I am vegan. But probably like you, I grew up eating meat.
As a child, when I became concerned about the animals that were killed to put food on my plate, I was told that the animals are here to be eaten and they don’t feel anything when they are killed.
That satisfied me back then.
But in the early 1990s, after visiting a sanctuary of animals rescued from the food industry and reading John Robbins’ groundbreaking book “Diet for a New America,” I became aware that what I was told as a child was not the truth at all. I learned that in the mass production of any animal products — even those said to be “humanely” produced — the animals suffer a great deal.
Videos I watched showed the animals were terrified and aware they were going to be killed. I had experienced for myself that cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys were no different than the dogs and cats I knew. They have likes and dislikes, prefer certain animals over others to hang out and sleep with, and have preferences for certain foods.
They certainly had different personalities. Some were more shy, while others wanted to be petted and cuddled. Even fish form bonds and suffer terribly when they can’t breathe after being caught. Crabs and lobsters suffer when boiled alive.
Once I discovered these truths, I immediately started to change my eating habits. I didn’t want to contribute to this suffering in the world.
I began acquiring vegan cookbooks and incorporating delicious new foods I had never eaten before. My health improved, and I became aware of the impact that food production has on the environment. By 1994 I was fully vegan, and at last my actions reflected my values.
Probably like you, I went to Hebrew school and learned about the Holocaust. On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I watched every single news special about World War II and learned extensively about the plight of Jews throughout Europe and the evil that had existed. I went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The pictures and films of these atrocities brought me to tears.
In the late 1990s, while attending an animal rights conference and watching undercover videos of animals in transport trucks and slaughterhouses, it hit me like a ton of bricks that the wide-eyed expressions of fear, bewilderment and terror in the animals’ eyes were the exact same as the eyes I’d seen of the poor Jewish people rounded up and packed tightly into cattle cars.
Were we doing to animals what had been done to Jews during the Holocaust? Do animals being non-human justify what we are doing to these innocent, sentient beings?
What characteristic that we have would they have to possess to be worthy of a life without suffering and death? Was intelligence what set humans apart from animals? Testing has proven the intelligence of many animal species. Was it feelings and emotions they lacked? If you see emotions in your dogs and cats, I can assure you farmed animals are no different.
I have been a volunteer at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Md., for over six years and can give you examples of how much personality, intelligence and emotions these animals possess. We are more like animals than we are different, so is there a valid ethical reason why they should suffer?
In our culture, animals raised for our food are made to seem very different from us to justify what we do to them. But isn’t this what the Nazis did to Jews to justify what they did to them? Not only were Jews called “animals” and “beasts” to justify their extermination, but they were also treated like animals. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews by crowding them naked where they were seen as a herd of animals and easier to kill with no conscience.
Do we as Jews have an ethical obligation not to do to other sentient beings what was done to us? The Jewish Vegetarian Society, the Jewish Veg organization and many other Jewish groups were formed for this reason. There are even cookbooks that make vegan versions of traditional Jewish foods.
I read a very provocative book called “Eternal Treblinka” by Charles Patterson. The book’s title comes from the following quote by acclaimed Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote that in their behavior toward creatures, “All men are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Millions of innocent, feeling beings are taken from their families, trucked hundreds of miles through all weather extremes, confined in cramped filthy conditions and herded to their deaths. They die from heat exhaustion, dehydration, starvation or from freezing to the sides of cattle cars. They are forced into cramped bunkers where they were forced to live on top of other dead victims covered in their own feces and urine, then herded to their deaths in assembly-line fashion.
This description fits both what the Nazis did to Jews as well as what is being done to sentient animals every day. As Jews, we owe the animals mercy and should all strive to eat plant-based and be cruelty-free.
A Baltimore-based animal activist, Jamie Cohen has been vegan since 1994.