Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, apologized last week for the group’s 2003 “Holocaust on Your Plate” ad campaign, which juxtaposed images of World War II concentration camps with contemporary images of animal mistreatment.
Without the fanfare that usually accompanies announcements from the famously media-savvy group, the apology was quietly distributed to Jewish groups last week on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Though nearly all corners of the Jewish world had called for some sort of apology, reactions to Newkirk’s letter have been mixed. While some saw it as a welcome corrective to a misbegotten effort, critics have found it to be at best insufficient and at worst cynical and insincere.
The scope of the apology was limited. Though Newkirk apologized for “pain caused,” the bulk of her letter was devoted to a defense of the effort.
“The ‘Holocaust on Your Plate’ campaign was designed to sensitize people to different forms of systematic degradation and exploitation, and the logic and methods employed in factory farms and slaughterhouses are analogous to those used in concentration camps,” the letter said.
Newkirk wrote that she was “bowled over” by the negative reaction to the campaign in Jewish circles, noting that it was “unintended and unexpected.”
“We did aim to be provocative,” she said. “We did not, however, aim simply to provoke.”
The letter was, in large measure, the result of lobbying on the part of Jewish groups that have ties to Peta.
Richard H. Schwartz, president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, offered qualified praise.
“While I wish that [it] had been stronger,” Schwartz wrote in an e-mail to the Forward, “I am very pleased that Peta has issued an apology…. I believe that it is now essential to emphasize common ground in working to end the current mistreatment of animals on factory farms.”
Noted Orthodox lawyer Nathan Lewin said that the statement is “not really an apology.”
“It’s an acknowledgement of a miscalculation,” said Lewin, the lawyer for the glatt kosher AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, which late last year was charged by Peta with engaging in inhumane slaughtering practices. “In an apology one withdraws what one has previously said.”
To Lewin, the letter can be seen as an attempt to return public focus to the Iowa slaughterhouse, which, after garnering much attention for a time, has of late slipped from public view. “It seems to me it is clearly an effort to get back in the media, which is what Peta does all the time,” Lewin said.
According to Aaron Gross, a graduate student in religious studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, who has served as an unpaid adviser to Peta on the Iowa slaughterhouse case, the letter had been in the works for some time. Gross said that in order to avoid linking the two issues, the group deliberately held the letter until the Iowa campaign was no longer “active.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told the Forward that the issue of hurt feelings was only “one of the sins of this incredibly offensive campaign.” Newkirk’s “essential sin,” Shafran said, “is that she equates humans with animals.” Instead of apologizing for this, he said, “she reiterates it.”