Gary (Guru?) Yourofsky, the much talked about animal rights activist whose pompously titled “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” has gotten well over a million hits on Youtube, recently came to Israel. In addition to making headlines for attacking an Israeli journalist, he spoke at many cultural and academic institutions.
I have been a vegetarian since age six (I do not eat animals, but I do eat things that come out of animals) and although I usually steer clear of vegan proselytizers, or anyone threatening to take away my cottage cheese, I found myself looking for a seat in the lecture hall when Yourofsky came to speak at Hebrew University. I thought I would leave after ten minutes, because I had no seat, had just finished a full day of classes – and had no intention of becoming a vegan. But I found myself riveted. Of course, there is a reason many people consider the man to be a nut, and it’s not only because that is all he eats. However, somewhere amidst the hatred and the hype is an idea that is not entirely absurd.
I was about to write him off after the first minute of his speech. He began by condemning the way people deem objects to be more important than animals. He used The Bible, of all the objects in the entire universe, to demonstrate his argument. The Bible is undoubtedly one of the worst things to use in a speech. Especially in a speech that has nothing to do with The Bible. Especially if the audience is a culturally diverse group of students in Jerusalem, the religious-complexity-capital of the world.
The Bible image was soon replaced by an even worse one: he likened humans’ treatment of animals to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. He quoted a line from an Isaac Bashevis Singer book, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka,” and went back to the idea several times in his speech. I am convinced that this is where he lost a large portion of the audience. Not only are Holocaust comparisons offensive, they are almost always wrong.
True, both the Holocaust and the meat industry involve systematic killing on a large scale. And true, we stir uncomfortably when we hear the metaphor, because the images really are linked. It is a comparison that has been made infinite times before, but in the other direction. The cattle cars in the Holocaust were degrading because they were intended for cattle. Tattooing people’s arms was offensive because it was an act that had until then been reserved for animals. The Holocaust has always reminded us of the treatment of animals, so it is no surprise that we see a likeness between the two.
The problem is that while most of us are horrified when people are treated like animals, Yourofsky is disgusted by the treatment of animals because it reminds him of the Nazi’s treatment of people.
This is a concept many of us find hard to grasp and even harder to accept, and it is where many people stop listening to him. I am someone Yourofsky would probably accuse of being a speciesist; I care more about people than I do about [other] animals. I would kill a goat before I would kill a child. Yes, I assign certain values on the sole basis of species. Yourofsky does not. To him, all species are equal. Chickens, dogs, people. He would sacrifice himself to stop animal suffering. Once we understand his frame of mind, his anger is wholly understandable. If I thought that beings like me were being systematically murdered, I would be angry as well. If I thought my own family and friends were being skinned and fried, I too would lose my temper. Being calm and asking nicely for the horrors to stop would be pathetic.
But since we do not see the world in the same way he does, we cannot forgive his anger or his troubling analogies. Most of us do not yet have the levels of compassion required for viewing the world as one big circle of life, and for hugging all the chickens as if they were our kin. In fact, many people still struggle to see women and gays as equals; asking them to feel for that hamburger is quite ambitious. To him, all animals are equal, but to most of us, some are still more equal than others.
I did not enjoy the lecture. I squirmed and cringed and averted my eyes from the horrific videos of unprofitable chicks being thrown into machines in the egg industry and of blood-covered cows being slowly slashed to death. He was aggressive, serious and severe and I would not want to go out with him, not for a beer and certainly not for a meal.
But at the same time, he is not crazy. He loses many listeners by basing his argument on the claim that we are all equal, a claim too extreme to be universally accepted today. He loses others by using verbal – and sometimes physical – violence in his struggle. But we can still accept some of his ideas without becoming people-hating-plant-eaters, and without having any affection towards him. He is asking us to be more compassionate towards other living things. He is asking us to open our eyes to the suffering of others. We can still consider ourselves supreme beings while being aware of the origins of our food. But instead of focusing on what he is trying to say, we have channeled all of our energies into the question of his sanity.