Archive for the ‘Israel’ category

I.B. Singer and animals

June 21, 2009

Prior to researching a long paper I wrote for Veterinary Heritage on the history of antivivisectionism and the animal rights movement, the name Isaac Bashevis Singer barely registered for me. I was vaguely aware of his status as a renowned Yiddish storyteller, but I hadn’t read a single one of his stories, and in fact I thought he wrote only folklore that I imagined as being very similar to the Ukranian peasant tales I had read as a child.

While I was researching the darkest period in the evolution of antivivisectionism/animal rights – the Cold War era, it was as if all the lights had gone out: I couldn’t find any writers who cared about animals. Where were the Tolstoys, the Twains, the Bernard Shaws and all the other humanists who had expressed their deep concern for animals and their opposition to vivisection in the late 19th century? Instead, all I could see in the Cold War era was that the foundations were being laid for factory farming, and that animals were being used in massive, unprecendented numbers in research in just about every technological and scientific field under the sun – and very few voices were emerging in protest of animal suffering and consciousness. The ones who did speak up were treated like kooks and subversives.

And yet, it was during that time that one of the most powerful statements came through, one that did not escape the notice of the nascent animal rights movement in the early 1970s, and which can now be found on just about every AR website: the “eternal Treblinka” quote. More than a metaphor or an analogy, it really is just a straightforward description of animal experience in the hands of humans.

I.B. Singer was the author of the eternal Treblinka quote. He wrote it in a moving short story called “The Letter Writer”. Herman, the protagonist, is an aging Jewish immigrant from Kalomin (Galomin, Poland), an editor, proofreader and translator living in New York City in the 1950s. His publishing company folds, he is out of work and immediately falls ill with severe pneumonia. A woman who had previously known him only through correspondence comes to care for him and saves his life. Herman had lost all of his family to the Nazis and lived alone with a house-mouse he named Huldah. When he recovers from pneumonia, he is afraid that Huldah is dead and gone as well, due to his “negligence”. While he grieves for her, he speaks a eulogy for all animals:

What do they know – all those scholars, all those pilosophers, all the leaders of the world – about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka. And yet man demands compassion from heaven.”

(Herman later finds Huldah alive, when she emerges from her hole to drink from a saucer of milk.)

Singer’s regard for animals emerges from time to time in other stories as well. In “The Slaughterer”, a man designated against his will to be the ritual slaughterer in his community ends up going mad and sees no other way out besides self-slaughter. And my favourite story ever written about chickens: “Cockadoodledoo”, a little gem of a story that gets as close to the experience of being a chicken as I have ever read.

Now that I’ve read more stories by and about I.B. Singer, I feel like I’ve discovered a bit of a link to my own family history. Although I’m not Jewish, there’s enough nominal evidence in my family tree to show that there were a lot of people drifting in and out of Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox families to create quite a mix – but maybe that was just part of being Galician in the 19th and early 20th centuries: cultural tensions on one hand, and on the other, simply surviving with small hope for prosperity. My family seems to have a tradition of switching cultures and religions every generation or so, according to whatever is personally or politically expedient: we’re obviously not the most tenacious of believers. My father emigrated with his family to North America from Galicia just a few years before Singer did in the early 1930s, and I’ve come to realise that many of Singer’s stories provide the physical and geographical details of a place and way of life that was for all purposes obliterated during the Second World War. I was never given much information on Galicia, Poland or Ukraine as a child – the information was perhaps out there, but my father, aunts, cousins and grandparents mainly wanted to leave the Old Country and its bad memories behind. Stories and tales were only haphazardly translated to English, or they lacked some universal and meaningful context; they never felt very real to me, and faded into the background.

But Singer caught my attention with his attention to animals; in the barely industrialised world of Singer’s and my grandparents’ Galicia, animals lived side-by-side with humans in their yards and on their streets, and thankfully, they did not escape his notice. I’m grateful for that as much as for his descriptions of the culture and surroundings.

Dvorah Telushkin wrote a remarkable memoir of the time she spent as Singer’s assistant during the last several years of his life with her book Master of Dreams.

She was there when Singer met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the fall of 1978 in New York City, when Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had just announced that the Israeli and Egyptian leaders would meet at Camp David. Even though I was not even 10 years old at the time, I remember knowing about that meeting because a few months later I traveled with my mother and a group of evangelical tourists on one of the first Holy Land tours. We flew directly from Cairo to Tel Aviv, something that had previously been impossible; it was almost as if the agreement had been reached for the convenience of North American tourists – that’s how I saw it anyways.

According to Telushkin’s account, Singer was at first proud and impressed to meet with Begin in New York, but apparently the meeting did not go well. He voiced a meek complaint about the Israeli neglect of Yiddish in favour of Hebrew:

“you have taken the Hebrew language, vhich vas dead for these two thousand years and resurrected it. But vith Yiddish, you took a living language vhich vas alive for some eight or nine hundred years and managed to kill it.”

“With Yiddish,” Begin shouted, “we could have not created any navy; with Yiddish, we could have no army; with Yiddish, we could not defend ourselves with powerful jet planes; with Yiddish we would be nothing. We would be like animals!”

