I Did Nazi That Coming
Why Animal Advocates Should Not Invoke the Holocaust (And it’s Not Why You Think)
My grandparents were lucky. As a result, I am lucky. All four managed to either be the first of their families born in the U.S. or escaped the shtetls of Europe at young ages. I am alive today because of this stroke of good fortune, because my grandparents and their parents managed to dodge the pogroms in which so many of their extended families were starved to death or slaughtered.
Probably in no small part due to being raised with the understanding instilled in Jewish people of how profoundly unjust and cruel it is to oppress those who are different from us, I am also vegan. I just extended and applied that understanding to other species. In just a few days, on February 1, I will have been vegan for 26 years. I was also 26 when I met my husband and we started our lives and this path together; we consider promoting and building vegan culture and outreach to be our life’s work.
What people do to billions of land and aquatic animals every year in order to eat them is so staggering in scale and shocking in brutality, I can scarcely find the words for it. How do you describe the systemic disconnection of turning living, sensitive beings into burgers, slabs, detached wings and smoked slices? The multiple forcible impregnations throughout a lifetime, the babies born and quickly separated from their mothers, the bodies cruelly engineered and painfully mutilated to maximize ease, productivity and profits? It can be even harder to find words for the blasé indifference we find when animal advocates try to raise awareness about this cruel, rapacious industry and the frustration we feel because all it would take is our refusal to participate to pull the plug on it.
I love words but I am hamstrung by them as well. I get an embarrassing number of “word of the day” emails from an array of sources, and I love nerding out on etymology, on usage. Words fail to describe our endless, one-sided war on other species, though, because it belies appropriate characterization. It falls flat. You can choose words carefully, and you can try — believe me, I have — but ultimately what we are trying to do is get people to care enough to want end something so egregiously bad, so obviously wrong, but it most often doesn’t land, probably because of our species’ own interest in keeping the status quo right where it is with regard to eating animals.
We can describe the despair of a pig being separated from her nursing babies on the other side of metal bars and hope that people can empathize. We can educate about a hen’s internal tissue prolapsing out her body, wrecked by so many large eggs from such a young age in such a short time, about mother cows with painful mastitis, not even brought on by their calves’ hungry mouths — the calves are gone — but because they have been roughly milked for the cheese we “couldn’t live without” and ice cream. Animal advocates are desperate for the right words to break through, to make a crack in the wall, to land. Far too often, we fail. It’s not because we are inarticulate or unskilled. It’s also not because the listener is sadistic.
It’s because the listener doesn’t want to hear.
I understand reaching for words like holocaust. (Slavery is another such example, but I am not Black so I will stay in my lane.) These words have resonance because humans have a connection to them, sometimes personal, sometimes impersonal. Even if the words offend at least they break through that capacity to not hear in a way that so many others do not. At least you touch a nerve is how the reasoning goes.
I am not every vegan, of course. I am not every Jewish vegan. I can only speak for myself. That said, I don’t think we should use the word holocaust and it’s probably not why people assume. It’s not for reasons of human superiority. It’s not because I think what happened to Jews and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust is diminished by being associated with what happens to the animals people eat. It’s not because I think we should only offer back-pats and sugar-coated words. Far from it. I think the public deserves our honesty about what we do to other animals and I think the animals born into this nightmare deserve our honesty even more. They also deserve our effectiveness.
I am seeing an uptick again in vegans with big platforms (I will not link to them as I don’t want to drive up their clicks) defending their right to use the word “holocaust” with regard to the animals and of course, they have the right to free speech. Free speech goes two ways, though: They have the right to express their opinions and others have the right to disagree. If you want to characterize everyone who is critical as a “hater,” or an apologist, my guess is you are looking more for fanboys and fangirls than improving your messaging for the animals.
The main issues I have with using the word “holocaust” to describe what is done to other species — generally, the ones we eat — can be distilled down to two disagreements.
The first is that “holocaust” is inaccurate when it comes to describing what we do to animals. We are not committing genocide. What we are doing is perhaps even more perverse in that we are intentionally breeding and continuing those species for the express purpose of consuming the flesh, reproductive yield and the co-products we extract from their bodies, despite not needing it, despite the suffering. It is not exterminating them as species, which is horrific enough, it is dooming one generation after another after another to the same unimaginable, wholly unnecessary suite of brutalities.
This is not to downplay or diminish the horrors of what happened to the millions of Jews and other “undesirables” condemned to concentration camps or confined to starvation conditions in ghettos. Tragic injustice isn’t a competition. It’s not weighed and measured, or it shouldn’t be. Suffering is uniquely experienced by the sufferer. There can be similarities of aspects that are worth noting without saying one is the same as the other. Doing so diminishes and oversimplifies the experiences of those persecuted by Nazi regimes and those tyrannized by the human demand for animal-based comestibles alike.
The second reason I don’t think we should characterize what happens to the animals as a holocaust is simply the reaction. (Of course saying that, I can already hear the defenders of the use calling me an apologist. It won’t be the first time. It won’t be the last time. Go for it.) If people are angry, defensive and outraged — even if it’s for reasons vegans do not approve of — how likely do you think the ability to get through to a listener will be? These are the people we need to reach. In my nearly 26 years as a vegan, I have never heard one person tell me that hearing someone call what we do to animals a holocaust as their reason for going vegan. Not one. Even if it worked on a relative few, how many more are deeply alienated and much further from considering veganism as a result of it? Especially with the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism, shouldn’t we be especially careful to not be aligned with the wrong side of history? Is it more important that we stubbornly clasp the words we want to use, or is it more important to be efficacious?
The tragedies of human history should not be treated like a grab bag to reach into when we want to advocate for the animals. They deserve accuracy and our best communication efforts. People who died in tragedies that are very much not closed chapters in our history books do not deserve to be convenient props to get your point across. Am I offended as a vegan of Jewish ancestry to have that tragedy applied to other species? No. Am I exasperated because of how much harder this makes our efforts on behalf of those animals to be heard and accepted?
Yes. Yes, I am.