The Holocaust Analogy for Animal Agriculture Matters—And It Drives My Activism
I can remember where I was the first time I learned that a man named Hitler had killed members of my family. It was on a hill in the Bay Area that we drove up to get to our house. I drove on it a few months ago and remembered the conversation. My great-grandfather loved me and always showed care to me in the few years I knew him, and it shocked me to learn that his brothers, sisters, and parents were murdered.
Like most Jews of my generation, I grew up with this legacy on my mind. In every history class I had that covered the 1940s, I would wonder when and how they would talk about the Holocaust. (It wasn't until high school that we did.) I did not know how the Holocaust happened until I was in fourth grade, when I overheard a friend describing how Hitler would get Jews to go into showers and then gas them. My friend clearly found it wrong, but he did not feel the outrage of if it had been done to him. I felt personal outrage. I could see that image in my head viscerally forever after that.
One effect of this legacy was to sensitize me to anti-Semitism and my Jewish identity. I was regularly incensed at anti-Semitism in grade school; the episode I remember most was the release of The Passion of the Christ, with its depiction of Jews murdering Jesus. I also learned about how when my parents' generation applied to college, being a Jew from the New York area made getting into the Ivies considerably tougher because of quotas (similar to the way it is for Asian Americans today).
The knowledge, which grew with time, that a society that had been educated, literate, and quite libertine in its capital city of Berlin could suddenly kill nearly all of Europe's Jews was a reminder not to take a lack of anti-Semitism for granted. (A tour guide once recounted how if socially backward, Siberian Russia had committed the Holocaust, it would not have been nearly as shocking.) However much I might think these lessons can be over-learned, especially when it comes to Israel, I have seen in my recent personal life that anti-Semitism can thrive among seemingly literate and socially just people looking for a scapegoat.
At the same time, the other legacy of the Holocaust that I experienced and share with other modern Jews is the commitment to the ideal of "Never Again." I did not understand what this meant when my grandmother told me this, but I started to understand in high school when I became involved with the Save Darfur movement. That movement was filled with Jews, especially in leadership, and a large portion of American synagogues hung Save Darfur's iconic "Call to Your Conscience" banners for all to see.
But while Never Again drove me to action on Darfur, I was always keenly aware that there are appropriate and inappropriate Holocaust analogies. The routine accusation that every American head of state is the second coming of Adolf Hitler is inappropriate if not anti-Semitic. The same goes for the appending of "Nazi" to any disliked group of people—feminazis, PC nazis, and the unmistakably anti-Semitic "Zionazis."
It was in that context that I read one day an excerpt from a book called Elizabeth Costello, by the South African author J.M. Coetzee, during my high school's lunch break Philosophy Club. The book centers on an Australian writer, Costello, who travels to give a speech at a university and shocks everyone with a near-rant about how our treatment of animals is similar to the Holocaust. In an extended monologue, she describes how the neighbors of concentration camps knew about and lived with what was going on. (When I went to Poland a few years ago, this was one of the things that most shocked me— interspersed with Auschwitz are whole residential neighborhoods still in use.) Costello, at one point, brings her argument to a poetic peak when she notes how we often condemn the Nazi's parading of Jews "like sheep to the slaughter." It's not okay to bring humans to slaughter, Costello agrees, but why, in the first place, is it okay to bring sheep to the slaughter?
It was exactly the sort of gadflyish question that philosophers like to think about, and everyone in the Philosophy Club was silent after we read it, afraid to say the first word. Then little Jewish I-hate-Mel-Gibson me said it: "I think she's right."
I was not a vegetarian then. Come to think of it, I might have been eating an animal as we read the book. I did not become vegetarian or vegan for at least two more years. I cannot deny, though, that reading that essay was a key turning point in my path toward it. I had known about vegetarianism for a while, as my sister was vegetarian, and I had always thought it was reasonable and failed to understand why people would bully vegetarians.
I do, though, think that reading Elizabeth Costello may have been the moment when I decided that I would become a vegetarian when I went to college. I tried to convince myself, in the interim, that there must be some reason why it is okay to hurt animals if everyone did it. How could so many people do something horribly wrong? When I got to college and took an ethics class, I realized that there was no reason. It was wrong, and people did it anyway. I realized that the answer to "How can so many people do something so bad?" existed within the historical legacy I had thought of my whole life.
Now, in hindsight, I would not claim that I would not be vegan were it not for the Holocaust analogy. The argument for not buying products of animal agriculture is airtight to me, and you could take away many of its forms and have it still be compelling to me.
