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Can animal rights take precedence over human rights?

Animal rights movements in Israel have grown in size and power in recent years. At the same time, a growing number of people are questioning the relationship between animal rights and the ongoing violation of Palestinian human rights. Vegan guru Gary Yourofsky, who is scheduled to speak in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, has some shocking things to say about the latter.

Awareness of animal rights has grown dramatically in Israel in recent years, entering both the political and public discourse. In a recent post, I surveyed the growing number of Israelis turning to veganism and the restaurants that have opened (mainly) in Tel Aviv to cater to vegans, the new Israeli “269″ movement which inspired an international campaign, the support from local celebrities for animal rights and the immense success of the Hebrew-subtitled version of Gary Yourofsky’s “Best speech you will ever hear” video. Just last month, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprising statement about how he became aware and more sensitive to animal suffering, and on Monday according to Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid Netanyahu said how he and his wife Sara have greatly reduced their intake of meat, due in part to several books by Israeli authors on the issue of veganism and animal rights.

But the movement’s growing power hasn’t made it immune to criticism. While criticism of carnivores is to be expected, the Israeli movement is seeing a more targeted criticism coming from the anti-occupation Israeli radical left, including from sworn vegans. One of its focal points revolves around several vegan and organic products (consumed by the same like-minded crowds), many of which originate in heavily state-subsidized agriculture sector in West Bank settlements.

The internal friction within the movement may be facing an interesting turn as Yourofsky arrives in Israel for a second, highly-anticipated visit. As part of the tour, Yourofsky is scheduled to give a talk at Ariel University (in the West Bank settlement by the same name), which was founded by military decree. The entire Israel tour was coordinated by a new, high-profile NGO named “Vegan Friendly,” and is being co-sponsored by three of the oldest and most established animal rights groups in Israel as well as several vegan restaurant chains.

"Humans are the SCUM of the earth. I don't care about Jews or Palestinians". Yourosky (Screenshot from youtube)

“Humans are the SCUM of the earth. I don’t care about Jews or Palestinians.” Yourosky (Screenshot from YouTube)

When asked by +972 about the possible collision of agendas in appearing in a place deemed illegal by the entire international community for the purpose of promoting an end to animal suffering, Yourofsky was very blunt in brushing aside the question.

“Since the ‘international community’ is comprised of violent, bloodthirsty thugs who terrorize billions of innocent animals every second of every minute of every hour of every day, the ‘international community’ can go to HELL,” he wrote back.

Responding to the core question of the Palestinian struggle and the call to boycott Israeli academia and the settlements, Yourofsky said he sees no point in caring about any human beings so long as animals that are being regularly slaughtered. “When people start eating sliced up Jew flesh, or seared Palestinian children in between two slices of bread with onions, pickles and mustard, then I’ll be concerned about the Middle East situation.”

“Humans are the SCUM of the earth,” he continued. “I don’t care about Jews or Palestinians, or their stupid, childish battle over a piece of God-forsaken land in the desert. I care about animals, who are the only oppressed, enslaved and tormented beings on this planet. Human suffering is a joke. Therefore, I will speak anywhere, in any city, in any country, in any location that will have me. I would lecture IN a Palestinian school if they would bring me in.”

Ron Shor, a spokesperson for Vegan Friendly, said his organization would not care to comment further.

College in Ariel, West Bank (Wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0)

Daniel Erlich, another organizer and devoted animal rights activist, had an interesting perspective to offer. A former activist agains the occupation, Erlich explained that he left his West Bank activism behind after being invited to an action to help Palestinians rebuild chicken coops destroyed by the Israeli army. “I decided I won’t be willing to help the struggle against the caging and oppression of humans by supporting the caging and murder of animals.”

Yourosky, Erlich explained,  is also a single-issue activist.

What he’s trying to say in his own special way is that he would do anything he can to stop the murder and torture of animals, regardless of any other oppression. There are meat eaters in Ariel too, and so to give up on a lecture in Ariel means that in the name of a different struggle we accept Ariel resident’s contribution to animal holocaust.

