The comparison between the extermination of the Jews in WWII and the extermination of animals, day by day and hour by hour, repels and outrages most people. Speak freely about animal rights, they tell me, but leave our Holocaust alone, they say when I dare use the holy of holies to demonstrate my point. Mentioning the “Holocaust” is a deterrant, it undermines your just arguments.
It’s of no help to me that Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “in the animal’s eyes, every man is a Nazi and every day is Treblinka,” and that Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee’s disturbing novel Elizabeth Costello deals with the animal holocaust. Every time I insert our holy holocaust into the argument, the faces shut down, at best, and I usually turn from attacker to attacked.
In other words, the Holocaust is actually a fast and effective way of deflecting the argument from the horrific crimes we are responsible for to the comfortable meadow of what was done to us. Or, in short, a way of turning from criminal to victim.
Dr. Alex Hershaft, a chemist by trade, is a Holocaust survivor who devotes his life to this issue – justifying the forbidden equation. Hershaft, a herald for whose steps people like me have waited breathlessly, is holding a series of meetings in Israel these days. This man, who experienced the horrors on his flesh, whose childhood landscape is the Warsaw Ghetto, cannot be told: “how dare you compare?”
In Hershaft’s lecture, the Holocaust is not only a metaphor, it’s the point. Most of it is dedicated to his personal story – how he survived and was saved – and only in the last part do the animals come in. The impression is indisputably overwhelming. Hershaft’s tone is the opposite of Gary Yourofsky’s – it is moderate, balanced, extraordinarily reserved, as though he is forcibly blocking the storm inside him. But it is no less shocking for all that.
His angle is the forbidden one. His resolute message is unmistakable. Hershaft says, even if not in so many words: as one who was there, I have the right to determine that there’s no difference. There’s no difference between what those who took control of us did to us and what we do to the animals we have taken control of.
Until we’re convinced, until we internalize this, the Holocaust’s lesson will not be learned. We keep declaring “never again” and mean that the evil that has been done to us will never recur. But the real lesson is the opposite: we will never again do to others the evil that has been done to us. We will never again distinguish between one living creature and another, we will never again see any living creature as inferior to ourselves. We will not deny it its feelings, its suffering and especially not its desire (which is as strong as ours) to live.
For years, Hershaft harbored the well-known guilt for having been saved. For years, he asked himself what was the point of his staying alive and what value could he give this life. Until he visited an abattoir and saw the looks of the cows and calves before their death. Since then, his soul can only find peace in the struggle for their right not to be stuffed into carriages and sent helplessly to the slaughter; their right not to be murdered in horrible ways. Hershaft dares to show us lines next to lines, limbs next to limbs, eyes next to eyes.
Anyone willing to open his heart to the monstrosity cannot deny – there is no difference.
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