Series on China, Article I: Not for human consumption
Series on China, Article I: Not for human consumption

Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky and posted with permission of the author, from the Makor Rishon Hebrew newspaper.

The Second World War is seen as one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of mankind.  It was a colossal disaster brought about by man. The horrifying destruction left in its wake was a result of unmitigated human iniquity, stupidity and hubris. So massive was the suffering that the nations of the world realized that they must change their operating system and ensure that future generations never have to face a comparable situation. That is how the International Laws of Warfare were crafted.

Chronologically, the foundations of these laws were laid after the First World War, but the post WWII Nuremberg Trials were a significant step forward in attaining acceptance for the new international norms. The Nazi criminals ostensibly had a strong legal point in their favor:  "We did not break the law."  German law during the Third Reich supported the Nazi regime, so we, they claimed, only obeyed orders. Historically, they were correct. From the dawn of history up to their time, war was seen as an almost natural phenomenon and even a political right defined by each nation's sovereignty. The judges at Nuremberg rejected that claim, creating a new norm and making it effective retroactively.

The corona pandemic forces the world to realize that the Chinese attitude to living things is not a private problem. It is an issue that the International Court of Justice in The Hague must address.
In 1946, the International Military Court declared that: "War is bad by definition. Its results are not limited to the warring nations alone, but affect the entire world." In their decision, the judges differentiated between a forbidden "war of aggression" and a permitted "defensive war."  "Initiating a war of aggression is not only an international crime, it is the highest form of international crime, differing from other international crimes only in the fact that it includes the incremental opinions of all."

And one asks, as does the young child asking the Four Questions af the Passover seder: What is the connection between a war led by thinking, decision making, human beings with desires and interests – and a worldwide viral epidemic caused by non-visible biological agent?

After all, the coronavirus is not a living organism. It does not breathe, needs no oxygen, food or light. Its size is measured in nanometers, and it is nothing but a protein-like molecule carrying genetic material which can invade live cells and force the host cell to reproduce countless copies of that same virus.

This parasitic virus has no will or consciousness, but is an evil conglomeration of information bent on one single goal: survival centered on itself, with neither direction nor motive. The virus reproduces by means of the pyramid scheme familiar to us from the business model used in financial scams, and as a Talmudic saying declares "once the destroyer has been allowed to begin his destruction, he does not differentiate between the righteous and the wicked." It cannot be killed and it cannot be frightened away.

At first glance, it seems possible that the human factor plays a definitive part in the pandemic's outburst. The philosopher Assaf Sagiv quotes American writer and journalist Daivd Quammen who, in his 1912 book "Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,"  claimed that the SARS epidemic that began in the Guangdong Province in China may return in a much more lethal form. A similar prediction was made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates in a lecture given in 2015. This is, then, the first opportunity to compare the SARS and Corona viruses.

SARS erupted in 2003 and was more lethal than Corona, with a 10% mortality rate, but was much less contagious. What the diseases have in common is their source: China's open air markets.  SARS transferred to humans from the body of the Asian palm civet, an adorable mammal with brown fur who would be a protected species in any normal part of the world, where you could go to see it in the wild or in zoos.

In the case of corona, its source seems to be bats or other animals from that same hard-hearted Chinese food culture which plunders and ravages the animal world without a second thought and is not repelled by anything. In Chinese and other Far Eastern open air markets, there is no demarcation between wild and domesticated animals and the stalls are filled with every possible living thing: insects, worms, lizards and every kind of protected animal. One can become nauseous just from looking at the youtube videos showing the Chinese food markets: octopi, snakes, scorpions and caterpillars sold alive, frozen or fried.

Judaic tradition does not expect the Chinese people to observe the laws of kosher cuisine, it does, however, abjure them and the rest of the world to refrain from eating live animals (in Hebrew, ever min ha-chai) or parts of still living animals, this in the laws given to Noah's non-Jewish descendants.  And I think that the time has come to raise this prohibition of eating part of a living animal to a more abstract level, to see it as referring to a deeply moral injunction to respect ecology and the world of nature - since the Hebrew word for alive, chai, is also used tp describe animals in the wild. Not to take advantage of, not to torture, not to make abject, to understand that animals who cannot be domesticated are not meant for human consumption.

China had one of the most impressive and magnificent cultures in the world for thousands of years.  It contributed enormously to art, culture, philosophy, spirituality and architecture. Something bad has happened to that country since Mao took over in the last century.  From a complex culture that found a balance between the material and the spiritual, it turned into a blind and violent consumer-monster, a preying mega-industry ravenously sapping the earth of its energy and filling it with substandard products. When Netanyahu wanted to get at Gantz during the elections, he called him an "Ali Express Bibi" knowing that everyone understands, but does not say aloud, what he means. China is a Communist country run by rabid capitalists, and the feeling is that they have incorporated the worst aspects of every possible world .

In the past, Chinese eating habits did not interest anyone but themselves, except for a small group of fighters for animal rights. Not any more. The world must understand today that the way Chinese treat living things is not a private problem, now that we live in a global village. After the medical and economic mega-crisis we are suffering, it is time to take a look at what is to be found on their plates.

Of course, it is not clear which country will be the first to file a suit at the International Court in The Hague, or at least demand an international investigative committee. Under normal circumstances, Chinese political and economic power is so massive that it precludes facing up to the country when there are problematic issues. In that sense, this may be an opportunity, not just a crisis, because when the world is wounded and in pain, it is more open to change and preventing future debacles. The norms set at the Nuremberg Trials would not have been accepted easily by the nations of the West had they not been scarred and bleeding after years of death, bereavement and economic breakdown. The Holocaust forced the world to raise man's image to a higher level.   

The present period is an opportunity to similarly raise the level of international ethics.

Dr. Yehuda Yifrach is a journalist, researcher, and legal commentator in the Makor Rishon newspaper, the nrg website, the Shiloach politcal science and Segula historical magazines, and lectures on Judaism at various institutions.