PETA Sparks Outrage with Holocaust Comparison
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Nobody ever accused PETA of being timid, but the animal-rights group's latest media campaign has sparked more than the usual antagonism.
In side-by-side photographic images, PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- directly compares farm-animal slaughter to the extermination of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. The display, titled "Holocaust on your Plate," was launched in February on the West Coast, drawing immediate outrage. It consists of eight 60-square-foot panels, each showing photos of factory farms next to photos from Nazi death camps.
An example from the "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit: Under the headline "Baby Butchers," PETA shows an image of children behind bars in a concentration camp next to a pen filled with pigs.
Numerous Jewish groups are outraged, including the Anti-Defamation League and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They say PETA has trivialized the deaths of millions in an effort to generate publicity for its cause.
Individuals, too, are finding fault with the display.
"I was absolutely horrified," said Daniel Zur, a senior at Arizona State University, where PETA's traveling exhibit was displayed this week. Zur, 23, is Jewish and lost 17 family members in the Holocaust.
"Comparing the killing of animals for food to all those millions -- not just Jews, but Gypsies and Christians and others -- making that comparison between the two is humiliating, disgusting and tasteless," Zur said.
Fred S. Zeidman, Holocaust museum chairman, echoed such comments, calling PETA's campaign "utterly shameless and contemptible."
In a letter to PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, Stuart Bender, legal counsel for the Holocaust Memorial Museum, asked PETA to "cease and desist this reprehensible misuse of Holocaust materials." Bender went on to say, "PETA's exploitation of these materials (is) a gross perversion of our mission."
To date, PETA has refused to cease and desist. PETA claims use of the photos is "the very type of speech against exploitation and oppression that (the museum) is supposedly designed to foster and protect."
PETA Touts Jewish Roots to Campaign
PETA has the support of some Jews and at least one religious organization. Its website includes supportive comments from a handful of Jewish members of various organizations, as well as excerpts of writings from animal-friendly Jewish authors.
At press time, PETA even included supportive-sounding words from the Holocaust museum on its "What Others Say" Web page, when that organization stands squarely opposed to the exhibit. PETA touts its campaign as being rooted in the words of award-winning author and Holocaust survivor Isaac Beshevis Singer, who wrote, "To animals, all people are Nazis. For them it is an eternal Treblinka."
But do those words make it acceptable for PETA to put an image of a pile of human bodies in a concentration camp next to a pile of bodies of pigs at a factory farm under the headline, "The Final Indignity?" Or to display a picture of men on wooden bunks at a death camp next to a picture of chickens in cages?
The ADL certainly doesn't think so. That organization calls PETA's requests for support from Jewish groups "outrageous, offensive and taking chutzpah to new heights."
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the ADL and a Holocaust survivor, issued a statement calling PETA's new campaign "abhorrent."
"Abusive treatment of animals should be opposed, but cannot and must not be compared to the Holocaust," Foxman said. "The uniqueness of human life is the moral underpinning for those who resisted the hatred of Nazis."
PETA seems to welcome such controversy.
A statement on the PETA website offers this comment from Lewis G. Regenstein, who is Jewish and represents the Interfaith Council for the Protection of Animals and Nature in Atlanta, Ga.:
"PETA's current 'Holocaust on your Plate' campaign is generating a great deal of attention and controversy (which, of course is its purpose -- to make people aware of the massive suffering of animals caused by our meat-centered diet)."
Even more inflammatory were comments made by Bruce Friedrich, a PETA executive, speaking at a national animal-rights conference in 2001:
"If we really believe animals have the same right to be free from pain and suffering at our hands, then of course we're going to be blowing things up and smashing windows," Friedrich said, adding, "I think it would be great if all of the fast-food outlets, slaughterhouses, these laboratories, and the banks that fund them, exploded tomorrow."
Those words were included in the Fall 2002 edition of the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report," as part of an article about tactics of extremist animal-rights groups, focusing on the Animal Liberation Front and the Environmental Liberation Front.
The crass juxtaposition of photos seems tame in comparison to such calls for violence, certainly, but Friedrich's words and PETA's refusal to stop using Holocaust images to "raise awareness" about animal abuse indicate a certain desire to revel in controversy.
So PETA says it is promoting "the long Jewish tradition of kindness to animals," while the ADL, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and others say PETA is trivializing the 20th century's worst case of genocide.
Exhibit Finds Lively Protest in Arizona
Last week, the PETA campaign was a war mostly of words and website postings. This week, it hit the ground.
PETA's exhibit was displayed at Arizona State University in Tempe, leading to numerous complaints and near fisticuffs.
Zur, the senior religious studies major at ASU, was among those surprised to find the exhibit standing outside the student services center.
He and others predicted PETA will lose support, rather than gaining it, by using images that offend people who otherwise might stand behind the issues PETA promotes.
"I've been an animal lover my whole life, but I don't support this forceful, tasteless kind of exhibit," Zur told Tolerance.org.
Other protesters chose more forceful complaints. One student tore down one of the photos and engaged in what the newspaper described as "a minor shoving match" with PETA representatives.
Rabbi Barton G. Lee of ASU's Hillel Jewish Student Center viewed the exhibit. He calls PETA's animal-human juxtaposition "invidious."
"This points out the problems of fanaticism," Lee told Tolerance.org. "People can insult, hurt and disparage human life ... just to get attention for their cause. The irony is, it defeats the cause; they get attention, but they don't get support."
Brian Willoughby is the senior writer of Tolerance.org.