The Arty Semite

How Jews Can Defend Animals without Invoking Treblinka

By Benjamin Ivry

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French Jewish philosopher Élisabeth de Fontenay has published books on Jewish themes, such as 1973’s “The Jewish Faces of Karl Marx” (Les figures juives de Marx) from Les editions Galilée, and on animal rights, such as 1998’s philosophical inquiry “The Silence of Animals” from Les éditions Fayard or 2008’s “Without Offending Mankind” from Les éditions Albin Michel. In March though, Les éditions du Seuil published Fontenay’s “Birth Certificates” (Actes de naissance) a book of conversations with journalist Stéphane Bou, which addresses both themes.

This combination of divergent interests in one subtle mind is useful, since some animal rights advocates have crudely conflated their subject to tragedies of modern Jewish history, as in Charles Patterson’s dramatically named 2002 “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust” from Lantern Books. Patterson’s title derives from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Letter Writer,” in which the sickly, hallucinating Herman Gombiner, a Holocaust survivor, declares:

In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.

This fictional character’s statement is often carelessly attributed to Singer himself, who, although a vegetarian deeply devoted to animal protection, should not be confused with his creation.

In 2003, Roberta Kalechofsky’s “Animal Suffering and the Holocaust: The Problem with Comparisons” from Micah Publications provided a sensitive approach to how Jews can feel concern for animals. Fontenay likewise cautions: “Parallel thinking about Jewish matters and animals should not lead to any equating of the two subjects.”

Fontenay adds, however, that giving a voice to the voiceless is indeed a Jewish tradition: “Since 1945, almost every great Jewish author, whether writer or philosopher, has been obsessed with the subject of animals.” And she further derives inspiration from the French Jewish philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, whom she praises for “continuing the Résistance by other methods.”

Fontenay also admires recent publications about other aspects of French Jewish experience, such as the 2005 novel “The Protests” (Les manifestations) by Nathalie Azoulai from Les éditions du Seuil; Adrien Barrot’s 2007 “If This Be a Jew: Thoughts on the Death of Ilan Halimi” (Si c’est un Juif: Réflexions sur la mort d’Ilan Halimi) from Les éditions Michalon; and Danny Trom’s 2007 book-length essay, “Promise and Impediment: The Radical Left-Wing and the Jewish Problem” (La promesse et l’obstacle: La gauche radicale et le problème juif) from Les éditions du Cerf.

Fontenay’s passionate interest in Judaica comes from a deeply emotional source: much of the family of her Odessa-born mother, Nessia Hornstein, was murdered by the Nazis.

Listen to a France Inter radio program hosted by Élisabeth de Fontenay about animal rights.


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