Question: When is a donkey apparently more important than hundreds of human beings?
Answer: When it is a victim of terror, and you are the president of PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
On January 26, yet another Israeli bus was bombed by Arab terrorists. But this time, the delivery system was not a Palestinian -- it was a donkey. With explosives strapped to its back, the poor animal was directed towards an Israeli bus and the bomb remotely detonated. Fortunately, the people all survived. But the donkey didn't.
Enter PETA. After receiving a barrage of protests from its shocked members, the president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, fired off a letter to Arafat. She first spoke of another major aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- the recent invasion of Palestinian territories. Israelis take the perspective that it was a necessary response to the wave of terrorism. Palestinians grieve over their fallen "martyrs."
PETA sympathized with an overlooked dimension of this event: "We watched on television as stray cats in your own compound fled as best they could from the Israeli bulldozers."
Then Ms. Newkirk made her request to Arafat: "If you have the opportunity, will you please add to your burdens my request that you appeal to all those who listen to you to leave the animals out of this conflict?"
It's sad when an animal dies. In Judaism, fulfilling most commandments is accompanied by the blessing of shehechiyanu, in which we thank God for bringing us alive to the day when we can fulfill the Torah. But no such blessing is made upon the commandment of using the method of shechitah to slaughter an animal for food. That's because we can't express happiness for being brought to the point at which one of God's creations dies, no matter how good the reason.
Similarly, the prohibition against mixing meat and milk, amongst the most basic laws in Judaism, relates to the sanctity of life -- milk, the source of life, is to be kept separate from a dead animal. All life is precious; Judaism forbids killing any creature, even a bug, for no good reason.
Still, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are certainly greater tragedies than a dead donkey. Hundreds of innocent men, women and children have been killed. Yet PETA does not protest that. When challenged on this by The Washington Post, Ms. Newkirk claimed, "It's not my business to inject myself into human wars."
One cannot help but be struck by the lack of any sympathy for the human victims.
The strange thing is that the many laws in Judaism concerning sensitivity to animals (19 commandments in Scripture, and hundreds of rulings in the Talmud and Jewish Law) are intended to make one into a better person. How is it, then, that we find so many people who are wonderfully compassionate when it comes to animals, but are unable to summon the same kindness with regard to their fellow human beings?
I believe that there are several aspects to this problem. Sometimes (often for tragic reasons) it is the case that people find it easier to form relationships with animals than with other human beings. Animals don't emotionally abuse you, and they don't usually physically abuse you either, if you treat them correctly. It's a very simple and gratifying relationship. This point was clearly made by a person who wrote to me as follows: "I currently have three cats and no children (nor do I intend to have any of the latter, as I feel that I am too selfish to make the sacrifices necessary to properly raise them)."
This is only a partial answer; there are many people who lead fulfilled interpersonal relationships and still identify with PETA's campaign for the dead donkey and fleeing cats.
There is another angle to this phenomenon. Kindness to animals can be performed for two very different reasons. The secular perspective is that kindness to animals is to be performed due to the rights that animals possess. In Judaism, the laws governing our treatment of animals are not based on the rights of animals. Rather, they are based on the responsibilities of man. As the only beings with a sense of morality, man has to learn the traits of kindness and compassion. In fact, all of Judaism, even the aspect of interpersonal relationships, is based on responsibilities rather than rights. This breeds a society of givers rather than takers.
With there being differences in the essential reasons for kindness to animals, there will correspondingly be a difference in the effect that practicing such kindness has on a person. If kindness to animals is performed to train oneself in compassion, then it will surely have that effect on one's behavior in general, regardless of the species of the recipient. But if kindness to animals is due to the animals' rights, then it doesn't change the person very much.
What is the root cause behind whether kindness to animals is performed due to their rights or due to our responsibilities? Part of it has to do with the fact that in modern society, the concept of rights -- "What's in it for me?" -- is so much more prevalent than the concept of responsibilities. It just doesn't occur to many people that animal suffering can be relieved in any way other than by reinforcing their rights. This gives these well-meaning people a head start on the wrong track.
There is another concept at work here. The Jewish system for relating to animals rests on the premise that man is intellectually and spiritually superior to the animal kingdom. No animal can ever be charged with moral responsibilities. No animal is ever morally culpable for killing another animal. Only man shoulders such responsibilities.
In contrast to this, the secular idea of animal rights relates to the premise that "animals are people too." The Great Ape Project, a popular campaign to relieve the suffering of apes in captivity, demands "the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes."
But if animals are people too, then people are animals too. And since animals have no moral responsibilities, equating ourselves with them is a wonderful license for all sorts of behavior. "I couldn't help it; I'm just naturally that way!"
