Alex Hershaft was one of the lucky ones.
He managed to survive the cage that was the Warsaw Ghetto. Later, he experienced survivor’s guilt, wondering why he had lived when so many others had died.
Looking for a way to repay the debt he felt he owed, Hershaft decided to try to make the world a better place for all, including those who continue to suffer abuse and cruelty in cages — animals.
“It was basically the concept of objectifying your victims as a tool of oppression, and that’s what the Nazis did to us, the Jews,” Hershaft said. “And that’s what we’re doing to animals as well. It led me to reflect on the commonality of oppression.”
Hershaft, 80, spoke at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh on Monday, reminiscing about his journey from Holocaust survivor in Poland to a prominent animal rights leader in the United States. Living in Bethesda, Md., Hershaft founded the first national organization dedicated to the plight of animals in agriculture, the Farm Animals Rights Movement, which organizes the national Animal Rights Conference.
“Nobody expects animals to have any rights in the way that, for example, African-Americans acquired rights or women acquired the right to vote,” he said in an interview prior to his appearance at Rodef Shalom. “What we’re talking about is human respect and obligation that would keep us from abusing and exploiting and using animals.”
This is believed to be the first time an accredited Holocaust education organization has co-sponsored a program on the comparison between what happened under Nazi occupation and what is happening in factory farms, according to a news release. The event was sponsored by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America in conjunction with Rodef Shalom and the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Hershaft, a vegan himself, is a board member of JVNA.
Hershaft spoke of his personal experiences, but recent news at home and abroad has thrown animal rights into the spotlight.
During this summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas, farm animals have been ravaged in Gaza. The Washington Post reported cows, horses and donkeys litter fields and marketplaces there, killed by bombings or dead from starvation and dehydration. In at least one case, explosives were strapped to a donkey and sent toward Israeli soldiers in Gaza, a tactic also used by Hamas in years past; the soldiers were forced to shoot the donkey, which exploded. Even a long-eared owl was injured in Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border when it was hit by shrapnel, according to the Times of Israel. “It’s horrible,” he remarked. “What can I say?”
In a situation closer to Pittsburgh, four Pennsylvania puppy mills landed in a 2014 Humane Society report on the 101 worst puppy mills in the country. Problems in these dog-breeding establishments cited in the report include inadequate housing, poor ventilation, rodent infestation and veterinary care issues. Puppy mills are a major concern for Hershaft, who said they have no reason to exist because so many dogs and cats don’t have homes. But he said he believes people are becoming more educated, and, as a result, puppy mills are seeing less business.
“The number of animals killed annually in pounds has dropped from about 17 million to about 4 million, which is huge,” he said. “Most of that has been through public education, just getting people to adopt animals from shelters rather than patronizing puppy mills and pet stores.”
There is still progress to be made in other places, too, such as medical research where researchers continue using animals in studies because they believe testing drugs on animals saves human lives, Hershaft said.
While cases of animal abuse persist, Hershaft said he has seen an improvement overall in the United States since he began his work, and in several areas specifically. He said there has been strides made against the use of animals in education, testing household products and the use for entertainment purposes such as circuses.
He said even the hunting community is now feeling a pinch because of animal rights activism, and it has to be more creative in its approach to attract new hunters.
“The hunting community is desperately trying to replenish itself, because the number of hunters has gone down drastically,” Hershaft said. “Actually, one state (Texas) allows blind people to hunt, but they have to be accompanied by a seeing person. It’s kind of ridiculous.”
Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.