I am vegan but probably like you, I grew up eating meat. When as a child I became concerned for the animals on my plate, I was told that these animals were here to be eaten and they don’t feel anything when they are killed. That satisfied me back then.
In the early 1990s, after visiting a sanctuary of animals rescued from the food industry, along with reading John Robbins’ book “Diet for a New America,” I became aware that what I was told as a child was not the truth at all, and that to produce any animal products – even those said to be “humane” – the animals suffer a great deal. Videos showed them terrified and aware they were going to be killed. I experienced for myself that cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys were no different that the dogs and cats I had known. They have likes and dislikes, prefer certain animals over others to hang and sleep with and have preferences for certain foods. They certainly had different personalities. Some were more shy while others wanted to be petted and cuddled. Even fish form bonds and suffer terribly when caught and can’t breath. Crabs and lobsters suffer when boiled alive. I immediately started to change how was eating so I didn’t contribute anymore to this suffering.
I began acquiring vegan cookbooks and incorporating delicious new foods that I had never had before. My health improved and I became aware of the impact that food production has on the environment. By 1994, I was fully vegan and at last my actions reflected my values of not wanting to cause any animal pain.
Probably like you, I went to Hebrew School and learned about the Holocaust. On the 50th year anniversary of D-Day, I watched every single news special about WWII and learned extensively about the plight of Jews throughout Europe and the evil that had existed. I went to Yad Vashem when in Israel and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The pictures and films of these atrocities brought me to tears.
In the late 1990s, when at an animal advocacy conference watching undercover videos of animals in transport trucks and in slaughterhouses, it just hit me like a ton of bricks that the wide-eyed looks of fear, bewilderment and terror in the animal’s eyes was the exact same as in the eyes of the poor Jewish people rounded up and packed tightly into cattle cars. Were we doing to animals what had been done to Jews during WWII? Do animals being non-human justify what we are doing to these innocent, sentient beings?
What characteristic would they need to possess to be worthy of a life without suffering and death? Is it intelligence that sets human apart from animals? Testing proves the intelligence of many animal species. Is it feelings and emotions that they lack? If you see them in your dogs and cats, I can assure you that farmed animals are no different. I have been a volunteer at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville for over six years and could give you examples for days of how much personality, intelligence and emotions these animals possess.
We are more like animals than we are different. So why they should suffer? English Philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked the following in the late 1700s: “The question is not: can they reason; nor can they talk. But rather, can they suffer?”
In our culture, animals raised for our food are made to seem very different from us to justify what we do to them. But isn’t this just what the Nazis did to Jews to justify what they did to them? Not only were Jews called animals and beasts to justify their extermination, but they were also treated like animals. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews by crowding them naked where they were seen as a herd of animals and thus easier to kill with no conscience. Ironically, the systematic killing of Jews by the Nazis was actually based on the systematic killing of animals in the meat packing district slaughterhouses in Chicago.
The terror that Jews went through in the death camps is what animals go through every day in food production. They feel fear, pain and loneliness – emotions not limited to people. Do we as Jews have an ethical obligation to not do to other sentient beings what was done to us?
There are many Jews that think so. The Jewish Vegetarian Society, Jewish Veg and many other Jewish groups were formed for this reason. There are even cookbooks that make vegan versions of traditional Jewish foods.
I read a very provocative book called “Eternal Treblinka” by Charles Patterson. The book’s name comes from the following quote by Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote that in their behavior toward creatures, “all men are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Millions of innocent, feeling beings are taken from their families, trucked hundreds of miles through all weather extremes, confined in cramped filthy conditions and herded to their death. They die from heat exhaustion, dehydration, starvation or from freezing to the sides of cattle cars. They are forced into cramped bunkers where they were forced to live on top of other dead victims covered in their own feces and urine then herded to their deaths in assembly-line fashion.
This description fits both what the Nazi’s did to Jews as well as what is being done to sentient animals every day. I say that as Jews we owe the animals mercy and should all strive to eat plant-based and cruelty-free.
Jamie Cohen volunteers at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, a 400 acre home for rescued farmed animals in Poolesville, Maryland, and lives in Pikesville with her rescued birds, rabbit and dog.