Enemies: A Love Story, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor named Herman Broder in postwar New York. At one point, Singer, who was a vegetarian for many years, wrote:
As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: In their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.
Like the fictional Herman Broder, Alex Hershaft is a Holocaust survivor who worries about the suffering of farm animals. Hershaft, too, sees similarities between the mindset of the Nazis and those who kill animals for food, although he is, of course, careful not to equate the Holocaust to animal agriculture. The parallels, he explains, are not about the victims but about the perpetrators; their actions are made possible because of arbitrary distinctions that enable cruelty.
“You need to get permission to from your society–to believe that it is all right that one sentient being will live, and another will die,” Hershaft says.
“The Christian lives, the Jew dies,” he says. “The dog lives, the pig dies.”
A pioneer of the animal-rights movement, Hershaft has lived a remarkable life; he has told his story all over the world. Last week, he told it at a Washington event organized by Jewish Veg, a DC-based nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace plant-based diets “as an expression of the Jewish values of compassion for animals, concern for health and care for the environment.” JewishVeg has put together a video and a statement signed by dozens of rabbis who encourage Jews to transition towards animal-free diets. “The vegan movement is not going to get where it needs to go without the active involvement of the religious community, including the Jewish community,” says Jeffrey Cohan, the executive director of Jewish Veg.
Hershaft, who is 83, is an unassuming man. He is slight of build, balding and dresses in a business suit and sneakers (no leather, of course). He speaks quietly with a slight Polish accent. Born in 1934 in Warsaw, his parents were well-educated professionals; his father, a prominent chemist, was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, and was awaiting permission for his son and wife to travel to the United States with him when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
“The war arrived before the visas,” Hershaft says.
A boy of five, Hershaft was one of nearly half a million Jews who were crowded into the Warsaw Ghetto. Nearly one in five died from disease or starvation. Most of the rest were exterminated at Treblinka.
Hershaft and his mother survived because of the kindness of gentiles. A Russian maid who had worked for the family for years smuggled valuables out of the ghetto, and traded them for food that she brought back for the family. Later, Hershaft and his mother were sheltered on a farm near Warsaw, where they passed as Christians. He wound up in a Polish orphanage and then spent five years at a refugee camp in Italy before he emigrated to the US. His mother left for Israel and, to the best of his knowledge, his father was caught and killed by the Germans.
Whereupon Hershaft asked himself what many survivors do: “Why was I spared when so many people were not? Is there some lesson we can learn from this terrible tragedy?”
He became active in a number of social movements and stopped eating meat in the early 1960s. Like his father, he earned a PhD in chemistry. While working as an environmental consultant who specialized in wastewater treatment, he was sent to a slaughterhouse in the midwest, where the penny dropped.
As he tells it: “I turned a corner and saw these piles of body parts–hearts and heads and hoofs. I recoiled in horror.” They brought to mind the extermination camps. “I just couldn’t get the images out of my mind.” He came to see other linkages: Farm animals, were branded with numbers and taken to their death in rail cars. But it was the arbitrary nature of the cruelty that struck him. Until he came across I.B. Singer’s work, he thought he was the only one making that connection.
In 1981, Hershaft started FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement), the world’s first organization dedicated to advocacy on behalf of farm animals. He organized the first animal rights conference in the US, and has led the small nonprofit ever since. He was working on farm-animal issue when other animal-welfare groups, focused on puppies or vivisection, served fish at their annual banquets.
Why animals and not people?
Why, he’s often asked, has he spent so long working on behalf of animals, when there is so much human suffering as well?
He offers a couple of responses.
“Animals are the most defenseless, the most vulnerable, therefore the most oppressed sentient beings on earth,” Hershaft says. Fair enough. He goes on to say that “oppressing animals is the gateway to oppressing humans,” a claim that is harder to prove. The argument, as best as I can tell, is that vegans are compassionate and non-violent, and thus less likely than meat-eaters to oppress or act violently towards others. PETA says that “eating vegan meals has been shown to help curb aggression,” but the evidence that vegans are morally superior to the rest of us is inconclusive at best.
Hershaft also says that it’s extremely difficult to stop the killing of other humans. By contrast, most everyone has the “awesome power of life and death” over animals. This seems inarguable. He estimates that, by going vegan, he can spare about 100 animals from death each years.
He cites the famous line from Deuteronomy, chapter 30, verse 19:
I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.
Hershaft concludes: “Every time we shop for food, we literally make a choice between subsidizing life and subsidizing death.”
Here’s the video of rabbis urging Jews to adopt a plant-based diet: