People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took its campaign equating factory-farm animals to Holocaust victims to the streets of Los Angeles this week with a protest in front of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Tuesday at noon (see story on page 12).
The protest speaks to PETA's well-earned reputation for disordered priorities and its utter lack of sensitivity in promoting its cause, whatever the merits of that cause are. For the record, I am all for treating animals ethically and humanely.
But PETA's exploitative campaign that expropriates photographs of starving victims of the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps and compares them to chickens that are waiting to be slaughtered for food is abhorrent. On its Web site, PETA justifies this campaign, in part, because the late Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, a vegetarian, once took the literary license of stating that, "in relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for [them] it is an eternal Treblinka."
Of course, whether or not the Nobel Prize-winner would have actually lent his name to PETA's outrageous effort is open to question, at best.
In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, ("Animals Suffer a Perpetual Holocaust," April 21, 2003), Singer's grandson, Stephen R. Dujack, a Washington-based environmentalist, professed to speak for his deceased grandfather and proclaimed, "My grandfather would have been proud of PETA's bold campaign."
If that is the case, then in the face of such obscenity, I must speak for my grandfather, whose ashes lie buried somewhere in the dust of Auschwitz.
To begin with, attempts to genericize the term Holocaust are generally misguided. The Holocaust was a unique historical event and describes the attempt by Hitler and the Nazis to systematically destroy and physically eliminate European Jewry. To be sure, there were also other victims, including homosexuals, the disabled, the psychiatrically disturbed, political dissidents, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs and others who were targeted for elimination.
For the record, Dujack's assertion in his article that lampshades were made from bodies of Holocaust victims is also historically inaccurate, because no evidence for this has ever been produced.
While it is tempting to compare all acts that we may individually find abhorrent to the Holocaust and while the event itself has become the benchmark for abject evil in the world, wholesale use of the term desecrates the memory of what actually happened during those terrible years.
Whatever the arguments are for or against animal slaughter for food, it is simply not the Holocaust. Dujack may as well call it the Crimean War.
Why can't PETA and Dujack let the victims of the Holocaust rest in peace and leave them out of it? How do the Jewish people (as usual) get dragged into the middle of this argument?
The irony is that in Jewish law there are numerous examples of mitzvot (praiseworthy deeds) that advocate for the humane treatment of animals. An example is that a young bird should never be removed from the nest in the presence of its mother so as not to hurt the latter; indeed, the prohibition against eating milk together with meat derives from a similar sensibility.
In fact, the laws of kosher slaughter of animals are far more humane than was the slaughter of Jews by the Nazis, which was notable for its excessive and intentional cruelty.
Human consumption of animal products as food appears to be instinctual, has occurred for millions of years and is the accepted norm in most societies. The systematic suspension of human rights, imprisonment, torture, experimentation on and murder of a people that went on in full view of the world for 12 years in the middle of the 20th century is, thank God, an inexplicable aberration in human behavior that is so far out of the norm that it had to be given its own name -- the Holocaust.
To conflate the two activities is absurd. To examine just how absurd and dangerous this game can be, we just need to turn it inside out a couple of times. If killing of animals for food is the same as exterminating Jews, then how convenient would it be the next time someone wants to commit a pogrom against the Jewish people just to turn it around the other way with the reply, "They kill chickens, don't they?"
In the name of my grandfather and all other victims of the Holocaust, I call on PETA to retract and apologize for its shameful campaign. The shock value and attention have already been wrung dry.
Whatever the arguments for or against vegetarianism, in the interest of decency, let us leave the memories of the unfortunate victims of the Holocaust out of it.
Dr. Joel Geiderman is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C.