Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
On March 24 and 25, United Poultry Concerns
, Lantern, and the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund of New York University hosted the Inadmissible Comparisons Conference
at the Law School on West 4th Street. I'd suggested, in an offhanded way, to Karen Davis of UPC, that it might be interesting to convene a conference that examined whether and how we should discuss factory farming and animal exploitation in light of the Holocaust, slavery, and genocide. She thought it would also be interesting and, before I knew what had hit me, we had a conference on our hands.
Even though I've published Charles Patterson's Eternal Treblinka
and Karen's own The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale
, I have been uneasy with the idea of comparing atrocities. It struck me as too glib, and I didn't see what the point was: Who was trying to impress whom with what level of suffering? What was being served by discussing these things in the same breath anyway?
So, I came into the conference with a skeptical mind, and I left it equally skeptical. The conference attendees and speakers seemed to divide themselves into two parties. One considered the discussion to be a matter of strategy (in other words, how animal activists could talk about these subjects with people so that the individuals could "get" the similarities). The other looked for something more substantial: a commitment of solidarity with all those who have been victims of institutionalized violence, and a willingness to listen and educate oneself on the subject of the comparison, and then work with them.
Perhaps inevitably, neither group found itself able to grasp the other's approach. For those individuals who were animal activists first and foremost it was hard to imagine commiting themselves to fighting racism, anti-Semitism, all manner of human injustice, in addition to
stopping cruelty to animals. Why did they have to do all the solidarity work, they wondered? Why didn't more anti-slavery activists, Native Americans, or those remembering the Holocaust understand the plight of animals? Did not the exploitation of animals underpin all other oppressions?
For those who saw animal activism as one part of the struggle for Justice (with a capital "J") it seemed inconceivable not
to commit oneself wholly to the struggle of all beings to be free of victimization or exploitation. Indeed, if animal exploitation underpinned oppression, then the eradication of all oppressions would be necessary for animal exploitation to end, and no strategy would make sense without
such a commitment.
I had known when I proposed the discussion to Karen that these were painful topics, conjuring up the very worst that we humans do and the bleakest aspects of the human condition. I knew that there would be defensiveness and sensitivity, and, sure enough, toward the end there were the inevitable complaints of being over-burdened and misunderstood.
However, what was most valuable for me was to experience—particularly in the presentations of Roberta Kalechovsky
, Andrea Smith
, and Ashanti Alston
—the slightest twinge of the massive and deep-rooted pain that has attended the lives of Jews, Native Americans, and African Americans at the hands of white European and American culture through the centuries. It reminded me that when we discuss such things we should do so reverently, cautiously, delicately. For we are treading on sacred ground, where the bodies of the dead lie buried, their fingers poking up from the ground, demanding that we never forget.