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Animal Rights Campaign Angers Jewish Americans - 2003-03-05


Controversy is no stranger to the international animal-rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. Three years ago, the organization upset several prominent biblical scholars when it asserted that Jesus was a vegetarian and that descriptions of fishing in the Bible were mistranslations. Last year, PETA angered nutritionists and anti-drunk driving activists when it ran an ad in several university newspapers, telling students that beer was healthier than milk. And now, as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, the group is generating controversy again.

This time, PETA has managed to anger Jewish leaders with a campaign that compares slaughterhouses to concentration camps and meat eaters to complacent Germans during the Holocaust. The animal rights group has launched a national tour, entitled "Holocaust on Your Plate." The project consists of eight 18-square-meter panels, which feature pictures of factory farms next to photographs taken at Nazi death camps.

Among those offended by the campaign is Ken Jacobson, Associate Director of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism around the world. "To compare it to the Holocaust ... the uniqueness of human life is the moral underpinning, in order to resist hatred. Whatever the legitimacy of a particular issue, glibly to compare it to the deliberate murder of six million Jews, is really abhorrent," he said.

But representatives from PETA say they aren't being glib, and that they also aren't the first to make the comparison between Jews in concentration camps and animals at slaughterhouses. Bruce Friedrich, an outreach coordinator for PETA, said the comparison has been made before, by survivors of the Holocaust.

"For example, we profile [author] Isaac Bashevis Singer, who pointed out that the same mentality that allowed the Holocaust allows our present treatment of animals," said Mr. Friedrich. "And he stated there will not be justice as long as a person will stand with a knife or with a gun, and destroy those who are weaker than he is."

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 and was a staunch vegetarian for the last 35 years of his life. That's something Bruce Friedrich said PETA would like everyone to become: a vegetarian. He also said the group hopes Jews who are offended by the campaign will reconsider their initial evaluation.

"I mean, obviously, it's understandable that people don't want their suffering and grief compared to the agony of other people. It's probably one of the top methods of coping with one's own feelings of loss or horror or whatever else," he continued. "But unfortunately, other animals do feel pain, and they feel pain in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. So eating meat means choosing to support violence and choosing to support mercilessness."

That's a completely inaccurate rendering of the situation, according to Ken Jacobson of the Anti-Defamation League. Mr. Jacobson said Holocaust survivors do recognize the similarities between their suffering and the suffering of other people. But they also, for the most part, insist the lives of human beings cannot be compared to those of animals.

"We talk often about the fact that the Holocaust in many ways was unique, but it's also characteristic of the mass murders that have taken place elsewhere, whether it's Rwanda, or elements of Bosnia. It's just that the failure to keep things in perspective, and to use the Holocaust in this way, is to us highly offensive and ultimately counterproductive," insisted Mr. Jacobson.

He said he'd like to see PETA abandon the "Holocaust on Your Plate" project. But the animal rights organization has no intention of doing that. Instead, it plans to bring the display to college campuses across the country, beginning with the University of California at Los Angeles.