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Auschwitz should put us off our food

While a crudely assembled advert that ran in the Mail & Guardian featuring pictures of a pork factory farm and concentration camp prisoners side by side was naïve, the reaction from Caryn Gootkin in her piece, “I’m a Jew, not a pig” is misplaced.

Quite rightly, we’re shocked by pictures of the camp inmates, and we should never stop being shocked by the very idea of the Holocaust. That event in history should be singled out for its brutality, scale and the cold forethought that went into its organisation. But our reaction to that event shouldn’t preclude us from finding other horrors in the world shocking, too. We should be more shocked, more often.

It’s by no means the first time the comparison between animal farming and the Holocaust have been drawn. Nobel Prize winners JM Coetzee and Isaac Bashevis Singer have done it. “In relation to [animals],” said Singer famously, “all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka”. And Primo Levi, himself an Auschwitz survivor, noted how he and his fellow prisoners were treated like work-animals, and that even language didn’t escape. “In German there are two words for eating. One is essen and it refers to people, and the other is fressen, referring to animals … In the lager, without anyone having decided that it should be so, the verb for eating was fressen.”

In our own language, it emerges too, and to describe the murder of six million Jews as a slaughter would be accurate. As for the literal slaughter of farm animals, it’s difficult to find reliable figures; the most conservative I came across was an estimate of nine billion animals a year in the US alone. Perhaps, like to some citizens in the UK in the 1930s, the rumours of far-off slaughter just don’t seem believable. Today, we’re so removed from the reality of large-scale farming, we don’t engage, except on a superficial level, with the conditions animals must live in — pregnant sows in pens too small to turn around in being just one example. (For a fuller picture, visit http://www.bwcsa.co.za)

The idea that human and animal suffering are somehow mutually exclusive concerns (“I’ll worry about animals when there is no more human suffering,” to quote from Gootkin’s piece) is both absurd and unfeeling. Why should we not have concern for suffering in whatever form, particularly when it affects those with the least power to remove themselves from it? Besides, one could argue strongly for the opposite — human suffering will not disappear until animal suffering at the hands of humans disappears. Surely empathy breeds empathy, just as violence breeds violence? Or are we waiting for someone else to make the first move?

Humankind’s dominion over animals is an idea reinforced by religion and Enlightenment thinkers. Nevertheless, our dominion is just that — an idea. More and more, science illuminates the commonality between our species and non-human animals in significant ways. Non-human animals have the same capacity to suffer that humans do: their nervous systems carry pain impulses like ours do, in many cases their memories of suffering are as long as ours, and their family and group bonds as strong, if not stronger.

We can choose to ignore our commonality with other animals and continue to believe in our mythical rights to exert our dominance over non-threatening species on an industrial scale and with industrial might, or we can choose not to. Perhaps we are remarkable animals but whatever superior faculties we have evolved, should we not use these responsibly, ethically and consciously, causing as little harm to fellow species? (And while we’re at it, it’s conceivable that Jews, myself included, have a responsibility as a people who have suffered throughout history to point out injustices when we see them – whether carried out on humans or other animals.)

That farm animals should live lives of pain and deprivation is a consequence of a society that doesn’t ask enough questions about where our food comes from, and an industry that must obey the imperative of profit, whatever the ethics. Ironically, we may be exterminating ourselves with our diet, since there is ample evidence that meat farming is environmentally disastrous.

As to the ad that started it all — it’s always problematic to use the Holocaust as an analogy. Animal-rights group Peta ran a similar ad and caused a similar controversy a few years ago. In some ways, we’re right to single out the Holocaust for the reasons I mentioned before — the numbers killed and the very conception of it is shocking. But in other ways, it does some disservice to the other holocausts in the world, both human and non-human. Perhaps the best way to remember the Holocaust is to do all we can to prevent others.

Author

  • Trevor Sacks is a freelance writer living in Cape Town, South Africa. His work has appeared in n+1, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the Cape Argus and several other titles. His as-yet-and-likely-always-to-be unpublished novel, Lucky Packet, was Highly Commended by judges of the 2015 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award.

11 Comments

  1. C. Harford C. Harford 9 July 2014

    Bang spot on, Trevor. Thank you.

  2. Graham Graham 9 July 2014

    Thank you Trevor

  3. Nom Nom 9 July 2014

    I agree with C.Harford’s comment. Thank you, Trevor.

  4. Beanie Beanie 9 July 2014

    Thought provoking and very well written article – a must read!

  5. Lesley Perkes Lesley Perkes 9 July 2014

    Such a thoughtful piece, and brave considering. Agree we should all be increasingly shocked … instead of inured, and that Jews (myself also included) do have the experience you’d think would motivate us to stand up against wholesale slaughter of the most vulnerable. Hope to read more of your writing.

  6. Brian Brian 9 July 2014

    What exactly is your point.; That the slaughter of animals is comparable to the holocaust slaughter or the slaughter of any human beings?
    There are two points here, but let me first digress by reminding people that when there was an oil spill in Table Bay some years ago the lovies came out in their thousands to wash down the penguins; far fewer than those who come out to assist human victims of mishaps. As I was saying, unacknowledged by those people ” animals are not humans”, and their well being or otherwise cannot be compared to the human condition.
    Secondly, pigs are bred for slaughter. What ever you do they will end up in cans and on Sunday tables, and that applies even if they are given holidays to graze in green fields and given subscriptions to the Guardian.
    The advert in question is another thing altogether. Clearly the intention was the anti-Semitic linking pigs/ Jews/ and Pick n Pay’s Jewish founder. Very nasty but a good laugh for those superior people amongst us who regard animal “rights” , a manufactured right if ever I have heard one, as a religion.

  7. Peter Peter 10 July 2014

    Yes! Beautifully argued, Trevor! Thank you.

  8. rmr rmr 10 July 2014

    Oh, thank you for this Mr Sacks.

  9. Gary West Gary West 10 July 2014

    I’m a tad confused (generally speaking but specifically in this case). In the “ad” in question, there is no mention of slaughter, there is no mention of holocaust, there is no mention of Jews. It appears to be comparing the inhumanity of keeping of pigs in sow crates to the inhumanity of the concentration camps. To me this “ad” could be either 1) a dreadfully clumsy and insensitive attempt to highlight the plight of farm animals, 2) cynical Jewish baiting or 3) a false-flag exercise to garner outrage at anti-semitism and divert attention from the current brutality of the Jewish State. In my confusion, I will stick to no. 1.

  10. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 11 July 2014

    Are those sows kept there 24/7?
    Sow crates have been used since pork farming began. They are usually placed there for a few weeks after the piglets are born to prevent them from accidentally hurting the piglets by lying on them. It used to be common practice to allow the sow out for a few hours a couple of times a day though.

    The problem with modern farming is that people buy it. Most people seem to think that meat is born in plastic wrappers on the supermarket shelf. They don’t even want to know about some of the horrors that animals go through before being given (what must be to them) the relief of death. Ironically, these are normally the self same people who get their dander up over someone shooting a wild buck for biltong.

  11. max max 7 September 2014

    Thank you, Trevor. I recommend Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”. He’s Jewish.

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