Book Review

Animal Suffering and The Holocaust: The Problem With Comparisons

By Roberta Kalechofsky

Micah Publications, 2003
Paperback 60 pp. $10 + $3 postage

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

Animal Suffering and The Holocaust: The Problem With Comparisons
Most suffering today, whether of animals or humans, suffering beyond calculation, whether it is physiological or the ripping apart of mother and offspring, is at the hands of other humans. – Roberta Kalechofsky

The Nobel Prizewinning author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, has one of his fictional characters, Herman Gombiner, say in the story, "The Letter Writer," that towards the animals, all humans are Nazis, and for the animals, every day is Treblinka. Rather than trivializing "Nazi" and "Treblinka," Singer conceptualizes these terms and the events to which they refer, making them stand for an extremity of evil of which there may be more than one manifestation, if not in every respect, yet in significant respects.

In Animal Suffering and The Holocaust, animal rights activist and writer Roberta Kalechofsky contests the borrowing of one atrocity to raise moral concerns about another. While acknowledging "terrible cogent connections, dark connecting threads, between animal suffering and the Holocaust," Kalechofsky does not want the Holocaust and its victims to become "a generalized metaphor" for any other atrocity or victim. When atrocities are compared, she argues, every atrocity and victim, not just the Holocaust and its victims, risk obliteration in "a wash of metaphors."

The Holocaust on Your Plate exhibit by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) illustrates the problem she sees. Kalechofsky argues that the history, motives, and causes embedded in the Holocaust differ so greatly from those embedded in the atrocities inflicted on nonhuman animals that comparisons fail. For example, the historical Christian ambivalence towards Judaism has no counterpart, she insists. Yet there are similarities in the human ambivalence towards the natural world from which we derive, just as Christianity bears towards its originating faith a mixture of hostility and respect. Kalechofsky herself says that "[a]nimals, like the Jew in the mind of the Christian, are often a symbol of unconscious and repressed fears, in addition to the affection and reverence they inspire" (p. 53).

While criticizing comparisons to the Holocaust, Kalechofsky does more by way of the examples and conclusions she offers to uphold comparisons between the Holocaust and humanity's relentless, wholesale assault on the individuals, families, and communities of other species. In the modern world, the reduction of a sensitive being to a "non-sentient object" imprisoned in an "excremental universe . . . outside of any moral universe of care" links the Holocaust victim to the animal victim in laboratories, factory farms, and slaughterhouses in ways that diminish the differences between them. Indeed, Kalechofsky writes,

“There is no proof that the flesh of a burning human being is hotter than the flesh of a burning animal. We may think so because the human race has left a record of its suffering, and the animals have not. They have lived their pain, in secret places, with little trace on human consciousness. The human gifts of language and writing - in short, of history - have brought for us greater attention and consciousness of our suffering, while animal suffering is barely accorded knowledge. It is history which separates animal suffering from the Holocaust” (pp. 34-35).

Yes, and it is "history" that separates from the Holocaust not only animal suffering but also millennia of unrecorded human suffering, including the unrecorded human victims of the Nazis. Nor can it be demonstrated who suffers more: those who can conceptualize their suffering or those who suffer without comprehension of its causes and without hope of redemption or rescue. One of the values of having a history (a record) of one's victimization is that the history can help to mitigate one's suffering as well as contribute to it. However, a problem with having this history is that it can create the illusion that one's own suffering is not only different from, but superior to, any other suffering, including the suffering one inflicts on others.

One of the most valuable contributions that a comparison between nonhuman animal suffering and the Holocaust can make is its ability to deepen the trace of animal suffering on human consciousness. Kalechofsky seems at once to recognize and reject this advantage. Oddly, she says that PETA's Holocaust on Your Plate exhibit bears a false resemblance to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and elsewhere because while Holocaust museums are places of sorrow and remembering, the Holocaust on Your Plate exhibit is about protest and reform.

Here again, the either/or approach seems off track. Both exhibits are designed not only to contemplate but to eliminate the crimes and victimage they represent. Another example of this dual mission is the annual World Farm Animals Day project of Farm Animal Reform Movement in which mourning and activism are combined. Historically, at least, the Holocaust ended, whereas the suffering endured by billions and billions of nonhuman animals has no end in sight. Here, certainly, is one area where comparisons fail and where it may be argued that it is the animals whose suffering is unjustly invoked when people say indignantly, with hardly a thought for their own victims, "We were treated like animals."