Trevor Sacks
Trevor Sacks

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.

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