Tuesday, May 9, 2017

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Alex Hershaft

Dr. Alex Hershaft
was the first vegan heroes I’d met in person back in the late 1990s when I was at Vegetarian Summerfest where he was a speaker. I’d been vegan for a couple of years and had been an activist for a while so I was familiar with his work with the pioneering organization he founded, the Farm Animal Rights Movement or FARM, which evolved from its precursor, the Vegetarian Information Service, in 1981. As someone who was happy to pick up a sign and pass out some pamphlets for the animals, his work, like World Day for Farmed Animals (October 2, yo!) and the Great American Meatout (March 20!), gave people like me an outlet. (FARM also puts on the Animal Rights Conference every year, no small undertaking. I will be speaking this year. Join us! It’s always an incredible conference.) As an ardent collector of newsletters, Alex and his work through FARM gave me inspiration. I will never forget that Summerfest when he sat on a bench next to me and talked to me about a part of his life I hadn’t heard about before: his childhood, his survival of the Warsaw Ghetto, his narrow escape of the Treblinka death camp along with his mother, his father’s murder. It was mesmerizing and agonizing. I was also very touched by his approachability and patient willingness to be peppered with questions by my neophyte, awestruck self.

All these years later, Alex has made his story of survival, and how he connected the dots of the cruelties he observed and experienced as a child to his life’s work of promoting kindness for all species, available to everyone in his amazing speech, From the Warsaw Ghetto to a Life of Compassion. Alex Hershaft is a living legend and I am proud to feature him as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

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.

In 1976, I founded the Vegetarian Information Service, offering veg literature to the public. In 1981, I launched the first animal rights conference, without fully getting the concept. My fellow board members who did convinced me to go vegan. In my defense, about what took so long, very few of the animal champions at the time were vegan.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

It would be pretty much the same argument we are presenting to young people today. Failure to embrace a vegan diet requires subsidizing and becoming complicit in the worst oppression and abuse of sentient living beings in the history of humankind. The associated health and environmental benefits are just a bonus.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

a) videos, b) photos, c) stories about personal experiences and individual animals.

Least effective: facts and numbers about slaughter, health and environmental arguments (OK, health may work for older folks), animal "rights" arguments.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

a) The fact that our actions are consistent with common values of respect for life, in general, and animals, in particular

b) The fact that we are working at the roots of all life-affirming and social justice movements - a vegan lives a healthy life, with minimal carbon footprint, without oppressing

b) The fact that we are the only movement working on behalf of another set of beings - not ourselves

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

We have gotten pretty good at getting the word out through videos, social media, traditional media. The problem we are running into is getting people to change their lifestyle three times a day - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No other U.S. movement has demanded a substantial lifestyle change since Lincoln's 1863 emancipation proclamation.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

See 4 (a)

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Without meaning to sound arrogant, can't think of any.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

To unwind - folk dancing every Friday evening and occasional classical music concert

To distract - crossword puzzles and news reports and commentaries

To recharge and inspire - occasional trips to a slaughterhouse, but haven't really needed that, as activism has become part of my life's fabric

What has most immunized me against burnout, however, has been my low need for praise and recognition and my being in control of my activities

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

It's the main conclusions of my Holocaust speech:

* that oppression is initially subtle, almost imperceptible and, like some forms of cancer, becomes evident only when it's to late to stop

* that all are capable of oppression, including some of our favorite friends and relatives who subsidize the greatest oppression of sentient living beings in the history of humankind every time they shop for food

* that oppression is not about the victims, but about the oppressive mindset, or the capacity to oppress

* that making oppression about the victims and the resulting cult of victimhood divide and frustrate our efforts to mount a united front against all oppression

* that oppression of animals is the "gateway drug" to all oppression, administered to a four-year old when they are told that the dog on the couch is to be cherished, fed, and cared for, but the pig on their plate is to be abused, killed, dismembered, and consumed as food

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

See 4(a)


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