Alex Hershaft is a Holocaust survivor. He had several brushes with death in Nazi-occupied Poland, forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto, where starvation and disease were rampant and from which hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews were sent on trains to Treblinka. He's a survivor of Nazi oppression, he says, but not a victim of it.
He will discuss this distinction on Wednesday, making the first Philadelphia appearance of his long career as a speaker, activist and organizer. At 7:30 at the Gershman Y (401 S Broad St; 215-545-4400) he will be talking about his ordeal during World War II. But the point is not about him, nor about the Nazis.
"I do talk about my experience of the Holocaust," said Hershaft, 82, in a phone interview. "Most of the talk is about my experience, what we went through, how we survived, that sort of thing. But at the end I do have a message - I want the Holocaust to have some meaning. I don't want it to be just millions of people getting gassed and cremated, I want there to be some meaning attached to it."
After moving to the U.S. and gaining a Ph.D in chemsitry, he worked as an environmental consultant, including with the EPA. During this period, on a visit to a slaughterhouse Hershaft had an "aha moment" upon seeing a room with piles of discarded body parts. Already a vegetarian, he went vegan and began working to raise awareness of animals and ethics.
In 1981 he founded the Farm Animal Reform Movement - now the Farm Animal Rights Movement - an organization that has had a large impact on vegan and animal-rights advocacy in the U.S., including establishing the Great American Meatout (March 20) and the yearly Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C.
Recently Hershaft has been doing more speaking about the parallels between, as he has put it, "the Jewish Holocaust and the animal holocaust," and he knows that's a comparison that turns some people off. "People say, oh, you're comparing jews and pigs," he said, but he replies, "no, no, it's not about the victims." The meaning of the Holocaust, for Hershaft, "is that everybody is able to oppress. Everybody is basically open to oppressing others."
That's why he says that "we should not be focusing on victims, but rather on our own ability, and our neighbors' ability, to oppress others. It's not the trademark of the Germans or of ISIS or the whites in the South or the Serbs in Bosnia. Until we understand that, all of us are capable of the oppressive mindset and we will not be rid of oppression."
Hershaft feels the focus on targets of oppression distracts us from finding and addressing our own tendencies to oppress. After all, he noted, "the victims can be muslims persecuted by other muslims, they can be Tutsis slaughtered by Hutus, they can be Nigerian women persecuted by Boko Haram, anybody. As long as we keep focusing on the victims we're not going to find a solution, and that to me is the message of the Holocaust."
Oppression, Hershaft notes, can be "very subtle - an example being the fact that many upstanding Germans - churchgoers, pillars of their communities - knew about the death camps in their midst but pretended not to know. And we're basically doing the same thing with the animals we raise for food. We have these slaughterhouses and factory farms almost in our midst - not in downtowns, obviously, but close by - and not only do we pretend not to notice but everytime we go to the supermarket we subsidize these operations."
This pretending-not-to-know is instilled at an early age, he said: "When a kid first starts understanding that there is such a thing called food and asks, 'mommy what is this,' he finds out that it's a piece of an animal," Hershaft explained. "The kid says, 'but Rover over there, we don't eat Rover do we?' No, Rover is different. What the mom is saying to the kid is that some animals are to be cherished, walked, watered, fed and loved as family members, and other animals are to be tortured, dismembered and consumed as food - and that basically gives the 4-year-old permission to oppress."
In what seems to be a new age of intolerance, Hershaft's insights into victimhood and oppression resonate beyond his personal history. He's chided activists' bids to elevate one class of victims over another, distracting from the frontline fight while limiting speech: "Don't talk about it," as he summarizes.
But with people and institutions still oppressing on a huge scale, Hershaft has little time for internecine squabbles. Instead he's erasing the "victim" line from his own resume with a lifetime of activism and the creation of robust animal advocacy that keeps the social-justice aspect at the forefront. His efforts to open hearts and change minds have already affected many and will doubtless inform our shared cultural future.
Wednesday's event, presented by Jewish Veg, is open to the public and includes a 6:30 p.m. reception with vegan hors d’oeuvres before Alex’s 7:30 p.m. presentation, plus a vegan-dessert reception afterward. Tickets: JewishVeg.org/Hershaft-Tickets