All the world is nuts about
Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Alex Hershaft for his efforts in launching and leading FARM which has been instrumental in educating the public about animal rights and vegetarianism. He has written numerous articles, has lectured, and taught seminars on animal agriculture, farm animal abuse, diet and health, and environmental conservation. Hershaft has played an active leadership role in the vegetarian movement since 1975. Many may be familiar with activities such as the Great American Meatout and World Farm Animals Day, but may not realize that these animal events exist because of the efforts of Alex Hershaft.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers of Alex Hershaft(AH).
VIP: What events in your life led you to vegetarianism?
AH: As far back as I can remember, it never made sense to me to hit a beautiful, innocent, sentient animal over the head, cut his body into small pieces, and then shove the pieces into my mouth. I suppose it was initially an aesthetic conviction - not too different from that of the ladies in Queen Victoria's England that led to the early anti-cruelty statutes. In 1962, during my two-year stay in Israel, I stumbled across the ritual sacrifice of a baby goat to celebrate the birth of a Druze baby. The bitter irony of that act was the last straw I needed to change my diet. I remained a closet vegetarian until attending the 1975 World Vegetarian Congress in Orono, ME, when I decided to spend the rest of my life promoting a vegetarian diet.
VIP: When did you become vegan? What led to that transition?
AH: I didn't become a vegan till 1981, when I helped found the animal rights movement at a conference I arranged in Allentown, PA, and learned the bitter truth behind production of milk and eggs. From today's perspective, the more appropriate question would be "what took you so long." The fact is that, in those days, veganism was a very novel concept. There was a widespread notion that animal products were a necessary component of a healthy diet, and it was rather difficult to get vegan foods consistent with Western tastes. Many animal protection leaders were not vegetarian, served animals at their conventions, and did not even provide a vegan option.
VIP: We understand you are a child of the Holocaust. How did the Holocaust affect you and your family?
AH: The Holocaust affected my family by killing them all, except for my mother who died of natural causes in Israel in 1996. I became convinced that my debt for my survival was to dedicate my life to the pursuit of justice, in general, and justice for the most oppressed - farmed animals - in particular. The Holocaust experience, including the hiding, crowding, caging, cattle cars, brutality, and routine of mass extermination has promoted my empathy for what farmed animals go through every day.
VIP: What is your reaction to people who compare the slaughter of farm animals to the Holocaust?
AH: Conceptually, I agree that both acts require an oppressive mindset that devalues the victim to the point where his/her life has no value. Tactically, I consider the analogy a mistake, because it requires a broadmindedness that most people are incapable of. Therefore, it leads people to tune out our milder, more persuasive arguments.
VIP: How do your family and friends react to your vegetarianism?
AH: My mother and daughter both embraced it, initially out of respect for me and eventually out of conviction.
VIP: Could you tell us about your education?
AH: I wasted the best years of my life, from age 18 to 27, getting a Ph.D. in chemistry as a misguided memorial to my martyred father. Since then, having paid my 'debt,' I have been pursuing my quest for justice, including, religious freedom in the US and Israel, environmental preservation, and eventually (since 1975), vegetarianism and animal rights.
VIP: How are you using your education in your present career?
AH: I am not. The experience that has done most to provide me the 'can do' attitude, and thus, to prepare me for my current responsibilities came during my employment with several Washington consulting firms in the 70s. These days, I invariably advise potential young activists who ask for schooling advice to come to work for us or one of the other activist animal rights organizations. Indeed, a number of FARM 'graduates' hold leadership positions in our movement.
VIP: What organizations were you involved in at the beginning of your activist career? What role or roles did you play in those organizations.
AH: Shortly after my epiphany at the 1975 World Vegetarian Congress, I formed the Vegetarian Information Service, which disseminated information on the benefits of vegetarianism. I served on the Board of the North American Vegetarian Society and arranged several vegetarian conferences. In the summer of 1980, I called a meeting of vegetarian leaders with folks who kept bringing up 'animal rights' at my conferences and by mail. At that meeting, we decided to hold a joint conference called 'Action for Life' in July 1981. That conference provided the launching pad for the US animal rights movement. Several national organizations were formed there, including FARM, PETA, TransSpecies Unlimited, and Mobilization for Animals. (The last two no longer exist, but were very big in the 80s.) In 1983, I launched World Farm Animals Day and in 1985 the Great American Meatout (world's largest annual grassroots diet education campaign).
