the conditions in hen houses.
The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture wishes to construct in coming years mega-hen houses where chickens will spend their lives cooped together at very high density, much like today's hen houses. Animal rights activists claim that in most European countries such hen houses were outlawed due to their cruelty, and that Israel should move to free range hen houses, or at least to the more spacious aviary ones. Discussions over the new regulations are held within the Knesset Education Committee, and so far Ministry of Agriculture representatives found it hard to convince the Members of Knesset to prolong the battery cage era.
This week, activists from Anonymous, the animal right organization which leads the campaign for chicken welfare, met Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who leads the Ramban congregation in Jerusalem, and is one of the most outspoken rabbis of Zionist Judaism. Even before that meeting, Lau had written a decisive opinion paper on the topic. "I believe any Halakhic rule in this matter should be unequivocal," says Rabbi Lau, "to outlaw the raising of chickens in such cruel conditions and promote turning the Israeli egg industry into one that meets those standards used accepted by the western world. The State of Israel should be a 'light for the goyim' in this respect."
Lau isn't the first prominent rabbi to join the fight for chicken welfare. Even Israel's Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, sent a letter to Minister of Agriculture Shaul Ben Simhon asking him "to pull his weight behind making the new hen houses more spacious than existing ones in order to match the European standard, in such a way that minimises the pain and suffering of those birds that are squeezed into hen houses filled with so-called 'battery cages'."
The campaign for chicken welfare also won some support from Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who leads the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva. While Aviner believes that the move to spacious cages should not be forced, he is disturbed by the fact that "in this area, the suffering of animals is really too much. Imagine that they also throw the male chicks to the rubbish bin since they can't lay eggs, even without killing them, and you can actually hear them chirping from within the bin, which is cruel. As for the additional costs to be borne by consumers, they should remember that free range eggs are healthier and more nutritious, so the extra cost is not for nothing."
Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, also took the suffering chickens' side: "it's obvious that squeezing chickens into cages prevent them from moving and leads to injuries, and this is a violation of our Torah's prohibition to cause suffering to animals. "It's shameful and embarrassing that other countries banned battery cages, while in the Jewish state the Torah's stipulation to avoid harm to animals as much as possible is not applied properly. I support your pledge with prayer."
The Ministry of Agriculture's response: "Israel raises chickens in much the same way as other developed countries, using the same methods. The planned reform of the chicken industry aims at achieving more efficiency, improving biological safety and public health and promoting animal welfare. The way those hen houses to be built through this reform are designed will be based on standards used around the world and on principles of animal welfare."
Maariv, 11 August 2010, p. 12
Translated by Doron Greenshpan