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Comparing animal rights and the Holocaust

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 10, 2012 | 4:54 pm

On Oct. 2, Alex Hershaft, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the nonprofit Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), sat on the ground with some 100 other protesters in front of the Farmer John pig slaughterhouse in Vernon, Calif., blocking the entrance from two bi-level trucks carrying 200 pigs that had arrived to be slaughtered that day. In the next 24 hours, the pigs would be among 6,000 animals that would be stunned by electrical shock, hoisted up by their hind legs and their necks slit in the plant, which is the largest pig slaughterhouse on the West Coast. 

The demonstration was just one of more than 100 such protests held across the United States and in other countries commemorating FARM’s annual World Farm Animals Day.

“You could hear the pigs on the trucks crying,” Hershaft, 78, said quietly in a phone interview from his Bethesda, Md., home several days later. “Despite my advanced age, I made the trip to Vernon and risked arrest, because, as a Holocaust survivor, I am honor-bound to call public attention to this ongoing tragedy.”

As a 5-year-old in the Warsaw Ghetto, Hershaft witnessed brutal beatings and shootings and saw Jews dying of typhus in the streets. After being smuggled out of the ghetto by a family maid, he survived the war by passing as an Aryan. Upon liberation, he learned that his father had died following internment in a German slave labor camp, and that most of his other relatives had also perished.

Eventually, Hershaft earned a doctorate in chemistry at Iowa State University and, while teaching at the Technion in Haifa in the early 1960s, he witnessed a Druze family celebrating the birth of a baby by ritually sacrificing a baby goat. “I saw the irony of killing one child to celebrate the birth of another,” said Hershaft, who in 1961 decided to become vegetarian. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking a beautiful, living, breathing being and hitting him over the head, cutting his body into pieces and then shoving them in my face.”

He began to see parallels between the Nazi Holocaust and animal slaughter, including “the crowding, cattle cars, brutality and the routine and efficiency of mass extermination,” he said. “I am not equating the Holocaust with the millions of animals slaughtered every week for U.S. dinner tables, for we differ in many ways,” he added. “Yet, we all share a love of life and our ability to experience many emotions, including affection, joy, sadness and fear.”

Hershaft, who is now vegan, became an animal-rights activist after attending the World Vegetarian Congress in 1975, and in 1981 he founded FARM, which along with groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has became a force in the struggle for improved treatment of farm animals and vegan advocacy. 

Today, Hershaft said, FARM has an annual budget of $250,000, as well as 85,000 subscribers to its newsletters. Hershaft said tens of thousands of volunteers participate in FARM’s grassroots activities, including The Great American Meatout, Gentle Thanksgiving and a new 10 Billion Lives project, which encourages veganism. 

On the phone, Hershaft recalled how Farmer John’s bucolic mural of pigs cavorting in a meadow reminded him of the deceptive sign, “Work Makes You Free,” above the gates of Auschwitz. “I echo the wisdom of famed Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘For the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka,’ ” he said.

For more information about FARM, visit farmusa.org.

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