It's natural for some animals to kill and eat their children! But man is not just another animal. Man is not allowed to do whatever comes naturally to him. A person might be naturally violent, but it is required that he curbs or carefully directs this tendency. Man possesses a soul, and he is required to rise above his natural, animal instincts.
In the good old days, a "dead donkey" was a journalistic synonym for a news item of no real significance, something to be quickly dropped when a story of great human interest arises. Sure, it's sad when an animal dies. But in a war with so many human deaths, that shouldn't be a priority to bring to Arafat's attention.
Lisa Lange, PETA's vice president of communications, was quoted as saying that it is PETA's philosophy that human cruelty often begins with animal cruelty. That's absolutely true. But ignoring human deaths in favor of a dead donkey is also human cruelty. While human cruelty can begin with animal cruelty, it can also stem from being compassionate to animals at the expense of understanding the true significance of a human being.
Be kind to animals. It's very important. But do it because we are humans, not because they are. That will keep things in perspective.
There was some interesting feedback on this essay, as well as a few apparent misunderstandings.
Some people thought that the essay was criticizing the concept of animal welfare organizations in general. Nothing could be further from the truth; especially since this author's career is based on teaching sensitivity to animals! It is important to have organizations that battle cruelty to animals, whether in so-called "sports," factory farming, or other areas. PETA has done valuable work in these areas. Many of those who look down on PETA should realize that there are many problems of animal cruelty that we need to address, even in farms that raise animals for the kosher market. While the Torah permits cruelty to animals for human needs, it forbids wanton cruelty, and the current system of factory farming is certainly inconsistent with the principles of sensitivity that the Torah mandates. The essay did not speak against solving these problems; it simply challenged the ideology that lies behind PETA's campaigns, and the implementation of them in certain cases.
Others understood from the essay that people who get upset about cruelty to animals are not able to show compassion toward humans, and questioned why these attitudes would be mutually exclusive. One reader sent me several items of correspondence that she had with PETA activists which made this point, such as a letter stating that "We at PETA have chosen to work for animal rights because the animals also need help - not to the exclusion of people, but in addition to them." PETA has indeed performed some wonderfully charitable work for children in Israel and elsewhere. Another PETA correspondent stated that "It is ridiculous and insulting to suggest that animal protectionists aren't also outraged by crimes against people."
The point is that it depends on the context. Chickens, for example, are often raised under conditions that totally go against the Torah's principles of kindness to animals. To campaign for their better treatment is important, and does not indicate that one does not care for humans. Likewise, to campaign that nations should never disregard lives in a war, be they human or animal, is perfectly acceptable; indeed, the Torah even tells us not to disregard the life of a tree during a war. But to write to Arafat, who is directly working to kill innocent people, and to speak ONLY of not using a donkey to do so, is wrong.
Let us give an example to clarify this point. If a man compliments his wife on her cooking, is that praiseworthy? Not necessarily; it depends on the context. If he does so upon being served a meal, then it is praiseworthy. But if he is writing a card to her on their twentieth anniversary, and his only words are, "Darling, I am so happy to be your husband, you are such a wonderful cook!" then it is offensive. In that context, emphasizing her cooking serves to de-emphasize everything else. Thus, there are times when acts of apparent kindness should indeed be withheld.
Many people thought that PETA was justified in only remarking about the donkey since their official concern is limited to animals. A PETA activist wrote that "It is our job to speak up for animals, just as it the American Cancer Society's job to eradicate cancer. I doubt anyone from the American Cancer Society has written to Yasser Arafat begging for the lives of humans to be spared. Does that mean they don't care about terrorist victims? I can't imagine that is the case." But that comparison is severely flawed. Nothing that the American Cancer Society does serves to downplay the importance of terrorist victims. A better comparison would be if, in the event of Saddam Hussein being persuaded to abandon nuclear weapons in favor of conventional warfare, Greenpeace would ask him not to do so because the conventional weapons are fatal to certain plants that would not be harmed by radiation.
The PETA activist also wrote that "No human lives would have been spared if Ingrid Newkirk had refrained from speaking out in defense of animals; in fact, it can only help people if, by some miracle, terrorists stop using animals to kill people." But Yasser Arafat is determined to send bombs, and Ms. Newkirk did not ask him to stop doing so. All she asked him to do is not to use animals. Although Ms. Newkirk hopefully did not mean this, the statement effectively boils down to asking him to use people instead. PETA's conclusion is that "we don't have to choose between people and animals. We can care for all." That's true, but many people receive the distinct impression that PETA cares more for the latter than for the former, and the letter to Arafat was insensitive to all those who feel the pain of the human suffering.
On a different note, one of our readers noted that at least PETA - unlike most of the world - formally recognizes that Arafat is the person to address regarding suicide bombing and Palestinian terrorism. It was pointed out that "when you care about the victims, you are honest about who is to blame." It seems that there are advantages to people caring about the donkey!