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Should the Mistreatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?

Richard H. Schwarta, Ph.D.

As author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, and a promoter of vegetarianism and more compassionate treatment of animals for over 20 years, I have long argued against some of the tactics of the animal rights movement. Many years ago, I wrote an article, "Toward a Winning Animal Rights Strategy," which urged the animal rights community to adopt more positive approaches. That article was sent out widely, including to animal rights groups, and it can be found at my web site, jewishveg.com/schwartz.

In particular, I have stressed not making simplistic comparisons between the Holocaust and the mistreatment of animals. The Holocaust was a uniquely horrible event in which six million Jews were slaughtered simply because of their religion, and many additional people were also killed. Since I believe that the Jewish case for vegetarianism is compelling, I have urged that it is far better to present the basic facts about the many negative effects of animal-based diets and agriculture, without upsetting Holocaust survivors and their families and others who are disturbed by such comparisons.

Hence, when I first learned about PETA's exhibit, in which they feature eight 60-square-foot panels, each showing photos of factory farm and slaughterhouse scenes side by side with photos from Nazi death camps, to show "how factory farms mimic Nazi death camps," I was distressed, and felt that this would have many negative consequences. Because of my position in the Jewish vegetarian movement, I soon received many requests from longtime friend and advisors to severely condemn PETA and its Holocaust exhibit. After much soul searching, I decided to reject that advice, because I felt it would maintain the status quo, with continued negative effects for people, animals, and our imperiled planet. I decided that it might be best to be critical of PETA's insensitivity to Holocaust victims and survivors, while seeking some positive outcomes.

Hence, I thought that since the exhibit exists, we should seek lessons that could be gleaned from it that could lead to positive results. While there are of course no exact comparisons, I believe that one important lesson is that the mentality and methods behind the Holocaust, such as "might makes right," the demonizing of various groups of people, and the use of certain types of technology, are similar to those behind the abuse of both animals and people today. Another important lesson is that the blindness of most of the world to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust should inspire us to move beyond our society's indifference to active involvement in ending violence against both people and animals. PETA quotes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: "The Holocaust provides a context for exploring the dangers of remaining silent, apathetic, and indifferent in the face of others' oppression." Based on these considerations, I believe, that it is possible to make certain Holocaust comparisons without, God forbid, denigrating the sacredness and dignity of Holocaust victims. Indeed, I believe that the best way to honor their memories and make their deaths more meaningful is to work against the mentality and methods that fueled it and that are still inflicting tremendous damage on people, animals, and the entire planet. This can actually result in a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) that will have much positive benefit to the world, providing an additional reason that Holocaust victims will not have died in vain.

Perhaps the most important reason to use proper Holocaust comparisons as a spur to action is that it is essential that Jewish teachings be applied to respond to the many critical problems that face the world, since our fragile planet is threatened as never before. While the Holocaust was arguably the most horrible event in world history, potential catastrophes now threaten not only all Jews, but all of humanity. The world's temperature is projected to increase by 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years, half the world will face chronic water shortages in 30 years, tropical rain forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate, species of plants and animals are disappearing at the fastest rate in history according to some experts, and we are already seeing the effects of global climate change, including the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers. The raising of 48 billion farmed animals for slaughter annually is a major contributor to all the threats to the world's environment.

As I was pondering these concepts and facts, I was becoming increasingly aware of the very strong criticism that the Holocaust project set off, and I was increasingly urged to completely disassociate from PETA. I apologize for not sufficiently recognizing the pain that Holocaust comparisons cause to many of my brothers and sisters. However, I still felt that the best approach was to seek positive outcomes, to, in effect, make lemonaid from a lemon. Based on the Jewish teaching that the greatest hero is the person who converts an enemy into a friend, I decided to approach PETA with the following proposal: PETA should sincerely apologize for the hurt that they had caused some people, explain the reasoning behind their project, and offer to stop their exhibition tour in exchange for the Jewish community working to put mistreatment of animals on the Jewish agenda. I felt that this proposal had potential benefits for all sides, and could change a lose-lose situation to a win-win situation, in that the Jewish community would gain an apology and the closing of a project that is upsetting many people, and PETA would gain by being able to work with some Jews in reducing the mistreatment of animals.

