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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise
Words from Other Birds


by Dr.Irving Kett

Each issue Vegetarians in Paradise presents informative articles by guest contributors on subjects of interest to vegetarians and vegans. This month we feature Dr. Irving Kett, a retired Colonel in the U. S. Army, who has been a vegetarian since childhood because of his concern for the inhumane treatment of animals. He is currently a professor of civil engineering at California State University, Los Angeles. His article is a reprint from Jewish Vegetarians, a newsletter published by the Jewish Vegetarian Society.

Early in my childhood when I was around ten or eleven years old, I came to realize the process by which meat arrived at one's table. Until that point I gave it no more thought than that of manna from heaven. That understanding horrified me, and I found myself in deep conflict with my mother (whom I loved and was very much attached to) because of my decision to refrain from eating meat or chicken.

The dialogue with my mother went along these lines. She would ask me how could I as a young boy decide that eating meat was morally wrong when practically all the great people of the world were carnivorous. Of course, I did not know then and neither did my mother that there were illustrious people throughout history who practiced vegetarianism. Among them were Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and the greatly revered first chief Rabbi in Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook. After a few years of considerable bickering over the subject and social pressures, I reluctantly reverted back to the eating of meat. However, I always felt guilty and terribly uncomfortable partaking of it.

Kett When I reached early adulthood, I looked around at all the great people my mother had cited as reasons to eat meat, and I decided that they were basically immoral, cruel, and selfish. I, therefore, decided that my judgement was at least as valid, and I ceased to eat meat from that point on. Up to the age of seventy I had been a partial vegetarian for the past half century. I make the point of calling myself an incomplete vegetarian because I did eat fish. I realize the inconsistency of my position.

I am now seventy-seven years old and have not eaten fish for the past seven years. I have never imposed my vegetarian beliefs on my family. My oldest son, who has lived in Israel for many years, followed my example and stopped eating meat as a young child. One thing that I did not permit was his mother or grandparents to pressure him with regards to his dietary preference. However, as an adult he did go back to eating meat because of what he claimed to be social pressures.

In 1982, I retired as a senior colonel of the U.S. Army, where I had served both active duty and reservist for about forty years. I had a career in the Army that I am quite proud of, including that of a combat soldier. I saw service in the Pacific during World War II, in Korea, and in Europe. Shortly before I was scheduled to retire in 1979, I was recalled to active duty for three years from reserve status and was sent to Israel. During that time I had expected and was considered for promotion to Brigadier General. My not being selected was a matter of considerable disappointment to me. During all this time I did not eat meat and got along quite well.

Of course, many people over the years questioned me about my not eating meat and some were obviously less than sympathetic. There was, however, only one incident that I recall which was distinctly unpleasant. I was on duty one summer at Fort Lewis, Washington, almost twenty-five years ago as a Lt. Colonel. It was a Saturday morning, and I was required to be on duty and in uniform. I decided to go to services at the Chabbad House just outside the Post. There were quite a few soldiers there, and after services were over we were invited by the rabbi to partake in a meal. Unfortunately, he insisted that I sit next to him. He noticed that I passed up all the meat dishes. When I tried to explain to him that I am a vegetarian, he still wanted to know why I refused to eat meat. I told him that although I killed men in combat, I could not eat the carcass of a slaughtered animal who had meant me no harm. He explained to me about shechita, but I told him I could not accept that argument. He became very angry and actually started to shout at me that I was desecrating Judaism and the Sabbath. At that point I walked out. Over the years I have come to understand that it is merely that people resent any implication that their mode of behavior and what they are accustomed to doing is in any way immoral or even questionable.

To me, vegetarianism has always been a deeply personal belief, and it is an area that I have generally shunned discussion about. I came to my adoption of vegetarianism purely on the basis of an emotional reaction to the unspeakable cruelty that takes place not only in the slaughter houses but during the entire inhumane industry of raising animals to be killed. The matter of health or other possibly significant factors, such as, being the cause of much environmental pollution, the degradation of those involved in the entire meat industry, the nutritional hazards of consuming dead animals, and the resultant vast human hunger in poorer areas of the world, are all valid but never entered into my personal decision. I truly believe a dedicated, true vegetarian should also be a vegan.

Over 8 billion animals are slaughtered each year just in the United States. "For animals it is an external Treblinka," noted Isaac Bershevis Singer, to explain why he turned vegetarian.

In conclusion, I do not expect to or intend for the remainder of my life to either change my eating habits or to try and reform the rest of the world. By the same token, I do not believe that I am the depository of all truth, and I have come to look at humans as merely another species in the animal kingdom.

Click here for past Words from Other Birds Articles

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