Q&A: Animal Rights Activist and Holocaust Survivor Alex Hershaft
by Anna Isaacs
Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft was born in 1934 in Warsaw, Poland. In early 1940, he and his family were ordered to move to the part of town that would soon become the Warsaw Ghetto. He and his parents escaped the ghetto with the help of a loyal family maid and forged papers. But in late 1943, as the suspicions of their neighbors in the city grew, the young Hershaft and his mother departed for the countryside, eventually winding up a refugee camp in Italy. They never heard from his father — or any of the rest of their extended family — again.
Hershaft’s mother moved to Israel, while he immigrated to the United States, where he would earn a PhD in chemistry from Iowa State University in honor of his chemist father. It was while working for an environmental consulting firm that he visited an Indiana slaughterhouse in 1972, and came upon a gruesome tableau that he couldn’t dismiss: piles of hooves and hearts and skulls, eerily similar to the piles of hair and glasses and shoes he had seen during an earlier visit to Auschwitz.
The encounter set the stage for his controversial thesis: that there are undeniable parallels between the Holocaust and the practice of systematically slaughtering animals for food.
There’s nothing particularly sentimental about Hershaft’s beliefs. He’s not much of an animal lover; the only “pet” you’ll find in his Bethesda, Maryland house (which doubles as FARM’s headquarters) is a life-size replica of a newborn cow, a relic of a 1980s veal ban campaign during which it was paraded around in the hopes of reminding passersby of a family dog. (“We can’t bring ourselves to throw him out,” Hershaft says.)
And while many posters on his home office walls are patently adorable—like the one of a kitten and a piglet, nose to nose, asking, “Which do you pet and which do you eat?”—they’re often accompanied by less fuzzy images, like the one of bloodied chickens, beheaded and strung up by their feet.
But all of these, he says, are mostly for visitors—his cause isn’t really about the animals at all. Rather, for Hershaft, it’s about what humans are capable of, and what we choose to do with that capability.
On October 2—a date picked to honor Gandhi’s birthday—Hershaft embarks on his 33rd annual Fast Against Slaughter, an event that went national last year. Moment spoke with the 81-year-old Hershaft—who looks precisely 20 years younger than that, a feat he credits in part to his vegan diet—about his particular brand of activism and why it’s so controversial.
What prompted you to become an animal rights activist?
I was a vegetarian for aesthetic reasons. Did you ever see that very famous video that’s on YouTube that went viral, about that little kid who wouldn’t eat the octopus? It’s very cute. It’s very touching. This kid is eating dinner, and he says, “Mom, what is this?” She says, “It’s octopus.” He says, “This is octopus? But isn’t that a living being?” Mom says, “No, it’s dead.” “But, Mom, I don’t want to eat the octopus!” Then the mother breaks down in tears. It’s very, very touching.
Anyway, it was like that. It was the idea of taking an animal that I could see—you know, like a pig or a cow—and hitting him over the head, and then cutting up his body into little pieces, and then shoving those pieces in my mouth. It’s just disgusting. Back then, I didn’t know about any of the health aspects, or the environmental aspects, or the cruelty. It was just the concept of taking pieces of another living being and shoving it in my mouth.
[In 1975] there was an article in The Washington Post about the environmental impacts of meat consumption, and I wrote a letter to the editor agreeing. And somebody saw the letter and invited me to a picnic of the Vegetarian Society. It was in Rock Creek Park [in Washington, DC]. So I went to the picnic, and there was this woman handing out leaflets about the World Vegetarian Congress coming up in August. So I was curious because I didn’t meet many vegetarians, and the ones I met I wasn’t too crazy about.
They were strange. And, you know, I was a pretty mainstream person. So I figured, well, if this was going to be a major part of my life, I should really find out what this is all about. So I figured it was worth the trip to Orono [for the World Vegetarian Congress in Maine]. And it changed my life.
I saw about 1,500 people from all stations of life, all forms of dress, different languages, different cultures, and all they had in common was that they didn’t eat animals. And I was transformed. I just knew that this would be the rest of my life, and I just kept trying to figure out how to get active, and I did.
What is FARM’s mission?
