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Jews and the Elephant Question

July 18, 2013

by Aviva Cantor


It was 1944 and the Holocaust was raging in all its gruesome fury. In Slovakia, Jews from the countryside were herded to rail stations and forced into box cars headed to death camps. A Jew named Itzik Rosenberg was being shoved into a boxcar, with his neighbors watching the scene, laughing and jeering. He called out to them: “I beg you, go to my farm and feed the geese and ducks. They’ve had nothing to eat or drink all day.”

The German SS shut the doors and the train started its voyage of doom.

The compassion of Itzik Rosenberg, whose heart went out to his starving animals even as he looked at the face of death (the story was told by Rabbi Michael Weissmandel, 1903-1957), is expressive and emblematic of the long Jewish tradition of preventing tzaar ba’aley khayim, the pain (literally, the sorrow) of animals. The mitsve (commandment) appears in the Scriptures, the Talmud, and many volumes of codes of halakha (Jewish law). As Rabbi Yehuda the Hassid, a leader of the Piety movement in the Germanic territory in the 12th century, wrote: “Never inflict pain on any animal, be it bird or insect, nor throw stones at a dog or a cat, nor kill flies or wasps.” Compassion for animals is also major theme in Jewish folklore and folktales, and in the rich body of Jewish literature -– from medieval Islamic Spain, to Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sforim, to Zalman Shneor, M.Z. Feierberg, Melech Ravitch, Michael Gold, and poet Gerald Stern, among many others.

Preventing cruelty to animals became the normative, common practice in the small Jewish communities whose survival was precarious and often threatened in many of the countries they lived in over the centuries. It was precisely because Jews were used as scapegoats and lightning rods to absorb the rage of oppressed subordinate groups, and thereby direct it away from oppressive ruling elites and their supporters, that Jews often harbored a feeling for animals beyond compassion, a feeling of emotional identification bordering on kinship. Animals were beaten, hunted down and caged, lived in fear, were casually killed, and fled for their lives. Jews too were hunted, trapped, penned up in ghettos, periodically murdered, and beaten, exploited and denigrated like animals.

Reflecting a Jewish feeling for animals as being comrades in distress, Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, “For animals, it’s an eternal Treblinka.”

This tradition of caring for animals, and its crucial importance for the Earth’s survival, should motivate Jews not only to “refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain [on animals] but to help lessen the pain when you see an animal suffering . . . ” (in the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an eminent communal leader in 19th-century Germany). It should also motivate Jews to get involved with efforts to end the torment and cruel massacres of animals, especially those who are the victims of malignant human greed, which is in and of itself an atrocity. Such is the current tragedy of the African elephants.

In recent months, the war against the elephants in Africa -– according to National Geographic, a “conservative estimate” is that 25,000 African elephants were killed in 2011 alone –- has escalated to the point where the species’ extinction is threatened if immediate, effective action is not carried out.

Dozens of these sensitive, intelligent creatures are killed every day, even in so-called reserves, by soldiers in some of the African armies that the U.S. trains and supports, including in Uganda, Congo and South Sudan, and by terrorist groups such as the Lords’ Resistance Army, Shahab, and janjaweed. The money realized from sales of the poached ivory tusks funds and fuels their human rights atrocities.

All of this takes place in violation of the 1989 moratorium on the international commercial trade in ivory by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. What drives the criminal poaching and trade is demand for ivory from Asia, especially China, where a pound of ivory can net $1,000 in Beijing. An estimated 70% of the illegally poached ivory is shipped to China, where government factories use it to manufacture trinkets such as bookmarks, figurines, rings, cups, combs and chopsticks, favored as trophies by high Army officers and the new middle class. “China is the epicenter of demand,” said Robert Hormats, a senior State Department official, in 2012. “Without the demand from China, this [poaching and massacres] would all but dry up.”

China’s violation of the moratorium is on par with its destructive domestic environmental policies and actions. These have already caused the extinction of the pink Yangtze River dolphin; disease-producing toxic water and air pollution (which is spreading across the globe); food contamination; and devastating floods caused by the construction of dams without prior effective environmental impact studies. Protests in China by environmental activists and of people uprooted from their land or urban homes for developers’ luxury building construction have been growing and need international recognition and support. Animal protection activists -- who are trying to end the torture and wounding of bears by the painful thrice-daily extraction of bile from 20,000 of these animals (most of them endangered Asiatic black bears) incarcerated in immobilizing cages -- also need support.

Andrew Dobson, a Princeton ecologist, reported that “the huge [elephant] populations in the West of Africa have disappeared and those in the center and east are going rapidly.” The forest elephants are on the edge of extinction.