Isaac sat with his hands folded in his lap and shrugged his shoulders. “Nu,” he said sweetly to the hushed crowd, “since I am a vegetarian, for me to be like an animal is not such a terrible thing.”

I’m not sure what to make of that response, and I’m sure the small crowd of people present at that meeting didn’t either. It’s confusing and demoralising to bring the metaphor of animals into a human situation of power and conflict, but that’s an instinctive human reflex built into us from thousands of years of considering animals as prey, burnt offerings, tools, and sustenance. Still, those aren’t our only human interactions with animals, and sometimes I like to think, as Konrad Lorenz has written, that we are the missing link between hominid primates and some kind of truly moral species that for one thing doesn’t consider itself superior to other animals.

I don’t currently believe there’s a god out there leading us toward this state. I like to think it’s the thinkers and writers (and activists) on animal experience who are making the slow but necessary progress through statement, action and influence. I’m unable to decide whether to be an optimist or a pessimist on this, for now I’m just muddling through.

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Choosing sides

January 9, 2009

I often wonder about the different reasons that make people choose one side of an debate or conflict over another. Also, what motivates us to change our minds – or admit that we see reason on the other side and therefore must grudgingly switch over. Do some people *know* that they are on the wrong side, but protecting their own interests, preserving prejudice or wilfull ignorance prevents them from admitting it? I tend to think so.

I’ve had Deborah Ellis’ courageous book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak for a few months, but finally started to read it the other night with my kids; we’ve read 10 or so of the children’s stories so far. It’s hard reading, but we’re used to it; we were very grateful for her Breadwinner (Parvana’s Journey) trilogy, and we’ve read some difficult books about animal suffering as well, such as Black Beauty.

The book is balanced and honest. Ellis mentions that she obtained parental permission to do all of her interviews, and if any of the parents ended up objecting after the fact, she did not include those interviews in the book. She also did not include interviews in which the children were “very rabidly” against the other side, because she didn’t want that to be the legacy left by those young people. Of course, she could have changed names or not used photos, but rabid partisanship was not the overall feeling she got from the children and youth she interviewed. The Israeli and Palestinian children (both Muslim and Christian) are girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 18. Their opinions and stories have not made me wince or roll my eyes; on the contrary, they all have the mark of reality – none of them appear to be overly tinged by parental, religious or cultural influence.

Still, as one would expect from these children, the sides are very well drawn: they know exactly who they are, and what and who they are up against. They speak about not knowing any Palestinian children, if they are Israeli, and vice versa. Some of the children say they don’t want to know children from the other side, while others say they do, because then they would understand that they are not the evil people they are made out to be by the other side. At least one child remarked that the children of the other side might start out being nice, but then they grow up to be just like their parents, hating them because they are Palestinian, or Israeli.

All of the children wish the conflict would just go away and leave them in peace: to not live in fear of being blown up, say the Israelis; and to not live with constant fear, harassment, indiscriminate shootings, interminable waits in lines at checkpoints and roadblocks, and cruel and unpredictable cancellations of school, jobs and activities, say the Palestinians.

My son has listened carefully to these accounts and has become convinced that the Palestinian children have it much worse, though of course he understands the chronic fears of the Israeli children, who live in fear during every normal outing you could imagine, including walking beside parked cars that might blow up at exactly the wrong moment for you. He understands the fear on all sides, probably because real and imagined fears are a normal part of every child’s existence, even when the objective reasons to fear aren’t that high on the relative scale. Still, he’s chosen his side based on a gut instinct of what is worse, and who is bearing the brunt of the violence and daily injustice.

I’m a bit troubled by that, because it wasn’t my goal to have him choose sides – after all, choosing sides will cause him grief at some point; so maybe it’s best to remain numb, or indifferent? Or to imagine that both sides are equally at fault, through historical miscalculations and power-grabs? Or, at a meta-level, to find some kind of universal self-satisfying explanation about how all humans are inherently vicious and will never get along unless they admit they are sinful and surrender to God? Certain religious currents instill us with this sense of helpless pessimism (I’m looking at you, evangelical Christians).

But I’m not sure anymore what the point is, because the war in Israel and Palestine has escalated in an appallingly lopsided fashion, either in spite of or because of the obvious pitiful circumstances to which the residents of Gaza have been reduced since 2005. The interviews from Three Wishes were carried out in 2002 – that’s ages ago, especially from the pov of an 11-year-old; but consider as well, that that is just slightly longer than all of World War II, and we’re still talking about it and learning new facts and analysis.

I wanted to write about animal and veterinary issues today and yesterday. And I probably will, but before I can get started on the pile of veterinary journals and articles on my desk, and sort out the events and issues I dealt with at work this week, I had to get this out.
If you haven’t already, please go to Amnesty International Canada’s site and sign the petition to tell our Foreign Minister to insist that civilians be protected and that unlawful attacks cease. Last I checked, it was up to 999 signatures.

And just to show that the sides are not so clearly drawn, read here about a massive Israeli protest against the Israeli government’s action in Gaza.

h/t: Creekside