by Barbara Kay
Activism in a noble “rights” cause has its satisfactions and its frustrations. It feels good to join in solidarity with like-minded people in spreading a righteous message, but it is difficult to accept the frequent reality that most people aren’t paying attention to it.
Urgency & shock tactics
When the cause is saving lives – of animals or of the unborn, for two prominent examples of organized rights movements – the urgency activists feel leads them into temptation to use shock tactics to command public attention.
In both movements, the choice has been made by some activists and organizations to exploit features of the Holocaust to express passionate opposition to killing.
The pro-life movement embraced the Genocide Awareness Project, which assigns a moral equivalence between the massacre of millions of Jews and the abortion of millions of fetuses.
Banned in Germany
And in 2004, PETA launched the Holocaust on Your Plate traveling display, which juxtaposed images of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms with images of humans in Nazi concentration camps. While this display appears to be no longer on the road, following a five-year run, materials inspired by it remain in common use.
In both cases, the strategy achieved their primary goal: they got lots of attention, and aroused a great deal of discussion (although Germany – always and admirably hyper-sensitive to Holocaust denial or banalization, banned the PETA campaign there).
It may be that these campaigns have had success in reaching and persuading to their side people more traditional approaches have failed to move. But even if they have, I consider their method of achieving that goal ethically deplorable. Every “recruit” who decides that eating meat is immoral on the basis of the Holocaust parallel is an individual for whom the meaning of human genocide has been dumbed down and corrupted.
As a Jew, and as a critical thinker, I therefore believe that nothing is more damaging amongst educated observers to the cause of advocacy for vegan and vegetarian causes than the instinct of activists who have in no way experienced real genocide to draw a moral parallel between the Holocaust and the indisputably deplorable treatment of factory-farmed animals, including in transport and slaughter.
Analogy alone does not make a case
You cannot build an argument on an analogy alone. In any debate, emotional arousal must be subordinated to rational persuasion.
All activists have, or should have, the political right to turn people off through shocking images. But vegans and vegetarians do not have the ethical right to exploit for mere rhetorical advantage a human tragedy with no logical, moral or historical relevance to animal husbandry and slaughter.
One could argue that those who have experienced the Holocaust and make the analogy are beyond criticism on ethical grounds. Although I would not have the temerity to engage polemically with a survivor on this issue, I can say that I wince intellectually when they make such comparisons, even when it comes from the mouth of so illustrious an artist as Nobel Prize winning author I.B. Singer, who compared animal slaughterhouses to Treblinka.
No intellectual passes
Terrible suffering affects victims in disparate ways. We may give some irrational post-tragedy opinions an emotional pass, but we are not obliged to give them an intellectual pass. And I don’t, any more than I defer intellectually to survivors or children of survivors who experience in Israeli security measures taken against Palestinians in the West Bank a flashback to Auschwitz.
To be noted is that those few Holocaust survivors who have drawn parallels between their personal experience and the experience of factory-farmed and mass-slaughtered animals, notably the late Coalition for Non-Violent Food founder Henry Spira and Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft, have done so in specific contexts and with restraint, not in broad general terms.
“Genocides are not about numbers”
Vegan and vegetarian campaigns making use of Holocaust imagery tend to be intellectually flawed because they chiefly extrapolate one detail from the Holocaust — numbers killed — and on that basis alone proclaim a moral equivalence.
But the point of the Holocaust is not the number of lives extinguished. Genocides aren’t about numbers. They are about ideology-based hatred — unchecked hatred for an identifiable minority group that serves to unite the persecuting majority group, and paves the way for its horrible consequences.
Slaughter is not about hating animals
Farmed animals are not a human minority identity group, nor are they killed by political fiat for the purpose of furthering solidarity amongst some dominant group. Animal husbandry has been practiced for economic and cultural reasons, as well as to obtain food, since the dawn of civilization, but none of those economic and cultural reasons have to do with hating animals or hating the animals who are eaten, or seeking to exterminate their species.
Most people who raise and slaughter animals simultaneously and paradoxically have pets whom they love. Nazis did not kill some Jews, and cultivate friendships with others; they hated all Jews and relegated them to a status not only below that of pets, but below that of farmed animals.
“Vermin” vs. “livestock”
Indeed, the Nazis referred to Jews as vermin, giving themselves license to frame the argument for Jewish extermination as a reasonable promotion of national hygiene. This is a far cry from our attitude to livestock, for whom providing adequate nourishment, shelter and general maintenance is the constant preoccupation of those who farm them.
Moreover, in describing the actions associated with animal husbandry and slaughter as evil in this comparison, those vegans and vegetarians who make it are implying that farmers, farm workers, butchers, and other people who eat meat are, like Nazis, evil people. Many and perhaps most people may be unawares, uncaring, or indifferent toward the animal suffering that goes into their meals, but there is neither truth nor dignity in accusing them of exceptional moral turpitude for making more-or-less the same menu choices as more than a thousand generations of our ancestors.
Our vegan rabbi
I have lived long enough to see vegetarianism evolve from the practice of a fringe group of “hippies” to a normative practice of mainstream educated people. When we joined our liberal synagogue in Montreal 45 years ago, the older presiding rabbi ate a typical Askenazi Jewish diet that relied heavily on meat, chicken and lamb. His successor started out as a meat-eater, but was persuaded by his Sephardic, Israel-born wife to eat mostly vegetarian, with allowances for meat at official kosher dinners elsewhere. He retired last year, and our new rabbi and his wife are vegan. Their three children will never have known any other way to eat.
This revolution in eating habits has been entirely peaceful, the result of a dogged, evidence-based educational campaign that has appealed to basic principles of fairness, compassion and decency. The trend began before shock Holocaust marketing and would have continued to happen without it. Did PETA’s campaign hasten the process? Perhaps. Does that justify it? Not for me.