US animal rights movement founder, Holocaust survivor in Israel for speaking tour

Dr. Alex Hershaft is visiting Israel to deliver a series of lectures to the public, engage with animal rights activists and meet with various dignitaries, including President Rivlin.

Dr. Alex Hershaft, 80, a legendary animal rights advocate as well as a Holocaust survivor (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Alex Hershaft, 80, a legendary animal rights advocate as well as a Holocaust survivor
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although the animal rights movement in Israel may have gotten a late start in comparison to that of the United States, activists in the sector are moving forward with striking momentum, a prominent American activist told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“The movement in Israel at this point is roughly where the movement was in the US in the 1980s, but they are making progress a lot faster than we are,” said Dr. Alex Hershaft, 80, a legendary animal rights advocate as well as a Holocaust survivor. “I want to see what brings on this success and if we can export to the US.”
A co-founder of the animal rights movement in the United States, Hershaft is the founder and president of the Maryland-based Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), America’s oldest organization devoted exclusively to protecting animals from being raised for food.
For the next week and a half, Hershaft is visiting Israel to deliver a series of lectures to the public, engage with animal rights activists, and meet with various dignitaries, including President Reuven Rivlin.
Originally from Warsaw, Hershaft lost his father to the Nazis but was able to successfully hide with his mother, moving around the city and the surrounding countryside, he told the Post. Following the war, he and his mother spent five years in a refugee camp in Rome, after which he went to the US and his mother to Israel.
Surviving the war and witnessing the actions of the Nazis actually sparked Hershaft’s eventual interest in advocating for animal rights, he explained.
“I saw a lot of parallels between what they were doing to us and what we are doing to animals,” Hershaft said.
After earning his PhD in chemistry from Iowa State University, he made aliya in 1961. Although he only stayed in Israel for a couple years, Hershaft worked at the Technion and other institutions and was instrumental in organizing protests against religious coercion. During his stay in Israel, he also became a vegetarian.
“At that point, I just became a vegetarian for personal reasons,” he said. “I was not yet an activist. I didn’t become an activist until 1976.”
In 1963, Hershaft moved back to the US, where over the years he worked at a number of corporate, government and consulting jobs, predominantly in environmental studies and pollution control.
“My pursuit of chemistry was sort of a memorial to my dad, who was a chemist,” he explained. “Once I got my PhD I felt I paid my dues to my father’s memory and I went on to do bigger and better things.”
Hershaft founded the Vegetarian Information Service in 1976, which grew into the official FARM nonprofit five years later. Since 1981 – the same year Hershaft went from vegetarian to vegan – FARM has been working to end the use of animals as food through education and grassroots activism, according to the organization.
While in Israel, Hershaft said his purpose is two-fold: to share his 36 years of experience with animal rights activists here as well as “learn how Israel has made so much progress in so few years,” he said.
Based on his vast experience, one of the key tips Hershaft has for Israeli animal rights activists is to “recognize the stage of social progress that we’re in,” noting that there are roughly three stages the movement goes through.
The first stage, he explained, involves recognition – drawing attention to the fact that a problem exists. The second stage occurs once the public is aware that the problem exists and is receptive to education on the subject, while the final stage involves enacting legislation related to the issues at hand.
“The big mistake that activists make is not realizing what stage they are in and acting in a manner that is inappropriate to that stage,” he said.
For example, if members of the public have already reached the second stage and are ready for education, it would be counterproductive to “go screaming at them,” as might occur in the first stage, Hershaft explained.
In the Israeli animal rights sector, while treatment of dogs and cats may have reached a more advanced stage, the issue of using animals for food is still relatively immature, he said. Hershaft acknowledged, however, that defining the movement’s progress “very much depends on geography and the public that you are dealing with” in various parts of the country.
As far as FARM’s progress in the US is concerned, Hershaft said he is proud that “the whole concept of veganism and animal rights is now pretty much in the public domain” and that in most major cities, people have become fairly familiar with these issues. Looking at specific accomplishments, he pointed to the fact that most medical schools no longer have dog laboratories and in the popularity of hunting has decreased drastically.
“All manifestations that the concept of veganism and animal rights have become more mainstream,” he said.
Hershaft will be meeting with prominent animal rights activists such as broadcaster Miki Haimovich, actor Shai Goldstein, and singer Assaf Amdursky on Sunday night, as well as longtime vegetarian Rivlin on Monday.
Hershaft’s appearances that are open to the public include a lecture on Monday at 7 p.m. at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba; another on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, in collaboration with Dr. Yuval Harari; an 8 p.m. lecture on Thursday at Syncopa Bar in Haifa; and a 6 p.m. session a week from Tuesday at Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies.
Most of the lectures will explore the connection between Hershaft’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor to his role as an animal rights movement leader, he said.
His visit was organized by Israeli animal rights advocate Ori Shavit and a group of independent activists, with the support of Anonymous for Animal Rights and Let Animals Live.
Reacting to how progress in the movement is now “happening much more rapidly here than it was in the United States,” Hershaft said, “I think that the Israelis might be more open, because it’s a young country and it’s experimenting with technological and social issues, and I think people may be more open to new social concepts.”