Antisemitism, the oldest hatred, is unfortunately thriving in all corners of society — including those that profess to be founded on compassion, ethics, and doing no harm. Which is to say, the vegan movement has an antisemitism problem.
In recent years, various forms of antisemitism have emerged within veganism, both from those striving to become intersectional in their social advocacy and those who are decidedly not. As I see it, there are at least three vectors that antisemitism flows through: Holocaust comparisons, white supremacy, and anti-Israel sentiments that veer into antisemitism. In a movement that now strives to work towards intersectional social justice, the increasing harms caused by these issues of prejudice from all directions is sobering — and needs to be called out. So let’s break it down, shall we?
The Holocaust Comparisons
When I went vegan 15 years ago, it was a common activist ploy to compare animal slaughter and Big Agriculture to the Holocaust. Some would attempt to lessen any offense with the use of lowercase “h” holocaust, but the intention — of co-opting the emotional response people have to the Holocaust in order to make their point — remained. The reasonable among us figured they would stop once Jews informed culprits that it was offensive, but people keep at it, even today, even after so many people have told them it’s wrong.
For the record, Nazis believed Jews and Holocaust victims were like animals, or worse. The goal of the Nazis was to erase Jews’ humanity. So when you compare food animals to Jews, you’re doing the same thing. The intent may be one directional — to point to the humanity of the Holocaust victims and apply that to animals. But the result goes the other way, taking the status of animals and applying it to Jews.
PETA was actually sued over such rhetoric. (Fun fact: Most long-term vegans hate PETA.) Their advertising campaign juxtaposing scenes from animal agriculture with pictures of concentration camps (with captions like, “Where animals are concerned, everyone becomes a Nazi”) was the subject of the case PETA Deutschland v. Germany. An injunction was granted by the domestic court, based on the exploitation of the humanity of the Holocaust victims, and upheld on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. In a concurring opinion, Judge Zupančič wrote, “[W]hen human beings in their utter suffering and indignity are, as here, compared to hens and pigs for the lesser purpose of protecting otherwise legitimate advancement of animal rights….If their image is so instrumentalised, little is left of their human dignity.”
White Supremacists and Veganism
Despite the concept of an animal-free diet dating back to ancient Asian cultures, there’s a prevalent view of modern veganism as White Veganism — the idea that it’s only about the animals and not about other social justice concerns, and that it’s followed by mainly white people. True anti-harm living cares about the plight of all marginalized groups, but unfortunately that’s not the case for the white supremacists in the vegan movement.
White supremacy and nationalism are on the rise all across Europe, and we’ve seen the stronghold they have in the U.S. There’s a trend in white nationalist movements of adopting veganism as part of their ideology. We’ve all heard jokes about how Hitler was a vegetarian, but really, that’s part of it. Nazi ideology used vegetarianism as a way of showing their superior health, and it was part of the Aryan demonstration of racial purity and heritage.
Post-war, a Greek national named Savitri Devi wrote incredibly racist manifestos detailing how Aryans’ racial superiority was evident from their vegetarianism, as “real human greatness is sympathy for all that lives…the love of all sentient creatures.” Devi “observed” the differences in how animals were treated in countries in Northern Europe, “where the whole population is practically of Nordic stock,” versus how they were treated in countries “in which Aryan blood is less pure; nay, in which non-Aryan elements are prevalent.” Devi concluded that “where Nordic humanity ends, cruelty to animals (and callousness about living nature as a whole) begins.” Woof.
Whether Hitler was truly a vegetarian or not, and whether the majority of white supremacists would consider veganism or not, we do have a problem with racist vegans. We have seen prominent vegan voices reveal abominable white supremacist beliefs, including well-known bodybuilders, bloggers, and owners of famous vegan markets. We’ve seen Nazi symbols all over the patrons of European vegan cafes. Vegans are just like any group of people with one thing in common; we have good guys, bad guys, racists, the works. And the racist ones increasingly make veganism look like it’s only for white people.
Another crusade radiating from Hitler’s wake is the fight against religious slaughter. In 1933, Hitler banned the slaughter of animals without prior stunning — the way most kosher and halal meat is produced. Although that seems like a positive thing from the animal welfare perspective (slaughter without stunning is quite a cruel practice, though that begs the question of what methods of slaughter aren’t cruel), it disguises the main effect of hindering the ability of Jews and many Muslims to practice their religions, which was, of course, Hitler’s goal.
The campaign against this form of slaughter has picked up steam in recent years, with Belgium successfully getting kosher slaughter banned, making it even more difficult for observant Jews to live in the country where white supremacy happens to be on the rise. Similar cases have played out in other European courts, and Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark (very white countries) already ban no-stun slaughter. With the EU’s recent upholding of Belgium’s law, more will come in a region where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Jews.
Now, I’m not arguing that kosher and halal slaughter is some fine hallmark of animal agriculture that must be upheld for anything other than reasons of religious freedom. In fact, full disclosure, I’m one of the lawyers often consulting on these very issues from the animal welfare perspective, in a balancing act that puts me in a precarious position. I want to do everything I can to reduce animal suffering. But this campaign — whether it’s intentional or not — has to reckon with its consequences, and its consequences are prejudicial and antisemitic.
Anti-Israel Politics Veering Into Antisemitism
Veganism has transformed in recent years to encompass the interplay of various social justice issues, including racism, sexism, transphobia, and more, along with the treatment of animals. Any social justice movement, including veganism, needs to be intersectional, and so this development is a good one.
Like most social justice movements, many intersectional vegans are vocal in their support of Palestinians and their denunciation of Israel. Of course, being critical of Israel is not antisemitic, but I’ve seen these critiques veer into blatant antisemitism too many times. When progressive activists can only accept the existence of Jews or Judaism so long as individual Jews denounce Israel, that’s antisemitism. When a Jewish social justice advocate needs to state for the record that Palestine is on their list of important issues in order to be taken seriously on an unrelated issue, that’s antisemitism. When a Jew is expected to say that her people do not deserve a safe haven — even as hate crimes against them are rising — because of how the government of a country she doesn’t even live in treats others, that’s antisemitism.
On too many occasions, other vegans have asked me, “But you don’t support Israel, right?” when they find out I’m Jewish. I’ve seen various vegan Facebook groups remove posts about Israeli restaurants or Israeli vegan chefs. The subject is never the Israeli government or politics; it’s enough to simply allude to the existence of this country and people will demand satisfaction, paid by good Jews’ agreement that it shouldn’t exist.
Obviously, this is a complicated issue, but too many intersectional vegans on the left sign up to this side of the issue wholeheartedly without understanding all the complexities — and, crucially, without understanding when their statements and cries veer into antisemitism. Heartbreakingly, many simply don’t care, and so, Jewish people frequently feel unwelcome in progressive and vegan spaces.
Fortunately, some prominent vegans, such as Kayla Kaplan (@veggiekayla), plus resources like the @jewishliberal Instagram account, have been educating their followers about these problems, and I hope that signals a true sea change for this issue. As intersectional veganism grows and becomes, as it should be, the only kind of veganism, I hope we see it as a space where Jews are welcome and not scorned, where our existence is respected and not challenged, and where all marginalized groups are truly supported.