VIP: We notice that the International Vegetarian Union lists you as a councillor from 1984 to 1999. What did that job entail?
AH: Trips to other world vegetarian congresses (none of which matched the grandeur of the 1975 one), beaureaucratic meetings and other nonsense, some useful contacts, but mostly a waste of time. Once I realized that the organization would not fulfill its key mission of helping to promote vegetarianism in Third World countries, I left and started my own effort through FARM's Sabina Fund (named after my mother). Since 1999, the Fund has distributed more than $100,000 to deserving grassroots groups in two dozen countries and represents the only effort of its kind.
VIP: What do you consider as FARM's most significant accomplishments?
AH: Helping to launch the US animal rights movement, arranging 12 of the movement's national conferences, motivating and training dozens of movement activists, launching and sustaining the Great American Meatout and World Farm Animals Day (both now observed in all 50 states and two dozen countries), publishing some 5,000 letters to the editor promoting vegetarianism in US dailies, promoting vegetarianism in Third World. See our website at http://farmusa.org
VIP: How is FARM funded? How many members does the organization have? How many paid staff? How many volunteers?
AH: FARM is funded by individual contributions and some return on investments. We keep 18,000 people on our mailing list. Our staff comprises 7-8 paid people and two full-time volunteers, including me. Our annual campaigns engage thousands of volunteers.
VIP: One of FARM's programs, the Great American Meatout, has become an annual tradition. How did it begin? What influence has this event achieved?
AH: The Great American Meatout was launched in January of 1985 in reaction to National Meat Week, now defunct. Last year, there were more than a thousand events in all 50 states and two dozen other countries, supporting proclamations by 30 governors and mayors, and extensive media coverage. Nearly everyone outside the movement that I've ever talked to has at least heard of it. It provides information on the benefits of plant-based eating for those who don't have it and an excuse to change their diet for those who do. Several mainstream health advocacy organizations have since started similar campaigns, most notably the '5 a day' program of the National Cancer Institute. More information is available on the web site http://meatout.org
VIP: Could you tell us about CHOICE, one of your programs directed toward children?
AH: CHOICE (Consumers for Healthy Options In Children's Education) introduces plant-based meals and nutrition education in our nation's schools, with the assistance of local activists. The program lay dormant for several years, but we have just hired a very capable new director, who is reactivating it. For information on CHOICE see http://choiceusa.net
VIP: World Farm Animals Day is another of your projects? What is its story?
AH: World Farm Animals Day was launched in 1983 to expose and memorialize the billions of innocent, sentient animals who suffer needlessly each year in the world's factory farms and slaughterhouses. The date October 2 honors the birthdate of Mahatma Gandhi, the world's foremost advocate of humane farming. This year, there were 400 educational events throughout the US and in 20 other countries, hundreds of billboards and bus cards in eight metropolitan areas, supportive proclamations by 40 governors and mayors, and extensive media coverage.
VIP: Can you tell us about the activities of the Global Hunger Alliance?
AH: We launched the Global Hunger Alliance last year to promote plant-based solutions to world hunger at the World Food Summit in Rome. We were fortunate in recruiting a director who has formed a world-wide coalition of 90 supportive organizations, which is now pretty much independent from FARM. For more information on the Global Hunger Alliance, see http://globalhunger.net
VIP: Are you active in organizations other than animal rights groups? Could you tell us about some of those affiliations that are most meaningful to you.
AH: I am somewhat active in organizations promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As a Jew and former Israeli, I feel a special obligation to right the injustices perpetrated by the Sharon government.
VIP: How much of your time is presently devoted to animal rights activities?
AH: Approximately 70 hours a week.
VIP: Of all of your accomplishments, which ones give you the greatest pride?
AH: To have persisted long enough to become the most senior leader in the US animal rights movement.
VIP: What personal goals have you set for yourself in the coming years?
AH: To find a worthy successor to run FARM, so I can write the story of my life.
VIP: What leisure time activities, sports, or hobbies do you enjoy?
AH: Folk dancing and swimming.
VIP: Have we overlooked anything that you would like to share with our readers?
AH: The best advice I can offer to your readers is not to waste their energies on the petty inadequacies of the movement's leaders and organizations, but to keep their eyes on the prize of animal liberation.