The animal Holocaust: An odious comparison?

08/05/2012 02:49


Is it right for animal rights groups to use the Holocaust to highlight animal exploitation?

Among animal rights advocates, there is a growing tendency to refer to the Holocaust when describing the horrific plight of animals misused and abused for food, clothing and cosmetics. There is even a book entitled Eternal Treblinka: Our treatment of animals and the Holocaust. But is it right to harness the worst disaster ever to befall the Jews in order to highlight animal abuse?

Many Jews dislike the word "Holocaust" because it has religious and sacrificial connotations. Instead, the word Shoah, meaning disaster, is preferred. But does this mean the word "Holocaust" is now free to use by groups whose interests have nothing to do with the Jewish people?

There are some dangers here. First of all, drawing a parallel between the Final Solution and the abuse of animals runs the risk of downplaying the sheer scale and disaster faced by the Jews during the 1930s and 1940s. What happened to the Jewish people under the Nazis was an unprecedented disaster and one which wiped out two-thirds of European Jewry (or one-third of the world's Jewish population). The Final Solution was a deliberate and systematic attempt to 'ethnically cleanse' the world of Jews. This was motivated by a very real hatred of a particular people and was rooted in a highly-toxic mix of racial and religious discrimination.

The abuse of animals is horrific but it is not rooted in hatred towards animals. Yes, animals are abused, tortured and killed on a massive scale on a daily basis, and there is no excuse for it. What humans do to animals is exploitation of the worst kind, but it is not a deliberate attempt to rid the world of animals. In this sense, the Holocaust and animal exploitation are qualitatively different.

Another danger is drawing a direct parallel between animals and the Jewish people. While most people reading this article are animal lovers and view animals and humans as equals, anti-Semites have historically used animal imagery to demean and insult the Jewish people. Even today, Jews are called pigs and monkeys by Muslim anti-Semites. Also note that Jews have been repeatedly described as sub-human, i.e. as brutish, less than human.

Then there is the platitude about the Jews being led like lambs to the slaughter, which is apt (given its Biblical origins), but also robs the victims of their individuality and erases the many example of heroic Jewish resistance.

In short, the direct comparison between the suffering of the Jewish people and the suffering of animals is likely to be considered offensive. Organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have expressed concern over the (mis)use of Holocaust terminology. In fact, the ADL has described the trend as “disturbing.”

When Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, stated that "six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” many people – Jews and non-Jews – were understandably upset. She then went on to blame her Jewish members of staff for the campaign. This is no way to win sympathy for the plight of animals. Quite the reverse, it makes animal rights campaigners seem either anti-human or just plain crazy.

Hijacking the special nature of the Holocaust is also troubling at a time when there is a frightening upswing in both Holocaust denial and Holocaust revisionism in the West and among Muslim populations. Indeed, the Holocaust is an incredibly sensitive issue in Israel and among the Jewish diaspora. It is the single most traumatic event to happen to the Jews since the Romans ethnically cleansed Israel and changed the name to Palestine in 135 CE.

Another problem with the Holocaust comparison is that it fails to take into account the type of suffering involved. Yes, animals suffer pain and are physically abused every day. But when a person – or in the case of the Jews, an entire people – are incarcerated and brutalised, there is the overwhelming sense of loss and hopelessness, of fear of what has happened to loved ones, the prospect or experience of rape, and the knowledge that someday soon he or she will be gassed and incinerated, along with their families. Animals, on the other hand, do not (as far as we know) experience reality in such a heightened fashion. They do not experience the passing of time or fear the imminence of death in the same way humans do. Of course, this is not to detract from the very real psychological suffering of animals. We all know that a mother cow suffers separation anxiety when her calf is taken away, and there is plenty of evidence to show that pigs and sheep panic when they see or sense their companions being slaughtered. Animals in labs show signs of anxiety and distress. This is to be expected and should not be explained away. But I am arguing that there is a difference in the quality of emotional suffering. The Nazi assault on the individual Jew was not only an attack on his or her identity, race and religion, but a deliberate attempt to degrade their experience of what it means to be human. As I stated earlier, the Nazis actively pursued a policy of altering the status of the individual Jew from that of a human being to that of a sub-human. Animals are indeed robbed of the opportunity to live a life free from oppression and pain, but they are not made to undergo the existential humiliation of being rendered sub-animal.


Having laid out the numerous arguments as to why holocaust references should be avoided, there may well be a case for returning to the original meaning of the word to highlight the plight of animals. The meaning of the word comes from the Greek holocaustos, used to describe a religious animal sacrifice that is completely consumed by fire. So, the word 'holocaust' originally referred to the death of an animal for human purposes. Strip out the religious connotations, and we are left with the possibility for re-adopting the word for a new purpose.

So even if we agree that holocaust with a lower ‘h’ is acceptable, I am still not convinced that it is acceptable to use the "Holocaust" (with a capital ‘H’). Of course, it is tempting to draw parallels between animals and people being herded together and transported to godforsaken places, or experimented on for useless medical research, or their skin used to make sofas or lampshades. But there is a point where such comparisons become gratuitous.

However, I think it is reasonable to use the Jewish catastrophe as an example of mankind’s depravity. Ironically, this view was set out by Matt Prescott, who was behind one of the PETA campaigns. He stated: "The very same mindset that made the Holocaust possible – that we can do anything we want to those we decide are 'different or inferior' – is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day […] The fact is, all animals feel pain, fear and loneliness. We're asking people to recognise that what Jews and others went through in the Holocaust is what animals go through every day in factory farms.”

I think a couple of good points are made here. First, the decision by certain humans to exploit whomever they consider to be inferior should not be tolerated. Secondly, there is the rather moving comparison between the pain, fear and loneliness of the concentration camp prisoner and the animal in the lab or slaughterhouse, notwithstanding my attempt to differentiate between the quality of suffering involved.

If we are to use the word "holocaust," then it must be made clear that it does not detract from the suffering of the Jewish people, nor must the word ever be used carelessly. Used respectfully, the holocaust is an evocative expression of our horror at the scale of animal abuse. It is also an effective way of demonstrating that when it comes to animals, some human beings are indeed brutal, controlling, exploitative and uncaring – a bit like the Nazis.