Jews Against Foie Gras
The last-ditch effort to find a legal basis for force-feeding geese in Israel, failed in yesterday's cabinet meeting. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz withdrew his appeal against a law that would allow the controversial farming practice to continue for three years. ... "[Y]esterday's decision effectively shuts down the industry in Israel," Agriculture Ministry director general Yossi Yishai said.What's the big stink about foie gras from a Jewish standpoint? Check out my article (see below) from the September/October issue of New Voices to find out more.
The Wondering Jew
Duck Duck Goose: Can longstanding opposition to foie gras overcome the financial interests of two Jewish businessmen?
Foie gras - French for “fatty liver” - has long been synonymous with cruelty to animals. Except for the work of two Israeli Jews who run New York’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the cruelty-laden liver appears to be on its last legs.
Foie gras producers force feed ducks and geese several times daily. At industry-leading Hudson Valley, workers shove a funnel tube attached to an electric motor down ducks’ throats to pump in so much corn that the birds’ livers actually grow to ten times their healthy size. This causes hepatic lipidosis, a type of liver disease, and violates the Jewish ideal of minimizing animal suffering (Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim).
The great rabbinical scholar, Rashi, is the most famous among the Jewish erudite who have condemned foie gras. As early as the eleventh century, he wrote that Jews would have to answer to G-d “for having made the beasts [geese] suffer while fattening them.”
Rashi’s words, however, are not taken seriously by all parties. “I don’t think that the people who talk bad about foie gras know scientifically that it’s right or wrong,” said Izzy Yanay, vice president and general manager of Hudson Valley. Although Yanay said he felt “honored” to be part of a conversation that included Rashi, he felt certain the sage would have approved of foie gras force-feeding if he had only looked into it in a more “profound” manner.
Hudson Valley president Michael Aeyal Ginor similarly dismisses other longstanding Jewish criticism of foie gras in his book, “Foie Gras: A Passion.” Ginor acknowledges that the third-century Babylonian mystic Rabbah bar-bar Hannah discussed how “the Israelites will eventually have to account for their conduct before Justice” for fattening waterfowl. To Ginor, this condemnation and others are ambiguous and should not be heeded.
When a foie gras debate took hold of Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leading rabbis deemed foie gras production halachically unacceptable in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Romania. Even in Hungary, where production was still permitted, religious Jews generally refrained from eating foie gras.
The sentiment against foie gras has spread widely in modern Jewish debate. Israel, despite having been the world’s third-leading manufacturer of foie gras, recently banned its production. Israel’s High Court ruled in 2003 that foie gras production violates the Protection of Animals Act, which forbids torture, cruelty, or abuse to animals.
Perhaps the strongest modern Jewish condemnation of all has come from Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland. “Pate de foie gras is obtained through the willful desecration of a Torah prohibition,” said Rosen.” Any truly God-revering Jew, he asserted, should not partake of such a product, which is an offense against the creator and his Torah.”
Jews are not alone in their opposition to foie gras. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out against how “geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible.” More than a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, Italy, and Poland, have banned the production of foie gras. The European Union has demanded that industry leaders France and Hungary abolish force-feeding within 15 years.
California, the only U.S. state other than New York where foie gras is produced, banned the sales and production of foie gras last year. Similar legislation has been introduced in New York and at least three other states. With nearly four-fifths of Americans favoring a foie gras ban, according to a recent Zogby poll, even Ginor admits that Hudson Valley’s days seem to be numbered.
While two Jews sustain the American foie gras industry, another pair is leading the opposing battle cry. Sarahjane Blum and Ryan Shapiro, grad students at Georgetown and American University, visited Hudson Valley and California’s Sonoma Foie Gras and rescued fifteen ducks who were dying without adequate veterinary care. They filmed the farms’ horrendous welfare conditions for “Delicacy of Despair,” a documentary available on their Web site GourmetCruelty.com, and rehabilitated the ducks until they could be released to the wild.
“I’m obviously incredibly proud to have made meaningful lives for these ducks,” said Blum. “I would hope that everybody who took the time to go to a factory-farm would feel not only willing but compelled to give these animals better lives.”
Blum and Shapiro were arrested for trespassing and burglary at Hudson Valley, but the burglary charges were later dropped. Their only “punishment” was serving 50 hours of community service, for which they worked for the Humane Society of the United States.
Hudson Valley is one of the few parties still perpetuating the American foie gras industry. Thanks to the efforts of activists like Blum and Shapiro, longstanding Jewish objection to foie gras cruelty may ring true in public sentiment and law.
Michael Croland, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon, runs a blog about Judaism and animal protection issues at http://heebnvegan.blogspot.com.