Our mission is to get people to reduce and eventually eliminate the number of animals killed for food. We tried to make it very simple. We’re not into making vegans, we’re not into reducing suffering, we’re not into ending factory farming. All that other stuff is implicit, but we’re very focused on just reducing the number of animals [killed], however we can do it, and there are lots of ways of doing it. The most obvious way is to get people to go vegan, but you can reduce the number much more effectively by getting some major cookie company, like Keebler, to reduce the number of eggs in making cookies.
Why a fast?
It’s sort of like going to church—you know, why do people go to church? Why do people meditate? It’s sort of to imprint on your mind. It’s an expression of solidarity with the animals, and because it’s uncomfortable. It just reminds you of what they go through.
Many Holocaust survivors have drawn on their experiences to advocate for human rights and to shed light on other genocides. Why did you make animal rights your cause?
I can give you the immediate reason and also the broader reason. The immediate reason was visiting a slaughterhouse and seeing piles of body parts, just as you can witness when you visit Auschwitz today—the piles of hair and glasses and teeth. And it just reminded me of that. And I said, is this just a coincidence, or am I making too much out of it? And then I started looking at the details, at some of the similarities, and it was jarring. Things like the use of cattle cars to transport us to the death camps, the housing in wooden crates, the dispassionate attitude of the executers, you know, like it’s just a job. The more I started thinking about it, the more I saw the parallels. And then I said, well, O.K., so I see the parallels, but what do I do with that? And I just kind of didn’t bother with that, because I didn’t see the point, until I was invited to speak, first in Pittsburgh [last summer] and then in Israel [in May]. There is kind of a gut feeling that there’s a relationship [between the treatment of animals and the Holocaust], especially among the young people, but then when they present their thesis to their parents and grandparents, they get a shocked reaction, and they’re not allowed to bring this up at the dinner table. The idea was to bring an actual survivor who agreed with them to present the case.
Saying we should be nice to each other is, you know—Christ said that 2,000 years ago, and many others before him. So that’s not the real lesson. And saying that the Germans are evil… they gave birth to the greatest music, the greatest literature on earth. And besides, where does it lead? O.K., so they’re evil, so what? So where do we go from there? You don’t visit Germany? It seems to me that the very least we can do for the victims of the Holocaust is to try to draw some practical lessons from it. And if you draw an analogy between the Jewish Holocaust and the animal holocaust, the lesson to be drawn is that we are all capable of oppression. And everyone who goes to the supermarket today subsidizes oppression of billions of animals.
I’ve been accused of making light of the Holocaust. Hardly. I think that people who refuse to draw lessons from it make light of it. I think I’m honoring the Jewish Holocaust by trying to draw some practical lessons.
Do you see the cause of animal rights as different or separate from specifically humanitarian causes, or do you understand how other people might see it as different or separate?
Oh, absolutely, I do see it. Every organization for social justice—there is what I call the cult of victimhood. You know, “My victim is better than yours.” And that’s throughout. That’s throughout. That’s not just animals and Jews. Women think that women’s rights are most important; people with disabilities think that their victims are the most important. It makes total sense. Why would you be working for an organization unless you thought that was the most important thing you’d be doing? And I don’t have a problem with that. The problem that I have is when you put down the other rights movements.
Jews are probably more guilty of that than anyone else I know. Jewish victimhood is sacred. Nobody suffers like the Jews. We’re the champions of suffering. And you shouldn’t dare compare Tutsis or Armenians or Cambodians or any other victims of genocide to what Jews went through. And obviously, yeah, we hold this unfortunate championship in numbers and in methods that were used. But I think it’s dangerous to dwell in your victimhood. It just kind of disables you from living. You should obviously remember it and try to honor it by making this world a better place. But just dwelling in it, like a lot of the older people do in Israel particularly, I think is damaging.
And it gets worse. I had this argument with my mother. I said, how can you live in this country when it’s oppressing the Arab population, the Palestinians? And she said, “Well, we can do this to them because of what was done to us.” And I said, “Mom, it’s just the opposite! Because of what was done to us, we should know better. That’s the lesson.”
Comparisons between the Holocaust and the treatment of animals have been widely criticized and labeled as anti-Semitic.
People have called you that?
Not directly, but I’ve seen the term used. To be a self-hating Jew, you don’t have to be vegan. You can also advocate for peace between Israel and Palestinians, for ending the occupation. That’s enough to be a self-hating Jew.
