Several writers, including Jewish Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and animal rights groups have drawn a comparison between the treatment of animals and the Holocaust. The comparison began immediately after the end of World War II, when Jewish writers recounted the lack of resistance by European Jewish victims of the Holocaust, who were led to their death as "sheep to slaughter". The comparison is regarded as controversial, and has been criticized by organizations that campaign against antisemitism, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A character in one of Singer's stories described the treatment of animals by humans as "an eternal Treblinka". Similarly, the eponymous character in J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello compared the Nazis' treatment of Jews to methods used by the meat industry to herd and slaughter cattle.
In September 1939, a minimum 750,000 cats, dogs and other pets were euthanised upon the announcement of the Second World War in the UK. At the time, the National Canine Defence League described the mass slaughter of the animals as the "September Holocaust".
Its later meaning was only applied to the Holocaust of Jews from 1942.
Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, made the comparison in several of his stories, including Enemies, A Love Story, The Penitent, and The Letter Writer. In the latter the protagonist says, "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka." In The Penitent the protagonist says "when it comes to animals, every man is a Nazi."
Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a pacifist, conscientious objector and Holocaust victim who was sent to Dachau concentration camp for "being a strong autonomously thinking personality", wrote in his "Dachau Diaries" (kept at the University of Chicago Library) that "I have suffered so much myself that I can feel other creatures' suffering by virtue of my own". He further wrote, "I believe as long as man tortures and kills animals, he will torture and kill humans as well—and wars will be waged—for killing must be practiced and learned on a small scale".
Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar also made the comparison. She wrote that if we had not accepted the inhumane transportation of animals to the slaughterhouses we would not have accepted the transportation of humans to the concentration camps. In another article, making the same connection, she wrote that every act of cruelty suffered by thousands of living creatures is a crime against humanity.
J. M. Coetzee, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, invoked the image of the slaughterhouse in describing the Nazis' treatment of Jews: "... in the 20th century, a group of powerful and bloody-minded men in Germany hit on the idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter – or what they preferred to call the processing – of human beings."
The ADL lists a number of animal rights groups that have made the comparison. The magazine No Compromise introduced the Animal Liberation Front with the words: "If we are trespassing, so were the soldiers who broke down the gates of Hitler's death camps; If we are thieves, so were the members of the Underground Railroad who freed the slaves of the South; And if we are vandals, so were those who destroyed Forever [sic] the gas chambers of Buchenwald and Auschwitz."
In 2001, Meat.org included an "Animal Holocaust" section containing photographs of animals with captions such as "Holocaust Victim", arguing that it's "easy to see the resemblance of the systematic destruction and slaughter of over six million Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II and the over 20 million animals that are executed every day in America alone. Many of the Jews of the Holocaust were transported to concentration camps in cattle cars to their death. The concentration camps very much resemble the common slaughterhouses of today."
The Consistency in Compassion Campaign (CCC), a project of the Northwest Animal Rights Network of Seattle, Washington, argues that "the Holocaust stands for much more than the one event. It represents a place and time when supremacist thinking was so embedded in a culture that they were blind or apathetic to the evil that existed in their everyday world. This kind of thinking is not exclusive to just that time and place. The great blind spot of our country and Western Civilization for that matter is the mistreatment and disregard for non-human animals in nearly every capacity."
Alex Hershaft, a Jewish holocaust survivor, has stated, "My first hand experience with animal farming was instrumental [to becoming a vegan animal rights activist]. I noted the many similarities between how the Nazis treated us and how we treat animals, especially those raised for food. Among these are the use of cattle cars for transport and crude wood crates for housing, the cruel treatment and deception about impending slaughter, the processing efficiency and emotional detachments of the perpetrators, and the piles of assorted body parts – mute testimonials to the victims they were once a part of."
Jewish animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky has also used the term and compared factory farms to concentration camps. He has stated, "Jews have been, while animals still are, treated like nothing, as if their lives don’t matter. You can also compare the two holocausts this way. [...] Go to the nearest cow or pig slaughterhouse and remove the animals and replace them with humans. You have now re-created Birkenau."
The ADL argues that the subsequent use of Holocaust imagery by animal rights activists is a "disturbing development". Roberta Kalechofsky of Jews for Animal Rights argues in her essay "Animal Suffering and the Holocaust: The Problem with Comparisons" that, although there is "connective tissue" between animal suffering and the Holocaust, they "fall into different historical frameworks, and comparison between them aborts the ... force of anti-Semitism." She has also written that she "agree[s] with I.B. Singer's statement, that 'every day is Treblinka for the animals'", but concludes that "some agonies are too total to be compared with other agonies."
Holocaust survivor and animal rights activist Alex Hershaft responded to these criticisms, stating, "The negative reaction is largely due to people's mistaken perception that the comparison values their lives equally with those of pigs and cows. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What we are doing is pointing to the commonality and pervasiveness of the oppressive mindset, which enables human beings to perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on other living beings, whether they be Jews, Bosnians, Tutsis, or animals. It's the mindset that allowed German and Polish neighbors of extermination camps to go on with their lives, just as we continue to subsidize the oppression of animals at the supermarket checkout counter."
According to animal rights activists such as Joey Carbstrong, criticizing the usage of the term to describe the plight of farmed animals is an instance of speciecism. Carbstrong further points out the existence of the word "holocaust" in non-Jewish contexts, such as the Armenian Holocaust or terms such as "nuclear holocaust."
Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has herself made the comparison unambiguously, saying: "Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses."
PETA has twice used Holocaust imagery in its campaigns. In July 2003, a PETA television public service announcement called "They came for us at night" aired on U.S. cable networks, narrated by a man describing what it felt like to be transported without food or water.
In the same year, PETA's "Holocaust on your Plate" exhibition consisted of eight 5.6-square-metre (60 sq ft) panels, each juxtaposing images of the Holocaust with images of factory-farmed animals. Photographs of concentration camp inmates were displayed next to photographs of battery chickens, and piled bodies of Holocaust victims next to a pile of pig carcasses. Captions alleged that "like the Jews murdered in concentration camps, animals are terrorized when they are housed in huge filthy warehouses and rounded up for shipment to slaughter. The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps."
The exhibition was funded by an anonymous Jewish philanthropist, and created by Matt Prescott, who lost several relatives in the Holocaust. Prescott said: "The very same mindset that made the Holocaust possible – that we can do anything we want to those we decide are 'different or inferior' – is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day. ... The fact is, all animals feel pain, fear and loneliness. We're asking people to recognize that what Jews and others went through in the Holocaust is what animals go through every day in factory farms."
Abraham Foxman, chairman of the ADL, said the exhibition was "outrageous, offensive and takes chutzpah to new heights ... The effort by PETA to compare the deliberate systematic murder of millions of Jews to the issue of animal rights is abhorrent." Stuart Bender, legal counsel for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote to PETA asking them to "cease and desist this reprehensible misuse of Holocaust materials." There were also differing opinions within the animal rights movement. Roberta Kalechofsky wrote: "While I sympathize with PETA's aim—and am a member of PETA—I objected to this use of the Holocaust... The agony of animals arises from different causes from those of the Holocaust. Human beings do not hate animals. They do not eat them because they hate them. They do not experiment on them because they hate them, they do not hunt them because they hate them. These were the motives for the Holocaust. Human beings have no ideological or theological conflict with animals."
In 2005, Newkirk apologized for the pain the campaign had caused some people, while defending the goals of the campaign, writing: "Hard as it may be to understand for those who were deeply upset by this campaign, I was bowled over by the negative reception by many in the Jewish community. It was both unintended and unexpected. The PETA staff who proposed that we do it were Jewish, and the patronage for the entire endeavor was Jewish. We were careful to use Jewish authors and scholars and quotes from Holocaust victims and survivors ... We believe that we humans can and should use our distinctive capacities to reduce suffering in the world ... Our mission is a profoundly human one at its heart, yet we know that we have caused pain. This was never our intention, and we are deeply sorry. We hope that you can understand that although we embarked on the "Holocaust on Your Plate" project with misconceptions about what its impact would be, we always try to act with integrity, with the goal of improving the lives of those who suffer. We hope those we upset will find it in their hearts to work toward the goal of a kinder world for all, regardless of species."
The Guardian subsequently reported, however, that "the appeal has done little to calm the fury of Jewish groups." The campaign was also banned in Germany for making the Holocaust seem "insignificant and banal", to which Peter Singer, the noted animal rights advocate and writer, and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, replied by noting that "... if Peta is not allowed to state its case against our abuse of animals in the way that they judge best, because doing so might offend some people, then criticism of religion could also be prohibited on the same grounds."
On February 20, 2009, the German Federal Constitutional Court dismissed a legal move challenging an appeal court's ruling that PETA's campaign was not protected by free speech laws. While not entering formal proceedings to decide in the matter, the court expressed severe doubts as to whether the campaign constituted an offense against human rights in its opinion to dismiss the appeal, as had been found by the orderly courts, but acceded to the other grounds of the former rulings that the campaign constituted a trivialization of the Holocaust and hence a severe violation of living Jews' personality rights. The subtleties of the ruling are sometimes not reflected adequately in press reports.