Were it not for the Holocaust analogy, though, I do not think I would be as impassioned of an advocate as I am. Like many others of my generation, including a great many members of the animal rights movement, I grew up with this strange, drilled-in historical legacy of having an entire generation of my family wiped out, factory-line style, by a society in which barely anyone spoke out. I could not understand how so, so many people went along with it. I would meet Germans and think, "This guy's grandfather went about his life as my grandmother's cousins were killed?" It confounded me. But through it all, I told myself: if this were to happen again, I would not be one of them. I would be different.
That connection drives me every day. It prepares me to remain stoic in the face of social ridicule and ostracism. It consoles me when I have doubt.
Many thinkers have criticized the Holocaust's portrayal as "unique" for its erasure of countless other genocides, or things that would have been called genocides had there been a word: the Armenian genocide, the near-extinction of indigenous Americans, the slave trade. I think those arguments are correct, at least in the moral sense, and I think that those other wrongs should capture and haunt the public imagination.
That said, I do think that there is something descriptively unique about the Holocaust that, for better or for worse, makes it a horrifying phenomenon—and horrifying in a way that perfectly resembles nearly every animal farm in the developed world, and an increasing percentage of farms in the world entire.
From the dawn of the industrial era, humans always viewed factories as alien and disturbing. The smoke-ridden churning and cranking of metal does not resemble anything in our evolutionary history, and its unstoppable power can terrify us. You can see this in the work of Romantic and Realist painters of the 19th century or the novels of Dickens.
The application of that machinery to the sole purpose of creating death goes beyond anyone's wildest nightmare, and that is what can be so universally chilling about the Holocaust. I can barely allow myself to think about the exhibit in the D.C. Holocaust museum that showcases what happened after gassings: the placing of the body on a table specifically designed for draining blood, the removal of metal teeth and limbs to be melted in a smelter specifically for that purpose, and the efficient cremation. Taking the technical wizardry of human industrialism and applying it to killing is overwhelming. How do you stop a killing machine?
And yet, this is all what is so haunting about animal agriculture. Animals with wants and likes evocative of ours are hung up on conveyor belts, dragged through electrified water, slit, cut up into different products, and packaged. The animate becomes inanimate with unstoppable force, and the animate's pieces get hacked apart by factory workers. Lest we forget, this happens to likely over 100 billion. every. single. year. Meanwhile, the neighbors can smell the fumes, much like so many Polish neighbors could see, hear, and smell.
The Holocaust analogy for animal agriculture is haunting not only because it is so shocking but also because it is so correct. For me, especially after having seen in person both the death machine that killed my family and the death machines that kill animals, that's enough to keep me fighting, hard.
Much of the world, of course, finds this analogy shocking and offensive. That should be no surprise. Of course it is offensive to see an institution that you and everyone you know take part in compared to what is often seen as the worst event in human history. Animal advocates, particularly intersectional and "woke" ones, often dismiss and attack the Holocaust analogy because it is offensive. Undoubtedly the analogy offends. That can't be the end of the story, though. When we look at an analogy, we have to ask: Does it offend? But also, does it enlighten?
If an analogy both offends and enlightens, then we cannot just disregard it. We need to sit with it, question it, and think about how much it offends, and how much it enlightens.
In the case of the Holocaust analogy, I think this picture is more complicated than it often appears, but when made in a compassionate way, I think it can be appropriate—so much to as to be morally imperative for society to reflect on the comparison.
First, the analogy, when done right, need not trivialize the Holocaust. The casual tossing around of Nazism and Hitler mustaches is an insult to the Third Reich's victims: see Godwin's Law. If you do not have massive numbers killed for a thoroughly unjustified and ideally discriminatory reason, you have the wrong analogy.
In the case of Coetzee's book and other thoughtful comparisons, the analogy does not diminish the Holocaust's memory; it accentuates it. When humans think through morally novel situations, we often need to think by analogy or use what philosophers term thought experiments. In the case of animal agriculture, a useful thought experiment is to ask, "How would we feel if humans were farmed the way animals are?" If we are shocked and horrified, then it shows that unless we can find a justifying difference between humans and animals, we should be shocked and horrified at what happens to animals. The Holocaust is that thought experiment, almost perfectly. Costello's words affirm the horror of the Holocaust. Otherwise, the speech would make no sense. Anyone making this connection should affirm the atrocity, clearly and explicitly.