How do you respond to that?
Why? Why respond to that? Most of the time, the people who call me a self-hating Jew don’t deserve an answer. They don’t want an answer. They just want to call me names.
The main criticism is that we’re making light of the sacrifice of the Holocaust, and of course, we’re not. Far from it. We’re honoring it by trying to draw some lessons for humanity.
The common mistake is that we’re comparing victims. And of course, Jews are not pigs, pigs are not Jews. Oppression isn’t about the victims; it’s about the oppressor. And the oppressor doesn’t really care who the victims are. Hitler picked Jews because we were the only minority in Europe. Americans don’t understand this. We were the only minority in Europe. There were no African-Americans, there were no Asian-Americans. You saw a black-skinned person on the street, you would go home and tell the story. I mean, this was very unusual. We were it. So we were easy pickings.
One of the most famous examples of the comparison is when PETA did the “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign.
Well, see, the problem is, this is not a comparison that should be made lightly.
And you think they were making it lightly.
More than that. I think they were being provocative. That’s what they do. They are provocative. That’s how they made their name. They get media. They tried to place an ad in the Super Bowl, a $2 million ad—there’s no way they’re going to spend $2 million on an ad in the Super Bowl. They don’t want the ad. They want to be turned down so they can make a controversy out of it. That’s their stock-in-trade. And it works.
Do you think that’s O.K.?
It’s not O.K. for us. We wouldn’t do it. The only reason I drew the comparison is because I was asked. And I did it very carefully, and I presented it in terms of my personal story, of the conclusions that I drew from my personal story. I didn’t present it as an edict.
There’s a quote from the PETA campaign: “The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.” How do you feel about statements like that?
I think it’s careless and it’s reckless and it’s damaging. It’s not something that can be bandied about. And that’s why I don’t use it. We never talk about that in our work, because it requires too much explanation.
Many people believe the Holocaust was too horrific to be compared.
Obviously, to us, our victimhood is the most important. It’s not even about–it’s not a species thing. I frequently bring this up because people say, “Oh, they’re only animals.” And I say, “If your dog needed a thousand-dollar surgery, and some Somalian kid needed a thousand-dollar surgery to live, who would get the thousand dollars?” It’s not about species. It’s about your relationship with that living being.
The Holocaust was based on hatred of Jews, but we don’t kill and eat chickens because we hate them. Do you think we can make that distinction?
I don’t think hatred is the relevant thing here. I think indifference is the key factor. Because the people who were gassing the Jews were not doing it out of hatred. It was their job. They didn’t hate the Jews any more than the slaughterhouse workers hate the pigs. It’s not a matter of personal feelings. Obviously, Hitler had the hatred. I’m not saying that element doesn’t exist. But it’s not very relevant. The hatred alone wouldn’t do it. You couldn’t get these thousands of executioners to hate in the way that Hitler hated.
If you look at the map of Treblinka, the guards and the commandant were living on the camp grounds. You can’t live with people you hate. These were people to be killed and they were the killers. It’s…
Yeah. And the other thing I point out… is the indifference of the bystanders. It’s not just the doers; it’s the bystanders. And that is the greatest problem. You can always get a certain number of people to do evil. But what makes it possible for that evil to actually translate into damage is the assent, the silence. Elie Wiesel said it: Silence helps the oppressors, never the victims.
It’s not like, you know, when we go to the supermarket, it’s not that we’re hating animals. We just don’t think about it.
And you’re saying it was the same in the death camps.
Yes. The difference was that if a Pole or a German objected, they would get shot. If we object, we can just post it on Facebook.
You say that your activism doesn’t come from a particular fondness for animals. You don’t have any pets. Why is your cause not about being an animal lover?
It’s a matter of justice. And so you say, well, why not work for women, or children, or African-Americans or Mexicans? Well, I do. I did. I contribute—I’m not a major activist in any of those causes, but I sympathize and I support. But why animals? It’s because that’s the root. If you want to be effective, you work at the roots. That’s the most universally accepted form of oppression. People sometimes will ask, why animals? And my answer is, it’s not about the animals. It’s about us. It’s about who we are, how we treat the least defensible, the most oppressed, the weakest in our society. What does it say about us?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.