Yourofsk’s lecture is not a form of entertainment, but a preaching on behalf of animals and I think there’s something unfair and unconstructive in criticizing it. Imagine the opposite situation, when anti-occupation activists eat meat or build coops like the action I mentioned before. Would anyone in Haaretz or +972 write about it, shocked that anti-occupation single issue activists are harming the animal rights struggle? No. Criticism of single-issue activism always comes from one direction, and this is due to the tendency to put humans at the center of everything – a tendency shared even by some vegans.

The other side of the debate is represented in an op-ed published by Aeyal Gross in Haaretz. Gross, a professor of international law and a part vegetarian part vegan himself, claims that the much-welcomed turn to veganism in Israel is liable to become a new type of pinkwashing (the hiding of Israel’s occupation and apartheid practices by promoting progressive LGBT legislation, gay tourism in Tel Aviv and the like). He calls it “vegan-washing.”

Gross uses his piece to examine Netanyahu’s recent comments on animal suffering, as well as the IDF’s providing leather-free boots and caps to vegan soldiers.

When veganism becomes a tool to improve the IDF’s image, or that of Israel as a whole – which is what Megged suggests – and when attempts are being made to cover up the fact that the IDF operates an occupation mechanism that denies people their basic human rights, veganism is being appropriated for propaganda purposes.

In Tel Aviv today, it is far easier to find food whose preparation has not involved the exploitation of animals than to find food whose production has not entailed the oppression and uprooting of other human beings.

…The conclusion to be drawn from this observation is not to abstain from veganism, but rather to appropriate it as yet another element in the general struggle against oppression – of any kind.

Read more:
The rise of Israel’s animal rights movement

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  • COMMENTS

    1. The Trespasser

      The only difference between Left and Right is that Right is honest enough to admit that they would kill for their own benefit, while Left is only willing to admit that it would kill for the good of others.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Wow, I never thought I would agree with Yorofsky on anything, but he is right about the values of the “international community”. In any event it is incorrect to say that the “international community” thinks that the settlements are illegal. SOME of the international community thinks that, but others, like the US gov’t doesn’t. Even Obama’s regime says it doesn’t like the settlements, but it doesn’t say they are illegal. But, in any event, as Ben-Gurion used to say “what is important is not what the non-Jews say, but what the Jews do”, so I couldn’t care less what the “international community ” says about the settlements anyway. The international community doesn’t do anything about Turkey’s illegal occupation of Northern Cyprus, or India’s occupation of Kashmir nor any of many other such situations.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I should like to add that the “international community” whose opinion Haggai so much respects has given Assad carte blanche to keep slaughtering his people so long as you only uses bullets and bombs to do it but not chemical weapons. So why should we care what they say?

        Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “It’s incorrect to say that the “international community” thinks that the settlements are illegal. SOME of the international community thinks that, but others, like the US gov’t doesn’t. Even Obama’s regime says it doesn’t like the settlements, but it doesn’t say they are illegal.”

        It’s correct to say that every state in the international community except Israel views Israel’s settlements as illegal or “illegitimate” (US).

        Reply to Comment
        • johny

          Actually the state department does see the settlements as illegal. That is technically the official position of the united states government.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Nir

      Nothing good for veganism or for anti-occupation will come of setting one agenda against the other. Best for all parties concerned to keep the issues separate. A committed vegan and leftist myself, I’ll embrace any settler who joins the former cause, while continuing to oppose him uncompromisingly on all other fronts. Such pragmatism is, I think, the mature response to the complexities of the our moral lives and the only way to avoid moral purism and dead-end identity politics.

      Reply to Comment
      • How far can you separate these questions? After reading these quotations from Yourofsky (particularly ‘animals…are the only oppressed, enslaved and tormented beings on this planet. Human suffering is a joke’) then I don’t just doubt his basic compassion and his logical reasoning in relation to humans, I doubt them in relation to animal rights too. Anyone who is blithely unaware of the existence of human trafficking, slavery, and torture will never be able to take principled coherent stand on animal rights, because animal husbandry and slaughter don’t constitute some separate industry. These things are all interconnected and if you want to oppose them you have to recognise that. Indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest, for example, have lost their homes and livelihoods to logging that is being done in order to create profitable grazing land for beef cattle. Their loss and the serious environmental implications are so closely connected to the raising of cattle for slaughter that you can’t just decide to focus on one thing and not the others. They all stem from the same greed and callousness and sense of superiority – profiteering from cattle matters more to some people than the livelihoods of tribal peoples, who don’t count for as much as other people. Now if Yourofsky argues for animal liberation in a setting where one group of people are privileged above another and considered more deserving than another on an ethno-religious basis, saying that it’s OK to do this because animals matter more, then isn’t he guilty of promoting a hierarchy of suffering in the exact same way that the meat industry does? Animals can be maltreated and slaughtered because their right not to be tortured and used is apparently worth less than passing human enjoyment of a bacon sandwich. They don’t have value as humans have value. Meanwhile Palestinian homes get flattened because their occupants don’t have value in the way that settlement residents have value. As I see it, any argument for animal rights has to tackle this idea of hierarchy and the resultant sense of entitlement and superiority – and how can Yourofsky do that when he’s buying into it himself? He shouldn’t be questioned on what the international community will or won’t think of his speaking engagements, but rather these fundamental inconsistencies in what he’s saying, not to mention the glaring lack of compassion.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Vicky, doesn’t Erlich’s answer apply to your comment as well? Would you turn down an invitation by fast-food restaurant owners to talk to them about Palestinian rights? I don’t think this has anything to do with a “hierarchy of suffering.” All of us define hierarchies of suffering, yourself included, unless we’re psychopaths. Your objection is completely practical: given the interconnection of injustices, is Yourofsky’s approach the most effective?

          Yourofsky is in a way more rational than a lot of activists who fight for justice in Palestine. That’s because his choice of battles matches his hierarchy of suffering: he’s concentrating on the gravest injustice. Pro-Palestinian activists, in contrast, often admit that there are other injustices, higher in the activist’s own hierarchy of suffering, to which they devote little or no effort.

          Reply to Comment
          • Aaron, I have a hierarchy of suffering insofar as I can say that Ebola victims without medicine have it worse than I have when I get the common cold. But there comes a point where it’s no longer possible to create an objective hierarchy like that (how to determine who is suffering more, kids in sweatshops or survivors of Typhoon Hainan?) and it would be neither useful nor ethical to try. I have one friend who works with Congolese refugee women and another who is involved in an art therapy project for young men who have been prostituted in Manchester. I wouldn’t feel able to say which of us is doing the most ‘important’ work with the ‘biggest’ problems. We ended up working in areas where we feel most able to make some useful contribution, as a result of our particular skills and backgrounds. This seems like a more sensible and compassionate approach than looking for the Worst Situation Ever and then fiercely denying that any suffering exists outside that situation, as Yourofsky is doing. Even if you’re only working in one specific area (as most people have to do – there is also the problem of there being only twenty-four hours in a day), it is important to be mindful and supportive of other things.

            As for your fast-food example, I rarely speak publicly about Palestinian rights (I don’t think what I have to say is all that helpful), but when I do speak the venue is always a consideration. It has to be. I try to emphasise the importance of kindness and compassion in non-violent activism, and it makes for a much more fruitful and honest discussion when the venue shares those principles or at least isn’t in flagrant opposition to them, even though the guests might not agree. I wouldn’t turn away any fast-food tycoons (or anyone) who wanted to come and hear a talk at a community anti-war group, but I wouldn’t give a dedicated talk just for them. I wouldn’t see the point. This is another place where I disagree with Yourofsky – he talks as though he is some messiah not wanting to deprive the denizens of Ariel of a message that they wouldn’t get without him, whereas I don’t see my own speaking as all that valuable. I think that a little more consistency and a lot more kindness on his part would be a better advert for veganism than his willingness to speak anywhere and everywhere.

            Reply to Comment
          • ...........

            But he’s single issue. He flat out doesn’t care about human life. which is pathetic. I’m sorry. I understand where he’s coming from, but essentially he’s whitewashing one problem in an incredibly fascist way. He just flat out doesn’t care about human beings. If Im’ a settler and I care about animals, I have a new rational.

            Reply to Comment
        • Neo

          You’re right. about Gary’s compassion, and also regarding the way the questions were posed.

          To Gary,
          maybe human and animal suffering are incomparable but coming to israel and talking about ending the animal holocaust while ignoring the fact that this same country is and has been oppressing another people for decades is simply a joke.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >How far can you separate these questions?

          Don’t separate. Take all slaughtered or confined animals per head in raw weight as humans and count their heads.

          In Israel consumption of meat is 96 kg. per capita annually.

          Which is about two to three medium to small sized Palestinians grown in containmet for each Israeli every year, in terms of resistance etc.

          Reply to Comment
      • JG

        I don’t care if a fascist is kind to animals at all. He is still a fascist.
        Hitler loved his Blondie also more than humans.

        Reply to Comment
      • Suad

        Thank you for your sane answer. As a Palestinian in Israel I agree with what you wrote. I care for my people here and in the West Bank but I oppose them when they too torture and treat animals in a terrible way …

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ran

      Well, seems to me that pathetic Hagai Mattar Asked pathetic Gary Urofsky an unbelievably pathetic question and got a pathetic answer. Incredibly Ridiculous article.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Philos

      Yourosky is a complete and utter psychopath. A bit like that other vegan. You know, the Charlie Chaplin impersonator from Austria

      Reply to Comment
    6. My head hurts more than usual after reading this post.

      There is a strange correspondence between what Yourosky says and what some Israeli right corporate nationalists say: so long as one Jew is in jeopardy, the plight of Arabs is irrelevant. Y substitutes “animal” for “Jew” and “humans” for “Arabs.” I think the Nazis did the same thing, with different substitutions.

      Run to pure innocence and condemn everything else. Maybe that is all humans do. Pick one group to support, bash all else. Maybe this is what happens when one worries about things one cannot effect. In any case, I have a strangely feeling that I am rehearing the doctrine of original sin in Y.

      What’s the point of having a political opinion on everything? All it does is sort everyone into “friends,” “allies,” and “opposition.” While Bibi et al. make decisions.

      Reply to Comment
    7. It is actually not that surprising, as the origins of the animal rights and environmental care movements can be found in the fascist movements in Europe and in the Nazism as well. The difference is that until characters such as Yourofsky appeared, the anti-humanitarian aspect of these movements was not openly spoken. A “Clean” environment and so called animal care were issues that the Nazi movement was greatly concerned with (Thus – jews abusing animals was part of the propaganda, “Filthy” and “Dirty” were also terms used). It is with the same terms and hatred towards humans that Yourofsky speaks now, and it is exactly what makes him so popular and easy to identify with (As if there are no human actions and crimes being done towards one another, but humanity “In General”, “In itself” can be blamed, which actually provides the satisfaction of “clean morals” towards any criminal actions against humans. Thus, Yourofsky is actually Fascist de-facto, and so are his followers. This has a rather dangerous and hazardous effect on what used to be left movements. Hard to say whether it is part of the cause or a consequence of the degeneration of the left, but it is no doubt something to worry about and something to fight against.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ilan

        This reminds me of the criticisms against Every liberation movement. Black liberation is against whites, women’s liberation is against men, etc. Farm animals are the world’s most oppressed population, and compared to the sheer numbers of these animals and what is done to them as standard practice, the number of people willing to fight for them is tiny.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Jason

      Now whilst I don’t agree with Yurofsky’s lack of compassion which I think is counter-productive, he does raise a very valid point (albeit in an inaccessible and negative way). Humans often behave like self-centred children; their suffering and issues are astronomically more significant than that of any other being, without any real logical means of comparison, but just due to some fusion of instinctive self-preservation and a religion-inspired collective egotism.

      I believe that neither the animal rights movement, nor the human rights movement(s) will ever attain success without a holistically compassionate and moral approach to all suffering, as a movement’s means should always reflect its ends. So I totally agree also with Gross that the two movements can be combined and are not mutually exclusive in nearly all cases.
      It just takes activists from both movements to develop a holistic and non-contradictory moral stance on suffering.

      Reply to Comment
    9. David Walker

      I wonder what the good Mr. Yourofsky thinks of carnivorous animals? That chicken devoured hundreds of thousands of beetles in cold blood, so really killing and eating it saves lives in the long run….

      Reply to Comment
    10. Veganista

      Animal liberation through shameless self-promotion!

      Yourofsky is his own punchline. Shouldn’t you be in the studio laying down phat rhymes G-Spot?

      Try real activism sometimes, you may actually save an animal or two.

      Reply to Comment
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