France – This past Friday my family and I traveled to the small French town of Izieu, where on 6 April 1944 the Gestapo, under the command of Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, raided the orphanage where 44 Jewish children had found refuge from the Holocaust. The terrified children were deported to Auschwitz, where they were gassed immediately upon arrival. The place is sacred to our family, as two of the children, Paula and Marcel Mermelstein, aged 10 and 7, were the children of my wife’s great-uncle, Max.
The horror of being at the site of such brutal mass murder of Jewish children shook us to our core. Could anyone possibly trivialize such incomprehensible evil?
Enter Natalie Portman, who last week was back in Jewish headlines for belittling the Holocaust. Not content to falsely attack Israel for “atrocities,” she has now made a video for animal rights organization PETA in which she compares human slaughter of animals to the Nazis annihilation of six million Jews.
To be fair to Portman, she is quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate, who once wrote, “We do to God’s creatures what the Nazis did to us.” The words are not a direct quote from Singer himself but are put in the mouth of one of his literary characters. Still, Portman’s presumption that she, who unlike Singer never faced Hitler’s henchman, could make such a comparison is disgusting and shocking.
By now it is fair to ask, What is Natalie Portman really up to? Her allegation that Israel was involved in atrocities in Gaza was bad enough. Israel is currently defending itself against the Hamas terrorist organization, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction and the Jewish people’s annihilation. This past weekend it murdered an Israeli soldier. Even as I write these words, Israel is preparing for another possible war against Hamas, which has squandered the future of the Palestinian people on the altar of eternal hatred of the Jewish people.
But Portman’s trivialization of the Holocaust is an entirely new phase in her increasingly bizarre career.
To be sure, she has every right to be vegan and vegetarian. Indeed, in the Torah, God did not originally allow Adam and Eve to consume animal flesh or take animal life. It was a concession given to Noah and his descendants. Some commentaries say that because Noah saved the lives of the animals, he was therefore allowed to take the lives of those same animals. Moreover, with the decimation of all vegetation after the flood, there was nothing left to eat. So Noah’s family had no choice but to eat animal flesh, and God’s concession has remained in force, albeit with strong laws, called kosher rules, that govern which animals we are allowed to eat and in which way. But these biblical commentaries maintain that vegetarianism and veganism are a holier way to live than being an omnivore, and that when the Messiah comes, we will all return to a vegetable diet.
But what does any of this have to do with the Holocaust? Why is Portman making the argument that gassing 1.5 million Jewish children is the same as slaughtering chickens?
And hiding behind Isaac Bashevis Singer won’t cut it. There is a certain latitude granted to those who suffered through and survived the Holocaust that the rest of us do not possess. Singer lost two brothers during the war years. He was angry at God for the terrible suffering his family endured. We do not know if he ever forgave God.
I am acquainted with many survivors who ceased believing in God after the Holocaust. But those of us invoking their atheism after simply reading about the horrors they witnessed would never have the same credibility. And the same is true of anyone comparing putting cows in pens and slaughtering them to the Einsatzgrupen
shoving Jews into synagogues and burning them alive.
Portman knows that what she’s doing is provocative. She also knows that her comparison to the Holocaust will completely overshadow any message about animal rights, thereby sabotaging her stated purpose.
Which brings us back to the question, What does Natalie Portman want?
Pamela Anderson, with whom I recently co-authored the book Lust for Love
, is a passionate vegan and animal rights activist. My wife and I attended the PETA ball with her in Washington, DC, the night before President Donald Trump’s inauguration. There were many Jews in attendance. All were extremely passionate animal rights activist. Not one invoked the Holocaust to promote veganism. Not one would have dared to, because it would have been indecent.
True, there was PETA’s infamous 2002 campaign “Holocaust on Your Plate,” which juxtaposed gruesome scenes from Nazi death camps with photographs from factory farms and slaughterhouses. One pairing placed a starving man in a concentration camp next to a starving cow.
Under the banner “The Final Indignity,” human corpses were paired with those of pigs. Under the title “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped prison garb stared from behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp. Next to them, PETA mounted a photograph of caged piglets.
But it is equally true that the sickening campaign was universally condemned, and even PETA never attempted it again, because of how ferociously it backfired. In 2009 a German court forbade PETA from comparing the eating of animals to the Nazi German genocide of the Jewish people and outlawed PETA’s use of Holocaust images alongside animals.
This does not mean that I oppose PETA’s program of promoting the welfare of animals. But the ends never justify the means, and even the ends themselves should not be extreme.
For millennia, unnecessary suffering of animals has been forbidden in Judaism under the strict principle of tza’ar ba’alei hayim
, causing undue distress to living creatures. The ancient rabbis ruled that one must feed one’s cattle before feeding oneself, and indeed even the Ten Commandments include domestic animals in the Sabbath rest.
Having said this, I have a great deal of respect for those who choose to be vegan and certainly for those who promote the welfare of animals. But I have no respect for anyone who trivializes the greatest crime in the history of the world, the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazi Germans under Hitler, especially at a time when polls in the United States show that knowledge of the Holocaust is greatly waning.
Portman is now assuming a level of entitlement as a Jewish celebrity that is undermining Jewish interests. Because she was born in Israel, she feels the right to dismiss a prominent Jewish prize she was awarded and accuse Israel of war crimes. (The Genesis Prize directors make a mistake of diminishing the prize by always seeking celebrities, however unworthy, as recipients.) Because she is Jewish, Portman feels she can compare the eating of animals to the incineration of Jewish bodies at Treblinka.
It is time for the Jewish community to make it clear to Portman that while we are proud of her achievements and love her acting, her Jewishness is not carte blanche for her to blur moral lines that would be closed off to those outside the faith.The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including
Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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