A very simple but important element of any such analogy is that it should be made slowly. A long-form film, essay, nonfiction book, or novel may be an appropriate place for the comparison. A chant, protest sign, or video clip likely is not. The slowness of language makes it less sudden and less outrageous. At the same time, the deeper emotional resonance can remain.
Second, the analogy can and should be in solidarity with Jews. At this point, a number of Jewish animal advocates, including at least one Holocaust survivor, have made the connection directly (and with this post, I add myself to the list). Isaac Bashevis Singer, who characterized animal agriculture as an "eternal Treblinka," is unquestionably a Jewish icon.
Anti-Semitism is often given short shrift in progressive circles because Jews are seen as disproportionately powerful, but it is a gravely serious issue. Anti-Semitism often thrives in spaces that pride themselves on feminism and anti-racism. This enables a right wing that sees Jews—increasingly vocally—as a virus that subverts white people to the will of foreign countries and internal enemies.
Anybody making the analogy should go out of their way to affirm this. Even without a reason, Jews could use the solidarity these days. When it comes to animal agriculture and the Holocaust, it could be sensible to point out the leadership many Jews like Peter Singer, Karen Davis, and Jonathan Safran Foer have taken in animal advocacy and how these Jews are in some sense being a model of how to learn from one's suffering and be a light among the nations.
Third, the analogy should recognize the specificity of the Holocaust, its well-deserved historical weight, and how critical its lessons are. The world is still inhabited by survivors of the Third Reich, but beyond that the Jewish people are the historical equivalent of an abuse victim, insecure about our position and security in the world after seeing how quickly it can slip. The Holocaust should not be lumped together into a general category of atrocities or genocides. Each historical event is unique, and the Holocaust is unique across multiple aspects. Precisely because of its uniqueness in our imagination, the Holocaust enables us to understand and (attempt to) respond to atrocities like Darfur, Rwanda, or Bosnia. To make the comparison is not to lump them together, but to identify common elements and systems in two discrete events.
In the history of such comparisons, PETA's "A Holocaust on Your Plate" stands out. The campaign was crass and, I suspect, counterproductive. There should be no quick, glib, Holocaust-themed tagline about animal advocacy. The analogy is one to be made from a pensive, reflective place. When I look at PETA's campaign, I feel tears and anger—and not the good sort of righteous anger, but anger at the callousness of putting such images on a poster.
At the same time, many critics of PETA's campaign were also far off. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote, "The effort by PETA to compare the deliberate systematic murder of millions of Jews to the issue of animal rights is abhorrent." By referring to "the issue of animal rights," Foxman sterilizes what happens to animals while describing what happened to Jews in explicit terms. Were "animal rights" to be described more explicitly, though, it would be clear that the comparison itself is not abhorrent. For the true comparison is between "the deliberate systematic murder of millions of Jews" and the deliberate systematic murder of millions (billions) of animals. How can that comparison itself be abhorrent?
The problem with the campaign was its structure. A slower, careful comparison in solidarity with and recognition of the Holocaust's victims, on the other hand, is justified. It's better if the comparison comes from Jews, but if it does not, and it defers to Jewish voices, it should not be off limits.
That's not to say it won't attract outrage or that the outrage won't be legitimate. Sometimes, even a correct statement can arouse real and reasonable hurt and pain. Recognizing that a statement can simultaneously be correct and lead to legitimate outrage is a difficult thing to do, but it is a necessary one. Many important truths are deeply hurtful, and sometimes a crucial way for people to learn the truth is to go through pain. Again, we must ask ourselves, "Does it offend?" but also, "Does it enlighten?"
I have seen through this legacy how pain can enable people to understand the truth. A few years ago, during a particularly difficult personal moment I faced as an advocate, I expressed to someone close to me how I felt. "For me," I said, "I wake up every day in a world where there is a Holocaust going on, and nearly everyone I know and love is supporting it." She did not agree with me, but for once she understood.
Social change and social movements are not yes/no, black and white matters. There is more to life than what we believe: there is the question of how deeply we believe it. From conversations with friends and from what I've read of other Jews, my sense is that this analogy is deeply moving to many of us with a connection to the Nazis' crimes. If it does not persuade us, it viscerally motivates us.
Coetzee/Costello's statement was undeniably painful for me. I can remember my limbs feeling weak and my stomach burning with nausea. It shook me to the core.
I needed that shaking, I still learn from that pain, and I would not want that to change. I would never want to see thoughtful people dismiss an offensive analogy if it enlightens more.