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She Just Doesn't Get It

She Just Doesn't Get It

The essential outrage of "Holocaust on Your Plate" was not that it injured feelings, but rather that it equated human beings with cows, pigs and chickens.


Apologies are admirable. Only somewhat, though, when they miss the point entirely. The thought is born of the recent mea culpa offered by PETA president Ingrid Newkirk for her organization’s offensive “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign.

You may recall that effort of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals two years back to compare the meat processing industry to Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution for the “Jewish problem.” The traveling exhibit outraged innumerable observers with its placement of World War II death camp photographs next to scenes in animal slaughter facilities.

Naked, emaciated men were juxtaposed with a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars, with starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human corpses with mounds of cow carcasses. In one panel, above the legend “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped prison garb were shown staring through the barbed wire of a concentration camp; alongside them, a similar shot of caged piglets.

As might be expected, Holocaust survivors were particularly flabbergasted by the astounding tastelessness of the animal rights group’s exhibit. But it didn’t take any personal concentration camp experience to be stunned by PETA’s vulgarity.

One of countless expressions of disgust came from The Boston Globe, which editorialized that “PETA… has placed itself beyond the pale of worthy charitable organizations with this spiteful exhibit.”

Although the headline of Ms. Newkirk’s 1151-word press release describes it as an “apology,” the actual expression of regret consists of only parts of two sentences, each regretting the “pain” caused by the campaign. The remaining thousand-plus words consist of a justification of Ms. Newkirk’s decision to launch the campaign, and a recounting of how startled she was by the reaction. She had “truly believed,” she writes “that a large segment of the Jewish community would support” the exhibit, and was “bowled over by the negative reception” it received. Disturbingly, she lays responsibility for the ill-advised campaign on “PETA staff [who] were Jewish.” Shoulda guessed: It was the Jews.

More unsettling, though, is that nowhere in the lengthy release does Ms. Newkirk so much as touch upon what really made the exhibit obscene. If she thinks it was only the campaign’s insensitivity to survivors, she just doesn’t get it.

To be sure, the use of Holocaust images was incredibly callous to survivors; her apology to them and their descendents is, even if terse and belated, commendable.

But the essential outrage of “Holocaust on Your Plate” was not that it injured feelings, but rather that it equated human beings with cows, pigs and chickens. What is loathsome is that it reasserted PETA’s credo, reflected in its motto: “Meat is Murder.” The stance is well captured by Ms. Newkirk’s earlier declaration that that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” and in her infamous aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” That philosophy, denying humanity’s uniqueness, is beyond hurtful. It is evil.

And while Ms. Newkirk has tried to “contextualize” at least her “dog is a boy” remark as referring only to the sensation of pain, the comment’s context (in Vogue Magazine, 1989) is all too clear. The memorable line was a coda to her contention that “There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights… They are all mammals.”

Her moral equation of the animal and the human was unambiguously evident, too, in her response to a reporter’s question about whether it was ethical to experiment on rats to cure human disease: She asked whether the reporter would endorse experimentation for the same purpose on the reporter’s child.

Few religious traditions are as concerned with animals as the Jewish. Not only were two of the three Biblical patriarchs, not to mention Moses, caring shepherds, but numerous biblical laws, conceptually illustrative as well as binding today, seek to spare animals unnecessary pain. There is, moreover, a global prohibition in Jewish religious law against inflicting such pain. And in actual practice, observant Jews are in fact exquisitely sensitive to animal wellbeing. I recall as a young boy how my father scooped two injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them. In my own home, even insects are captured and released rather than killed.

But Judaism – and civilized society, which has adopted many of Jewish tradition’s ideals – maintains a clear and crucial distinction between the animal and the human. Animals, although they must not be caused gratuitous pain, may be forced to work and killed for food. And humans may not. Humans make moral choices. And animals do not. Conflating the two worlds, considering a rat to be a pig to be a dog to be a boy, inherently shows disdain for the specialness of the human being.

Even Ms. Newkirk’s apology seems to reiterate her conflating of animals and humans. Referring to factory farms and concentration camps, she asserts that “both systems [are] 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.”

Still, though, there may be hope. At the very end of her manifesto, Ms. Newkirk claims that PETA’s “mission is a profoundly human one at its heart.” That phrase would seem to offer the possibility that PETA’s president, at least on some level, in fact recognizes that there is something profound about humanity, that dogs are not in fact boys. Should that seed of an understanding manage to grow, perhaps one day PETA will have the courage to truly apologize, for its core philosophy, disavow it, and re-enter the civilized world.

Until then, though, those of us who care about animals but know that they are not humans will do well to direct our support to the ASPCA.


May 14, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Anonymous, June 5, 2005 12:00 AM

My biggest fear is that a society that treats animals like people will treat people like animals. Modern society has forgotten how to make distinctions; no wonder many people can no longer distinguish between people and animals. Many people are fond of pointing out that that the genetic code of humans and monkeys 99% the same. True enough, but one must keep in mind that the 1% difference is far, far more significant. I used to think that organizations like PETA were simply misguided; and that one can disagree with them and still respect them. Now I fear they represent a fundamental evil in our society. This is scary. And I have no respect for evil.

(12) Richard Schwartz, May 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Not Because of PETA, But Because of the Torah, We Must Be Involved

Rabbi Avi Shafran is correct in stating that Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, does not get it when it comes to understanding why many in the the Jewish community were upset and outraged by PETA’s insensitive "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit and now feel that her recent apology is inadequate. However, this does not negate the fact that Jews should be actively involved in ending the widespread abuses of animals on factory farms and in other places and reducing the threat to public health and sustainability posed by animal-based diets. This is not because of anything PETA says or does. It's because Judaism mandates it.

(11) asion francis, May 19, 2005 12:00 AM

if there is any way that our human record can over right the holocaust i will suggest we go for if. but as it where we are left with this most dishuman act. we shall all remain to feel the sorrow of the holocaust. so i suggest any one who wants to comment on the holocaust should do some with a grest sense of respect to the jews, for our human race owe then a debt that can never be paid back EVER!!!

(10) raye, May 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Is PETA's piper pickled?

This Peta crusader doth protest too much. What is her family background? And does she never cheat a little? I have witnessed an author and lecturer who expounded about raw foods vegetarianism, eating pizza and other hot foods in a pizza palace. He saw me watch him.
I was once taken to a PETA meeting where I witnessed very disturbing behavior.
I am a vegetarian for health reasons. However,I do believe there should be more humane treatment of all animal life than is currently the practice.

(9) Anna, May 16, 2005 12:00 AM

She never will get it

Poor Ingrid Newkirk; how tragic to be so ignorant and stupid.

I also abhor cruelty to animals, but have the intelligence to know the difference between Holocaust-style barbarism and modern methods of butchery. Apart from anything else, who would want to eat meat from an animal that had starved to death ? The stupidity of this campaign is unbelievable. Or am I to assume that America doesn't have inspectors in its meatworks, as we have in New Zealand, ensuring that the animals are killed in a humane manner-and that only PETA are aware of this ?

Even if Jewish staff members did suggest the campaign, that is no excuse. I guess that there are Jews who just don't get it, just as there are members of every other race who don't. The fact that they were staff members and not chief exceutives implies that they have no special status, so why would their views prevail if other PETA workers did not feel the same ? If I were working for them, and anyone, Jew or Gentile, suggested such a campaign, I hope I would protest. This is a feeble excuse.

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