By Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein*
When disaster(s), natural and man-made strike, we find some solace in the remarkable heroism of ordinary people in each and every tragedy. Reacting to the Las Vegas massacre President Trump reflected “It is our love that defines us today and always will forever.”
In Houston, neighbors and strangers formed a human chain in waist-deep water to pass Annie Smith - already in labor - to deposit her on a passing dump truck whose driver agreed to shuttle her and her husband to a hospital. There was the Orthodox rabbi who told his community in New Jersey that frequently vacationed in Puerto Rico, that it was payback time to the island and her people suffering the ravages of Maria. They responded by filling a charter flight with tons of supplies. In Mexico, Topos volunteers turned their unusually small bodies but towering moral strength into life-giving blessings; climbing through small spaces in severely damaged buildings to pull survivors from the debris. They did the same in Iran and Indonesia. And at the concert in Las Vegas, there was Mike McGarry, a financial planner from Philadelphia. Hearing the shots cutting through the crowd of innocents, he threw himself on some young people, shielding them. “They’re 20. I‘m 53. I lived a good life,” McGarry said. He wasn’t the only one who sacrificed his life, so others could live.
We know where it comes from. Millennia ago, the Psalmist wrote, “What is man, that You are mindful of him?/ And the son of man, that You care for him?/
For You made him but little lower than G-d/ And crown him with glory and honor.”
No contribution of the Bible was more important than elevating Man from the position of castaway of the Olympians to an almost demi-god, guaranteed significance
by the Creator himself. Or, as C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape’s opined, “Remember always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of
every one of them.”
Still, in our time, despite daily proof of humankind’s unique capacity for evil and good, the specialness of being human is increasingly rejected, mocked and derideWe know what happens when children are carefully taught to dismiss Man’s uniqueness. The killing of millions by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot – all occurred against a backdrop of undervaluing Man’s specialness, paving the way for human beings to become expendable or worse.
It is perhaps inevitable that the century that will be remembered for Man’s inhumanity to Man would be followed by decades of uncertainty as to just why the death of an individual, a town, a multitude, or an entire culture is all that much of a tragedy.
Seventy years later, the Nazi Holocaust remains the most horrifying example of the consequences of an ideology that taught that human life is not special or sacred. So it should not surprise us that those who denounce us for “specieism” for asserting that specialness, work overtime to trivialize the Holocaust. Thus, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) founder Ingrid Newkirk famously wrote, “"A rat is a pig is a boy and 6 million people died in concentration camps, but 6 billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughter houses."PETA upped the ante in 2003, with the "Holocaust on your Plate" exhibition. The Guardian wrote that it "juxtaposes harrowing images of people in concentration camps with disturbing pictures of animals on farms. One photograph shows an emaciated man next to another of a starving cow. Another shows a pile of naked human beings, next to a shot of a heap of pig carcasses.”
Roos Vonk, a professor of Social Psychology in Holland, wrote two months ago that "To compare the bio-industry with the Holocaust is not so strange." (The same professor in 2011 co-authored a paper that concluded "that people who eat meat have been scientifically shown to be more asocial, more egoistic, less loved and more lonesome than vegetarians." Turns out, co-author, Diederik Stapel fabricated the data.)
Just last month, Green Party lawmaker Jonas Fricker, told the Swiss Federal Assembly, that ““The (Nazi) deportees had only a slight chance to survive. As for the pigs, they are condemned to certain death.” He later resigned.
In 2017, it is a good thing that our children are educated to respect all living creatures, as well as Earth itself. There is nothing wrong with acquiring some humility and empathy for our earthly fellow travelers. But woe to those who would diminish and even erase the distinctiveness of human beings.
It is perhaps paradoxical that it takes disasters—from cataclysmic natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes, to man-made holocausts, gulags and massacres to remind us about a human being’s unique capacity for acts of ultimate altruism or barbarity. If we choose to ignore that core truth, we pave the way for future disasters and a world devoid of hope.
*Co- author, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center