October 10, 2003

Critics Slaughter PETA's Protests

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Eight 60-square-foot panels dominated Ho Plaza for two hours early Wednesday afternoon. The panels depicted images of Nazi death camps from the Holocaust juxtaposed with present-day factory farm and slaughterhouse scenes.

The images were part of an exhibit entitled “Holocaust on Your Plate,” set up by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Beginning in San Francisco on Feb. 22, the exhibit has appeared in more than 50 cities in close to 40 states, according to Matt Prescott, campaign coordinator for PETA.

Regarding the purpose of the exhibit, Prescott said, “People everywhere need to understand that by eating meat, dairy and eggs, they are supporting an industry that performs routine mutilations, such as castration and debeaking, without anesthesia. People everywhere, Cornell students included, should be outraged at this abuse.”

The website associated with the PETA campaign cites the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer as the first to notice “the disturbing similarity between the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust and that of animals raised for food.” The website features a quote from Singer: “… in relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for [them] it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Treblinka was a Nazi extermination camp during World War II that was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 850,000 Jews.

Singer’s quote also lent itself to the title of a 2002 book, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, by Charles Patterson. Patterson believes the book was a central source of inspiration for the PETA campaign.

The PETA campaign has met resistance in many cities on its tour. Prescott said some cities have tried to deny permission to erect the display, but all legal cases have been settled out of court. Several newspaper articles have also featured outspoken Jewish communities protesting the exhibit.

Within minutes of setting up on Ho Plaza, the display incited a protest group of students challenging PETA with signs and verbal arguments.

“I was one of the counter-protesters — I had a sign that said ‘My Aunt Was Not a Chicken — She Was a Human Being,'” said Dan Greenwald ’05.

A few other students also protested the exhibit with signs, and a larger contingent expressed their opinions verbally.

“There were about four people with signs, but a group of about 20 was constantly arguing with PETA and maybe 50 more people walked by and argued with them at some point,” said David Klein ’05, whose sign read, “My Relatives Were People.”

“One girl just started screaming and crying; it was pretty ugly for a while,” Greenwald added.

To Greenwald, the exhibit “represents true moral depravity — an inability to recognize the sanctity of human life — the sanctity of human life isn’t uniquely a Jewish, Christian or Muslim thing — it’s something recognized by nearly every civilization that has ever walked the earth.”

Klein saw the exhibit as “an absolute joke — there’s no way to equate the genocidal treatment of people to the killing of animals — animals that are a source of food to people.”

“I think it’s easy to misinterpret,” said Clair Whittet ’04, president of the Cornell Coalition for Animal Defense, which sponsored PETA’s display on campus. “It’s easy to think that our bottom line is to compare people and animals, but it isn’t. My response to students who are upset at the display is that they are not wrong to feel upset. The display contained very upsetting subject matter. I would hope that they can understand that we were not trying to demean Jews, to belittle the plight of the Jews who died during the Holocaust, but to show that the brutal, cruel, torturous and utterly unjustifiable actions perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II are still being conducted on millions of animals every year.”

Prescott, who is Jewish, reinforced Whittet’s interpretation of the exhibit.

“We’re trying to show people that the mindset which allowed people to turn away from the Holocaust, the notion that we can ignore suffering if we are not directly affected by it, is the same mindset that allows 28 billion animals a year to be confined in cages and crates, pumped full of growth-inducing hormones and antibiotics, and often boiled alive,” he said.

Before bringing the exhibit to campus, the CCAD consulted Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Cornell Hillel.

“We expressed our intent not to offend the Jewish community but rather to show how grievous the plight of animals in factory farms is wrong,” Whittet said.

While the crowd of protesters was constant during the two hours the exhibit was shown, not as many students were there to support PETA. Whittet said she was not able to attend the event.

“I did not see a single student who was there supporting PETA,” Klein observed, “and there is plenty of student support against animal cruelty, but not now.”

According to Sue McNamara, assistant to the dean of students, “the event yesterday was not considered a rally, it was considered an information table reserved through [the] Straight.”

PETA’s right to bring potentially controversial subject matter to campus is protected by the Campus Code of Conduct, according to Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services.

“In my 10 years as vice president, I do not recall not permitting a speaker, activity, demonstration [or] protest because of potentially objectionable content,” she said.

Murphy recognized the potential complications involved with the exhibit and before the event, said, “We will make sure that it is staffed properly, maybe with police, maybe with event managers; we will make sure that our Campus Code of Conduct is properly upheld.”

Despite the resistance, Whittet thought the event was a success.

“I think that if the display encouraged even one person to question the ethics of factory farming, if it made one person think for a second the next time they reach for a ham sandwich, we accomplished our goal,” Whittet explained. “For every vegetarian or even every person who decides to buy meat from small, non-industrialized farms there are thousands of animals who will be spared a fate of brutality and suffering, and to us, that is a victory.”

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo