September 18, 2003
Animal Activists Gone Wild
Holding up grisly posters that juxtaposed images of Holocaust victims next to animals in slaughterhouses, animal rights activists demonstrated Tuesday in front of the Museum of Tolerance.
While only 10 protesters attended the demonstration, which was staged by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the group's latest "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign comparing genocide to food manufacturing has caused most people to wonder: Have the activists gone too far this time?
In the past, PETA has been responsible for in-your-face activism like slinging red paint at people wearing fur coats and breaking into laboratories to set animals free. Their antics have at times influenced public opinion -- such as turning the fashion tide against fur in the '90s. But will this Holocaust campaign have a similar effect?
"It's vile," said Ben Greenfield, 16, a junior at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school (YULA), who was walking by during his lunch break. "You have to set a limit and a standard. It's pretty basic that you can't compare the Holocaust to slaughterhouses. Human rights are just more sacred than animal rights."
The one-hour, peaceful noontime event attracted a smattering of security and onlookers, and garnered an occasional honk of support from a motorist.
But many who saw the signs at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive were insulted. One YULA student said PETA's campaign was, "the most disgusting thing" she had ever seen in her young life.
While most museum staff and volunteers largely ignored the activists, one older museum volunteer confronted PETA protester Coby Siegenthaler, loudly denouncing the poster's comparisons.
Yet the 78-year-old Siegenthaler, a Dutch immigrant and retired nurse who said she lived in Amsterdam during the war, was unfazed.
"In wartime, we had our house full of Jewish people, and now they could be a little more compassionate and eat a vegan diet," she said.
Comparing people to animals, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the museum's Simon Wiesenthal Center, "is an obscene parallel."
"There are no words, other than to say we have an obligation to stand with the pain of the victims," he said, adding that the radical PETA is steering away from any rational dialogue about treatment of farm animals and other animal concerns by the extremism of its traveling "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit.
"The outrage here is, it's not as if the underlying issues [of vegetarianism] aren't worthy of discussion, debate and action," he said.
About two weeks ago PETA asked the museum to exhibit "Plate," which traveled to 14 U.S. cities over the summer. In July, the group ran a TV commercial in Poland with anti-meat and Holocaust images.
Cooper said PETA's request for space at his museum, "Wasn't worth a postage stamp -- and they knew that when they sent that."
He also chastised the group for Tuesday's demonstration.
"For shame. It's a shanda. For them [PETA] it works. They don't care; you are wallpaper for their campaign. The victims of the Shoah are wallpaper, the Museum of Tolerance is wallpaper, The Jewish Journal is wallpaper."
But PETA activists said their campaign was about tolerance.
"Putting Holocaust images in front of people helps to develop empathy for Jews," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA's director of vegan outreach. "And juxtaposing those images with the horrific things that we do to farm animals -- it doesn't seem to me that this in any way demeans anyone's suffering."
Could PETA's no-meat/no-cruelty message be conveyed without connecting it to a prominent historical issue like Nazi genocide?
"It can be made, certainly, absent of metaphor," Friedrich said. "But if you were attempting to find a comparison that resonates in the public consciousness, unfortunately most people are not aware of those other atrocities -- Rwanda, Cambodia, Stalinist Russia -- the same way that they are aware of the Holocaust. This forces people to think about that and the horrors of anti-Semitism, and simultaneously to think about what we're doing today, which is also vile and immoral."
Yet, Cooper does not understand why PETA would "blatantly inflict pain on humans," with illegitimate human-versus-animal Holocaust comparisons.
"All I know is, I have to deal with the pain and the anguish of those who survived," he said.