This mass slaughter of the African elephants violates an additional important Jewish law, bal tashkhit, “Do Not Destroy,” which forbids the wanton destruction of nature (and also usable material property). This commandment is highly relevant to the world’s current environmental crisis of climate change caused by human-generated global warming, as well as other acts of terracide (annihilation of the planet) such as habitat destruction, deforestation, hunting, species extinction, and pollution, for corporate profit and political goals.

Acts of violence against animals, such as the unimpeded, brutal obliteration of the elephants, are grossly unethical, depraved and contemptible. They derive from and reinforce the disregard and disrespect for all living creatures. They are inextricably linked, both as cause and effect, with terminal contempt for animals and the natural world and stony indifference to their and its devastation. Such malignant aggression -– especially when it meets with apathy -– represses, stifles, demolishes and ultimately extinguishes the human emotions of respect, empathy, compassion, concern and responsibility for the planet. It is especially reprehensible and lethally dangerous at a time when the fate of Earth is hanging by a thread, because it is precisely the cultivation and expression of these emotions that are the prerequisite for generating advocacy and action in the public sphere for the protection and preservation of our small, green planet and all life on it.

Engaging in action of behalf of a specific species -– in this case, elephants -– can have a wide-ranging positive ripple effect on the protection and preservation of the environment. It can inspire concern to stop the extinction of Earth’s species and the despoiling and ruin of the ecosystems they have created and maintained, of their habitats, and of bio-diversity, and lead to actions to halt global climate change and to struggle against all manifestation of terracide.

What is to be done?

Because China is the prime cause of the elephant massacres in Africa, it follows that China should be the focus of the most effective serious efforts to end them. The country is spending huge amounts of money to raise its prestige and image worldwide. China needs to realize that no amount of money-infused public relations techniques will change its image unless it starts to end the reprehensible actions that cause it, and move toward becoming a responsible member of the international community. And a good beginning step is deciding to adhere to the international law prohibiting trade in ivory and enforcing this trade ban.

A strategy designed to unequivocally convince China that “the whole world is watching” as it drives elephants to extinction, and that the world wants these reckless, devastating actions ended, would therefore be especially appropriate now and should be undertaken immediately.

What can we do to convince China to discontinue buying ivory tusks from poachers and end its production of ivory trinkets in its government factories? Here are some strategies for Jews to consider; these apply, of course, to all people who want to end the elephant massacres:

Individuals who are members of Jewish organizations, local, state and national groups involved in conservation, animal protection, and political advocacy, as well as faith communities, neighborhood organizations, community councils and senior centers, school boards and PTAs, youth groups, social service and cultural agencies and professional associations, can press them to:

• Pass resolutions condemning the elephant massacres and calling on China to adhere to the1989 moratorium on the international commercial trade in ivory by ending its support of the poaching, which is the direct cause of the elephant massacres.

• Publicize these resolutions in their own publications and in print, electronic, digital, and social media.

• Call upon the leaders of their governments to urge China, both in private talks with Chinese leaders and officials and publicly, to end the support of elephant tusk poaching and the manufacture of trinkets in government factories from the ivory, and their marketing.

• Call upon their elected representatives to initiate and support the holding of hearings on this issue in their state and national legislative bodies and to draft legislation with teeth (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment comes to mind here) to convince China to bring an immediate halt to the impetus and support it provides for the criminal poaching.

Concerned individuals can also:

• Communicate to their governmental leaders, including in local government, and to boards and other bodies and members of local, national and international organizations in civil society, the necessity of taking the effective steps described above to bring an end to the elephant massacres.

• Stop buying products made in China; and post their views and accounts of their actions on this issue on their Facebook pages and other social media.

•Forward this message to their friends and post it on social media.

• Print out Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush’s poster at the top of this blog and send it to the Chinese Embassy, and post it on bulletin boards at schools and universities, community centers, supermarkets, places of worship, cultural institutions, and anywhere that people are likely to see it.

Hopefully, this strategy will work toward ending the elephant massacres. What is at stake, in Andrew Dobson’s words, is whether “you want your children to grow up in a world without elephants.”

Aviva Cantor, a journalist and lecturer, is vice president of CHAI: Concern for Helping Animals in Israel, Inc. (founded 1984) and a member of the advisory board of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. She is the author of Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life (HarperCollins, 1995), a feminist exploration of Jewish history, culture, and psychology. She can be reached via email here.

Copyright © Aviva Cantor 2013. All Rights Reserved.