PETA apologizes for Holocaust comparisons

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When the investigative footage of the violations at the AgriProcessors glatt kosher slaughterhouse was released last December, an observant Jewish staff member here at PETA suggested that we consider referencing the classic Yiddish song “Dona, Dona” to convey the horror of the calves who are transported to slaughter, and perhaps use its haunting music to accompany the video images. When I consulted with other Jewish staff and PETA advisers, some thought that this was an offensive and inappropriate use of the song, which alludes to the journey to concentration camps.

This renewed the heated debates that were provoked during the “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, taking me back to the mental wrangling that we have experienced here over the profound conflicts that comparisons to the Holocaust generate, and the diversity of complex positions on these issues within the Jewish community, even among Jews who are aligned with animal rights — including those at PETA.

What was originally thought of as a simple, melancholic song incited a spectrum of passionate and visceral reactions. We decided not to use the song in connection with the AgriProcessors case, and I have decided to apologize for the pain caused by the “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign.

When “Holocaust on Your Plate” was originally launched, we knew that it would be emotionally charged and intellectually provocative. Even if we had used more conventional tactics, people don’t like to have it pointed out to them that they’re causing unnecessary pain and suffering by eating meat. We did aim to be provocative. We did not, however, aim simply to provoke.

Hard as it may be to understand for those who were deeply upset by this campaign, I was bowled over by the negative reception by many in the Jewish community. It was both unintended and unexpected. The PETA staff who proposed that we do it were Jewish, and the patronage for the entire endeavor was Jewish. We were careful to use Jewish authors and scholars and quotes from Holocaust victims and survivors. And since, among the monotheistic faiths, Judaism has some of the strongest teachings regarding compassion for animals, I truly believed, as did the Jewish staff members who proposed the exhibit, that a large segment of the Jewish community would support it.

We had also seen the positive response to Holocaust scholar Charles Patterson’s book, “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust,” and felt that our exhibit was very much in keeping both with the spirit and goals of his book, as well as the history that he documents, which finds more and more Jews opting for vegetarian diets as a part of their response to the Holocaust — a response through which “Never Again” is applied to humans and other animals.

The Orthodox Jewish Press wrote, “Charles Patterson’s book gives us pause for thought, and if killing and consuming our animal protein is a societal cause of homicide and genocide then we must stop to give some consideration. After all, foods of animal origin are especially prone for causing most of our major illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.” And a member of the editorial staff at Ha’aretz wrote, “This is a thorough and thought-provoking book. If the linkage of animal rights and the Holocaust seems startling at first, it begins to make perfect sense as one reads on. Some might see this as trivialization of the Holocaust; it isn’t. Instead, the chilling parallels Patterson exposes seem to offer even more reason to despair of the human race.”

Another daily paper from Israel, Ma’ariv, opined, “The moral challenge posed by ‘Eternal Treblinka’ turns it into a must for anyone who seeks to delve into the universal lesson of the Holocaust … ” And the influential Jerusalem Post stated, “Even if you are not persuaded to give up meat meals for moral reasons, at least you will never be able to say of the suffering behind them, ‘I didn’t know.’ Similar responses have been published in Jewish papers all over the world.

The “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign was designed to sensitize people to different forms of systematic degradation and exploitation, and the logic and methods employed in factory farms and slaughterhouses are analogous to those used in concentration camps. We realize that many people — Jews and non-Jews alike — cannot see through the pain and horror of what was done to human beings to agree, but to our minds, both systems are hideous and devastating. We understand both systems to be based in a moral equation indicating that “might makes right” and premised on a conception of other cultures or other species as deficient and thus disposable. Each has its own unique mechanisms and purposes, but both result in immeasurable, unnecessary suffering for those who are innocent and unable to defend themselves.

As with the song “Dona, Dona,” we had hoped to draw attention to the common, terrifying experience of the condemned en route to their horrible and unnecessary slaughter. We recognize that the analogy made in “Dona, Dona” resonates as more than a rhetorical or literary comparison, especially to those for whom the experience is still too personal to universalize. The differences cannot be translated or reduced to a metaphor, particularly for the victims and survivors who still bear physical and emotional scars of persecution and for the Jewish community still so horribly vulnerable to continued acts of anti-Semitism.

We sincerely wished to bridge these different forms of systematic abuse. By showing how humans were treated “like animals,” it was never our goal to humiliate the victims further instead we hoped to shed light on the process through which any living being can be reduced to an interchangeable, disposable “thing.” The tragic irony is that on factory farms and in slaughterhouses even animals are not treated “like animals.” Everything about their lives is a grotesque mockery of all that is natural to them.

We believe that we humans can and should use our distinctive capacities to reduce suffering in the world. Even the vegan diet that we endorse out of concern for animal suffering promotes human health, protects the environment and liberates us from violent practices, as Richard Schwartz makes so clear in his book “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” These are all goals directed at alleviating human suffering as well as that of other beings.

Our mission is a profoundly human one at its heart, yet we know that we have caused pain. This was never our intention, and we are deeply sorry. We hope that you can understand that although we embarked on the “Holocaust on Your Plate” project with misconceptions about what its impact would be, we always try to act with integrity, with the goal of improving the lives of those who suffer. We hope those we upset will find it in their hearts to work toward the goal of a kinder world for all, regardless of species.

Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.