Holocaust survivor in defense of the animals
After experiencing the cruelty of the Nazis firsthand, 81-year-old Alex Hershaft is sure he survived purely to end man's cruelty towards farm animals.
A truck used for the transportation of livestock passes through the streets of Tel Aviv. Usually, the vehicle is filled with calves on the way to the slaughter house and doesn't enter the city itself; this time, however, the truck is packed with a few dozen individuals draped in rags painted to look like cowhide and wearing large numbered yellow ear-tags of the kind used to mark farm animals.
The members of Israeli organization Anonymous for Animal Rights do this quite often; and like their guru, Gary Yourofsky, many of them consistently equate the suffering caused to animals with the Holocaust of the Jewish people.
Some see this as provocation; others support their views. On the truck this time, there's at least one person who should see this comparison as a personal affront – an elderly man, short in stature, with a small goatee; Holocaust survivor Dr. Alex Hershaft, 81, an American Jew who came to Israel to join them in their protest.
Alex Hershaft at an Israeli animal rights protest. (Photo: Yuval Chen)
The founder in 1981 of Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and a leading proponent of veganism worldwide, Hershaft believes that he has found his calling. After witnessing and experiencing the cruelty of the Nazis firsthand, he is sure he survived purely for the purpose of ending man's cruelty towards farm animals raised for their meat, milk or eggs.
"As a Holocaust survivor," he says, "I have found a way to repay my debt to the world. There's a reason why I survived. The way (to pay my debt) is to fight for the animals."
The two issues, the Holocaust and man's ongoing abuse of animals, have occupied Hershaft his entire life. He doesn't have a life partner, and he doesn't have a pet; he's worried they would prevent him from dedicating all his time to the cause. And he isn't perturbed by the fact that some people equate the Holocaust with the meat and dairy industry.
"The Jewish Holocaust was a unique event in history – a unique event for the Jewish people and for me personally," he says. "Apart from the Holocaust, there's never been another act of systematic and industrial inhumanity on the part of one nation towards another. The holocaust of the animals is also unique and systematic – yet it continues unabated. Hundreds of millions of animals are brutally slaughtered around the world every day."
You constantly recall the Holocaust. Doesn't this somewhat belittle the unique catastrophe you yourself experienced?
"To the contrary," Hershaft patiently replies. "The Jewish Holocaust is a unique event in human history; and the best way to honor the Holocaust is to learn from it and to fight all forms of oppression. We may have been victorious in World War II, but the struggle against oppression and injustice is far from over. For me, the Holocaust isn't a tool in the struggle, but an experience that shaped my personality and my values, made me who I am today, and drove me to fight all forms of oppression, including the oppression of the weakest creatures, the animals."
In other words?
"It's very important not to think only of the victims. It's important for us to think about the oppression that exists everywhere, to emphasize the silent cooperation of the masses. The Holocaust, too, would not have taken place without the silent consent, the lack of opposition, the disregard of the nations of the world that simply stood by and allowed it to happen," he says.
"And the same goes for eating meat and other animal products. We support it without seeing the abuse with our own eyes. The masses that stand on the sidelines and remain silent facilitate this abuse and oppression. The emphasis shouldn't be on the victims, but on us. We have to ensure that we never repeat the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated against us. We won't lend a hand – not even passively – to the slaughter of Jews, or Armenians, or Bosnians or other creatures with feelings, with desires, with fears, creatures like us."
Alex Hershaft. 'I pay my debt by fighting for the animals.' (Photo: Yuval Chen)
Born in Warsaw in 1934, Hershaft survived the Holocaust in a Polish orphanage with the help of forged papers, and subsequently settled in the United States. He found his calling in 1972, after moving to Washington and finding a job with an environmental consulting firm.
"It was after a trip to Poland and a visit to the Auschwitz death camp, where I saw the piles of suitcases, glasses, hair and toothbrushes of the victims," he recalls.
"One day, in Washington, I was sent to inspect the wastewater disposal system of a slaughterhouse. I went in and saw the piles of heads, hearts, livers and hooves of cattle; piles and piles of body parts that were alive just a short while earlier. The comparison with the piles at Auschwitz was inevitable.
"I tried to repress it but wasn't able to. There were so many similarities – the use of cattle cars; the numbers tattooed on the prisoners in Auschwitz and the numbers on each cow; the abuse of the victims before the killing. I recalled the words of the Jewish writer, the Nobel Prize laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer: 'In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.' At that moment, I realized I had found my calling in life. There's a way I can repay my debt to the world. There is a reason why I survived."
Why not fight for more realistic goals, for improving the living conditions of the cows and chickens for example?
"I don't believe in small improvements to the living conditions of the chickens and cows. Slightly increasing the sizes of the cages is like giving me a hot meal while I'm imprisoned in the ghetto. It's like asking an abusive man to continue beating his wife but in a less brutal manner. The solution is for all of us to stop eating meat, eggs and dairy products."
In recent years, vegans have taken to violent protests. Do you support Gary Yourofsky's methods?
"As in the case of other protest movements, our movement started with very dedicated people. When their message failed to get across, they became frustrated. The frustration led to the violence. We've passed that stage. They don't do those things any longer, and I'm sure our friends in Israel will return to the non-violent stage."
What is the purpose of this exhibit in which you are participating through the streets of Tel Aviv?
"Most slaughterhouses are located out of town, away from the public eye. People buy eggs in a carton in a supermarket. Milk comes in plastic bags or cardboard boxes. Meat is packaged in the refrigerator in the supermarket. The public buys, eats and tries to block out the atrocities that take place before this food reaches the shelves or refrigerators.
"People stuck in traffic or stopped at a light sometimes look over at the vehicle next to them and encounter the sad eyes of a calf on a truck on its way to the slaughterhouse. Most people turn up the radio to avoid hearing the calves; they look and try to ignore and forget what they have seen, and continue their daily routines. They don't want to know how the meat reaches their plates. We want to remind them that if they eat meat and eggs, if they drink milk and eat yogurt, it entails great suffering on the part of animals that have done no harm to anyone."