In response to my proposal, Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's leader, indicated that she appreciated my efforts, that she would be happy to work with the Jewish community, but that she felt that any apology PETA made would be improperly interpreted, and that any closure of the Holocaust exhibit would cause a loss in momentum, that would be very hard to reverse. She made a counteroffer that PETA would be willing to meet with Jewish leaders to discuss mutual concerns, that she would post articles from Jewish leaders critical of Holocaust comparisons on the PETA web site, provided the articles also discussed Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of animals, and that PETA would close down the Holocaust exhibit when there was sufficient movement in the Jewish community toward getting the mistreatment of animals on the Jewish agenda.

I responded that I did not think her counter offer was enough to enable me to make progress in the Jewish community, and that some Jews would be very critical of me unless there was a better offer. She responded that she could not offer more because of PETA's previous experience with making apologies and halting projects.

Given the above considerations, I decided that the best strategy was to send out a press release indicating PETA's offer, and urging the Jewish community to take advantage of it by sending messages to PETA criticizing their Holocaust project, while also indicating Jewish teachings on animal issues, and also applying Jewish teachings toward the end of factory farming, since it violates Jewish teachings and also contributes to many environmental problems that threaten global sustainability.

Several long time friends and advisors and even family members are urging that I should completely disassociate myself from PETA, and that all my years of working to promote vegetarianism and animal rights in the Jewish community and my future effectiveness are threatened by my negotiating with them. I certainly understand their concerns, and I have spent many sleepless nights thinking about this situation. I plan to consult further with a wide variety of people and to continue to prod PETA to take steps that would be welcome in the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, I want to indicate some reasons why I think Jews should be involved in setting up events related to Jewish teachings on the proper trea tment of animals , in spite of strong opposition by some in the Jewish community to PETA's project:

  • While not often recognized or discussed, animal-based agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, rapid species extinction, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global climate change, pollution of air and water, water scarcities, and many environmental threats, as well as disease and hunger. Hence PETA's project deals, not only with the very cruel treatment of animals, but with the sustainability of our imperiled planet.

  • PETA is not advocating that Jews do anything inconsistent with our religion. Compassion for animals is a Torah mitzvah, and many Jewish teachings stress God's concern for animals and our responsibilities toward them. So, rather than looking at increased consideration of Jewish teachings on animals as something done as an undeserved favor to PETA, it can be seen as an essential part of Judaism.

  • Jews should consider switching to vegetarian diets, not because of the arguments of PETA and other animal rights groups, but because animal-based diets and animal agriculture seriously conflict with basic Jewish mandates to protect our health, treat animals compassionately, preserve the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people. I believe that it is time for the Jewish community to play a leading role addressing these issues.

  • While PETA's philosophy and actions are sometimes inconsistent with Jewish values, we share common ground in our strong concern that animals be treated with compassion. While the Torah indicates that people were given dominion over animals, our sages interpret this as meaning responsible stewardship, rather than domination. There are many Torah laws that stress compassion to animals. A verse from the Ten Commandments that is recited as part of kiddush on Sabbath mornings indicates that animals as well as people are to have a Sabbath rest. Judaism teaches that the righteous person considers the life of his or her animal (Proverbs 2:10) and that God's mercies are over all of His creatures (Psalms 145.9).

  • While it may prove to be very difficult, if this process leads PETA, the world's largest and most active animal rights group, to shift toward cooperative projects rather than ones that are provocative, that would have many benefits.

Perhaps it is just a dream, but I hope that somehow we can overcome the pain caused by PETA's insensitive exhibit, and use it as a spur to increasingly apply Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of people and animals, and thereby to help shift the world from its present perilous, inhumane path, and thus to lead to that day when, in the words of Isaiah (11:6), "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's Holy mountain."

Back to the Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights