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From Facebook to Israel: Activist Gary Yourofsky will try to make us vegan | Ha’aretz Magazine, August 3rd, 2012

A wonderful speaker, a humane and sensitive man; or a radical activist that condones violence – next month marks the arrival of Gary Yourofsky, who will try to explain that to eat meat is to be part of a genocide.

Translation of the article published in Ha’aretz Magazine on August 3rd, 2012.

Going to the circus, that is what lead Gary Yourofsky towards his calling- fighting for animal rights. This was twenty years ago: Yourofsky’s stepfather, who worked as a clown, was volunteering in the Shrine Circus that was collecting donations for children injured in fires. When the circus came to his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, he invited Yourofsky to a backstage tour. Yourofsky, then a 23 year old student, jumped at the chance. “Like most people, I too was blind, and it seemed exciting to me”. He explains via Skype. “Then I went backstage. There I saw elephants scared and chained to a post, monkeys screaming in agony, and tigers pacing nervously from side to side in the cage. The cruelty of it stunned me. Suddenly it seemed more like a slave show”.

Yourofsky started wondering about the animals whom he ate and whose skin he wore. Instead of staying to see the end of the show in Shrine Circus, he went home, located a slaughter house in his hometown and started frequenting it every day for six weeks. Security there was loose, and he was free to walk around as he pleased. “On the Slaughter Floor there was a glassless window. They were trying to air out the stench of death. I saw them hang pigs upside down, squealing- cutting them until there was nothing left”. Those days he was still eating meat: but one day, while he was filming the trucks that were delivering the animals for slaughter, his glance fell on a pig glaring at him. “It was as if he were saying, why are you doing this to us? I did not have an answer. I began wondering- is the slaughter house the problem, or the who’s being slaughtered there? I could not understand how when animals are killed, people look the other way, but if Jews were killed, everyone would be horrified. It would be the same for dogs or cats. But when it is cows, pigs or turkeys, people think it’s fine. It’s not fine”.

It is no accident that Yourofsky, one of the most known activists for animal rights in the United States, is mentioning the Jews as an example. This example is not especially crafted for an interview to an Israeli newspaper. Yourofsky, a Jew himself, calls the slaughter house an “extermination camp” and the trucks are “concentration camp trucks”. He often quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer- a holocaust survivor and a vegetarian, wrote in “The Letter Writer”, when the main character Herman Gombiner, whose family was killed by the Nazis, while thinking about a mouse he befriended and whose death he thinks he caused, eulogizes in sadness his friend:”They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an Eternal Treblinka”.

Charles Patterson a historian who studies the holocaust, wrote in 2002 a book titled “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust”, claims that inspiration for genocide, slavery and mass torture comes from the treatment of animals. There is more here than a mere provocation, Yourofsky argues, that most people are guilty of Speciesism- discrimination not based on race, but on species: indifference to the fate of animals, simply because they are not human.

From Yourofsky’s perspective, he is a freedom-fighter and the year is always 1939. Perhaps the Jewish obsession for WW2, is what makes him so successful in the smallest country in the Middle East. If no one has sent you the link to “the best lecture you will ever hear”- a lecture given in 2010 in Georgia Tech, where Yourofsky offers his view on the killing of animals, and attempts to convince the audience to become vegan- it is only a matter of time before you will find it on your Facebook feed.

336,000 people have already seen it in Israel- more than in any other country, except for the United States. Only in Israel, celebrities of all kinds stand in line to praise Yourofsky, and his influence on their lives. “It is important that everyone see this lecture, its effect is amazing!” says Miki Haimovich on the site hosting the lecture and uses her quote to promote the agenda against the consumption of meat. “This lecture rattled the foundations of my soul… this guy is so intelligent, charismatic and inspiring. I was devastated how blind I had been.” says Achinoam Nini.

Yourofsky is arriving in Israel on September 5th and will stay until September 14th. Every day he is expected to give two lectures along with a few large events. He will appear in high schools, universities and public venues. This is his first time lecturing outside of the United States. “you know, I don’t really understand why it works so well in Israel”, he says, “but I find that people that were oppressed or have a historic recollection of this- Jews, Blacks, Women- respond better to the lecture, they understand what it means to be tortured cruelly, to be treated like you are nothing”.

The apple and the rabbit challenge

Yourofsky is a charismatic speaker. An hour of watching the bald man wearing a white shirt and shorts, talking in a quick pace sipping a bottle of water, passes quickly and is not boring even for a second. He is reminiscent in the strength of his conviction of religious preachers, the way that he pulls on the heart strings evoking empathy, shock and shame one after another. He opens with the commandment “thou shalt not kill”, goes on to comparisons to slavery and eventually gets to the holocaust of course. The entire speech is framed by the theme of cruelty towards animals, and universal moral dilemmas.

He however does not forget who the audience is. “I understand your lifestyle”, he emphasizes, “it was once mine. Twenty years ago I even owned a fur coat”. He stresses that he understands what he refers to as an “addiction to meat, cheese, eggs and milk”, and asks from his audience only one focused change; you don’t have to make a big change “you can keep your friends, your political views, your patriotism, you can still watch your favorite television shows”. He shows horrifying videos taken at slaughter houses and cattle ranches, and recommends soy burgers and soy dogs. “If you think people are carnivores, take a two year old baby and put an apple and a rabbit in his crib”, says Yourofsky, “if the baby plays with the apple and eats the rabbit- I will come back here and eat a steak sandwich”.

I finished watching the lecture with a sense of shock and felt sick, even though a bit later I heated up some meatloaf. But the sounds and sights had stuck with me for much longer, especially the question, towards the end of the lecture- “what is your excuse now?”

Very few of the viewers are aware that the kind man with the glasses and shorts, is a radical activist that was arrested 13 times and imprisoned for 77 days at a maximum security prison, after breaking into a fur farm and freeing 1,500 minks, was tagged “an international terrorist”, and banned from entering Canada and the United Kingdom. Most of his fans, certainly the Israelis, would not associate him with the following sentences, given in an interview given to the Abolitionist in 2006, “Every woman ensconced in fur should endure a rape so vicious that it scars them forever. While every man entrenched in fur should suffer an anal raping so horrific that they become disemboweled”.

Needles to say, that these sentences and the entire quote are repeatedly quoted in every story about Yourofsky: and that the North American Fur Association made sure it would appear in every search that is related to Yourofsky in Google. This despite that fact, as Yourofsky insists on mentioning, that it is only one quote from over 40 articles he has written.

In our conversation Yourofsky seems slimmer than in the Georgia Tech lecture. He sits on the couch in his apartment, while his wife Erika walks around the room. He is nice and kind, though the pain and passion are apparent every time he speaks of animal suffering. He does not deny the violent death he wishes upon all that are involved in the fur, meat, milk or egg industry- or upon those who eat or wear animals.

“I don’t believe that anyone really objects to violence in every situation”, he explains. “No one objected when the allies entered the concentration camps and killed Nazis. You can’t go to the Nazis with signs, you have to go at them with guns. If someone is kept in a concentration camp, killed or captured- it’s self defense. You can kill. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men to do nothing. I am not happy about needing violence to achieve this, but there is a myth that love prevails over hate. It is not true”.

“The chickens didn’t commit a crime. They are killed because they are a commodity. Sometimes I think that the only way to destroy Speciesism is to make sure that bad things happened to bad people. Anyone who pays for fur, needs to be anally electrocuted with a pole – just like the way they kill foxes. But please remember that I never committed an act of violence”.

Why use such violent rhetoric? It could distance people from your cause.

“Until now the rhetoric didn’t affect the activism- the lecture has already been translated into 27 languages. People appreciate the fact that I am not a liar and not a politician. The truth is. Violence is an appropriate tactic, but not always. I’m not asking people to blow up McDonald’s.”

If it is so effective, why do you give lectures instead of using violence?

“So far I find education is more effective. But maybe one day I will, I don’t know. I’m frustrated. There are people who only want to fight me. Right now I am affecting more people through lectures”.

“I hope you will not focus too much on this”, He later writes me in an e-mail a few days later. “the issue is the violence caused by the meat eaters, fur wearers, scientists vivisecting animals, hunters, etc. Don’t judge people like me who are trying to stop a holocaust, but those who started it and take part in it (meat eaters) and actively defend a violent genocide”.

My mother is a holocaust survivor. The comparison you make to the holocaust is very troubling to me, especially when in Israel it is used far too lightly.

“The comparison is valid. In America today, thirty million innocent animals are killed, five times the number of Jews who died in the holocaust. It is the longest-running genocide in human history. We brand the animals. We deprive them of life, liberty, freedom, put them in the slaughterhouses and on extermination trucks. I am not saying animals are more important than your mother, but you can’t just ignore the murder. To say laws can’t be broken is silly. If the laws are unjust and someone becomes a victim, we need to break those laws. Gandhi was arrested more than a dozen times. Nelson Mandela wasn’t very loved in the days he was an activist (because he supported violence)”.

The great Mink Show

As mentioned, Yourofsky did not always side with breaking the law only in theory: in 1996 he formed Animals Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow (ADAPTT). He started protesting businesses that took advantage of animals and in 1999 chained his neck to his car, and blocked the entrance to the Detroit Center for Animal Control, where animals were killed in gas chambers, or sold for experiments. In the late 1990s, when he was active against deer hunting, he received so many death threats that he had to be escorted by 17 police officers to make a speech, “I don’t know who threatened me, probably hunters who didn’t want to give up their game”.

After he freed the minks from the mink farm in Ontario he crawled, with another activists, through mud and piles of feces, after they opened the cages. “I decided I would free these animals no matter what. It’s pretty easy- there are a few thousand animals in grave danger, with very little security. There are many concentration camps like that. They are never in town as no one wants concentration camps in their backyard. Behind the farm there was around 600 acres of forest, there is where the minks escaped to”.

“A friend warned me the minks would attack me”, he adds, “but I said they would know why I was there. All the minks wanted to do that night was to escape. I remember them screaming with joy. One of them even landed on my chest as I opened a cage, I looked at her, and she tilted her head as if to say ‘I thought you were the other guy”. The screams of joy started to alert the neighbors, Yourofsky was arrested and put in jail. “If I were to break the minks’ necks, I would be a hero, but since I stopped the torture, they called me an international terrorist”.

The break-in made Yourofsky an overnight celebrity. “Before I broke into the farm, no one cared. Suddenly the media, college professors- they all wanted to talk”. That is when the lectures were born: Yourofsky began traveling across colleges in the United States. He recorded advertisements against animal abuse and put up billboards. The first high school he was invited to, he stayed four and half hours over schedule answering Q&A.

Yourofsky however refused, and still refuses to charge money for lectures, and around 2001 the money ran out. In an interview at that time he admitted to owing thirty thousand dollars in credit card debt. He announced his retirement from activist work, and the rumor of his retirement reached PETA, known for its activity against the fur and leather industry. The organization funded Yourofsky’s television ads against circuses, and the heads of PETA realized the value of Yourofsky’s oratory skills. They paid him a salary until 2005 to keep touring and giving lectures. But the relationship fizzled: “PETA wanted to make money, and I refuse to charge money to give a lecture. I wouldn’t even take people’s emails. They aren’t really into education, there is no money in it”.

The current lecture is the fruit of years of labor, traveling across the United States with his wife Erika, also a vegan, who accompanies him almost everywhere. “I enter a class and start giving the lecture, and people look like this at first”, he demonstrates sitting in a hostile position with his arms crossed. “Five minutes later they lean forward. After the slaughter house movie, I see the change beginning. They come up to me after the lecture and say: ‘tell me what to do”.

But the audience is not always friendly. “The worst audience was at Ohio State University, in agriculture classes. Don’t ask me why, but they invited me five straight years to give lectures to students who are going to work in a slaughter house. It’s probably their way to show that they were open to criticism. But it was like The Jerry Springer Show- they were yelling, and I was yelling. I got tired of it. I don’t want to fight, I want to educate”.

In 2010 Yourofsky uploaded his lecture to YouTube. A while later, he remembers, “things started to go crazy. People began to listen. I started getting emails saying, ‘I want to make a local version of your speech, can I translate it?’ today it has reached over 3 million views”.

Since then, somehow, destiny- and the internet- have attracted a sponsor. “Somehow, I always get a weird mail around December, offering help. From 2008-10, my primary sponsor was a meat eater. At first, I thought he was a vegan, but when I met him in San Francisco, I was shocked to discover that he wasn’t. I asked him why he wanted to help me. He said, ‘because you have the best speech I have heard in my life’. ‘I think people should hear you’. I always have one big donor, and a few people send me some money”. Yourofsky needs just $25-35,000 a year to live: he lives in a small apartment and drives a Toyota. “Not having money doesn’t bother me. I think that my speech works so well because I am not trying to sell anything”.

With skills like that you could have been rich.

“I’m very rich- I have the best wife in the world, there are a few squirrels out here on my porch who take nuts from me, I have a good friend who is a raccoon and another who is an opossum. Of course the thought of money has crossed my mind, if only I had more, what I could do with it. But I can’t change the fact that I don’t know how to make money. I’m brilliant in activism, but an idiot when it comes to making money”.

The person Yourofsky has most difficulty convincing is actually his best friend. “for some reason, friends and family are the most difficult to talk to when you are an activist, I don’t know why. It’s odd because I am great with strangers, they cry, hug me and say I have changed their lives. But my best friend, Darin, whom I have known since we were eight, told me only three days ago he is finally going to become vegan. We’ll see if it happens. Darin says all the right things, but does nothing. He uses all the same excuses that meat eaters use, but meat eaters are not rational”.

Fighting repression

Yourofsky is lucky enough to be lecturing in an age when meat eaters are beginning to listen. “Probably this lecture would not have been as welcomed five years ago”, says Hilla Keren, the spokesperson for Anonymous for Animal Rights. “A combination of a few things is responsible for the change: the awareness of animal abuse in the meat industry, the health advantages of vegetarianism and veganism, and the environmental damage caused by the meat industry. These are all factors in the decline of meat consumption in the United States”. In Israel there hasn’t been a thorough survey in over a decade, but Keren offers the results of the financial group CME, which found that in 2012 the average American- the world biggest meat consumer- will consume about 12.2 percent less meat than in 2007, the lowest number in 34 years in the United States.

The decline in consumption is in all types of meat, although the most steep decline is in the consumption of chicken. The CME report calls the decline “amazing in the historic context”. That said, it is important to mention that the number of animals killed on Earth continues to rise as the human population continues to increase. And the decline in meat consumption cannot catch up to the pace of the demographic expansion.

“We still eat way more meat than is good for us or the environment, not to mention the animals”, writes Mark Bittman of the New York Times. “But a 12 percent reduction in just five years is significant, and if that decline were to continue for the next five years- well, that’s something few would have imagined five years ago. It’s something only the industry could get upset about. The rest of us should celebrate”. Bittman also mentions “Flexitarianism” – “an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without ‘going vegetarian” is one of the top five consumer health trends for 2012. And according to the “Independent”, May 2012, from 2005 to 2010 the meat-replacement food industry has grown by 18 percent.

Eating meat of course also has dramatic environmental aspects. According to a UN report, the meat industry is responsible for about 18 percent of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the car greenhouse gas emissions combined. Health related reasons for not eating meat are also in abundance.

But as environmental journalist and anchor on Galei Zahal radio, Aviv Lavie, “the majority of Yourofsky’s rationale and motivation stems from moral arguments. Veganism has a few other ingredients or motivations that can be entirely separate from the moral issue. The environmental aspect is much more complex, and the health aspects are beginning to interest people – mainly when they have at least reach their parenting age or after they have experienced a health related trauma. Besides, we were taught the exact opposite: that you need to have at least three glasses of milk a day and that you can’t give up eggs. It is difficult to let go of the myths. Therefore the really powerful motivator is the moral issue. Once you have realized that what you have on your plate is not a ‘piece of meat’, but a dead chicken or a slaughtered cow, it is easier to say ‘I want no part in this”.

A study by Kansas University, which looked at the connection between media coverage and meat consumption in United States between 1982-2008, found that every time the media reports on abuse towards animals in the meat or dairy industry, the meat consumption in the United States decreases. Jonathan Safran Foer also generated much support for veganism in his book, “Eating Animals” published in 2009. Among other things, he describes in his book the appalling conditions in slaughter houses. The book inspired actress Natalie Portman to become vegan and compare meat eating with rape. In an article she wrote for the Huffington Post in 2009, she asked “if we don’t tolerate rape, why do we tolerate meat”. Even in complex issues- nothing beats a horror story”.

Just like the success of Yourofsky in the world is attributable to more than charisma, his success in Israel- and the seal of approval he gets from its celebrities- also is no coincidence. Hovav Amir ,32; and his partner Daniel Erlich, an actor and narrator, 33; saw the lecture online, and realized Yourofsky may be the answer to the years of activist work which bared little fruit. Amir has been a vegan since his early 20s. He moved to Tel-Aviv and began manning stands for animal rights activism and passed out pamphlets: quickly he realized that it doesn’t really work.

“You can stand on the street for four hours, maybe one person will consider veganism, and even he may not fully commit”, says Amir. “People just don’t care. At first you think you are going to make a change, all you need to do is show them the truth and they will be convinced, but people are in their own world; there is huge repression. And you realize that it’s not going to do anything”. Amir moved to online activism, and two years ago came across Yourofsky’s lecture. “The first time I said wow, everyone needs to see this”. Amir and Erlich translated the lecture and built an online site for it, and began publishing it on Facebook. They had 3000 views in three days. Amir began spending more and more time, until he left his work as a programmer. Gradually they began to receive donations to fund their activity, mostly from “new vegans” as Amir refers to them. At a certain point they had trouble furthering the promotion of the lecture for technical reasons but then came across Achinoam Nini’s quote. And like many before them, realized that one celebrity is worth a thousand shares. They sent the lecture to celebrities, and the rest is internet history.

“There is something about celebs, that works tactically as a middleman”, explains Aviv Lavie. “People see someone, on the one hand who is very convincing, charismatic and moving; on the other, they may think, maybe I’m just delusional and don’t understand who these weird tree huggers are. Once a person who is struggling sees an actor he knows from TV, he says, ‘great, I’m not alone”.

Now Amir and Erlich are bringing Yourofsky to Israel and are funding it through donations. Yourofsky on his part, is taking a lecturing-sabbatical this year – the first break he has taken in fifteen years. “I am always frustrated and depressed, because I know what is happening to the animals. It’s a lot of stress and that can kill you. I feel guilty, but I have to step back a bit”. He also avoids giving interviews in the United States. “I had good media coverage, but in America there is such a focus on entertainment, that issues like slavery and murder, go in one ear and out of the other”.

For his Israeli audience Yourofsky is planning to put an emphasis on the holocaust, and also stress the process of Kosher slaughter. And like Anne Frank, he has not lost hope. “I know that most people are good. They want to re-examine their lives. But they’re addicted to meat, milk, eggs and cheese, and addicts are irrational. I’m open and willing to battle the addiction. We claim that humans are an ethical species, but if you are a good person, you can’t be good only to certain species. Murder is murder”.

What do you see, when looking at a meat eater?

“Someone with blinders on, a secret vegan. I ate meat for 25 years- so I also see myself. I want to give you a chance, to give you a hug, to have you say: ‘I want to change’. I see meat eaters everywhere, and I’m frustrated. I want to bring out the wonderful person that is inside of you”.

To Murder the Murderers: Who are you, Gary Yourofsky?

The combination of education and empathy with statements about violence, makes it difficult to decipher who this warrior for the animals is

It is difficult to figure out the kind and empathetic man who gives the Georgia Tech lecture – the one that claims to understand the meat eaters and wants to show them the light- with the violent rhetoric when he talks about the necessary methods to fight those who torture and kill animals, as well as those who eat and wear them.

Yourofsky himself asks to make it clear he is not a violent man. He deals only with education through lectures and advertisements on the radio and TV, and does not promote violence in his lectures or through any other means. Nevertheless, when it comes to stopping animal abuse- for him, all means are acceptable. He sees himself as fighting an injustice on the scale of genocide, and often quotes Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and even Gandhi, as those who support violating the law, when it is unjust.

“It’s very convenient for meat eaters, fur wearers and other violent bullies – who kill and torture as much as they like – to turn around and condemn people who intend to stop their murderous ways”, he writes. “it’s like the Nazis screaming ‘massacre’ after the allied forces stopped the holocaust with the mass killing of Nazis. Murderers can’t claim that it is unjust to be murdered. Oppressors can’t claim to be subject to oppression”.

In an article he wrote in 1997 he clarifies: “undoubtedly, I prefer non-violent activism like giving speeches in classrooms, giving out pamphlets, protesting and writing opinion columns. But a wide array of tactics is required to achieve a significant change. Given the choice between empathy and freeing minks, burning laboratories where cruel research is conducted, or killing someone who vivisects animals- I would rather have these actions taken over empathy any day”

The quotes that will forever be remembered from the interview he gave to the abolitionist in 2006: “Sometimes I think that the only effective and productive method of destroying speciesism would be for each uncaring human to be forced to live the life of a cow on a feedlot, or a monkey in a laboratory, or an elephant in the circus, or a bull in a rodeo, or a mink on a fur farm. Then people would be awakened from their soporific states and finally understand the horrors that are inflicted on the animal kingdom by the vilest species to ever roam this planet: the human animal!”

“Deep down, I truly hope that oppression, torture and murder return to each uncaring human tenfold! I hope that fathers accidentally shoot their sons on hunting excursions, while carnivores suffer heart attacks that kill them slowly. Every women ensconced in fur should endure a rape so vicious that it scars them forever. While every man entrenched in fur should suffer an anal raping so horrific that they become disemboweled. Every rodeo cowboy and matador should be gored to death, while circus abusers are trampled by elephants and mauled by tigers. And, lastly, may irony shine its esoteric head in the form of animal researchers catching debilitating diseases and painfully withering away because research dollars that could have been used to treat them was wasted on the barbaric, unscientific practice of vivisection.”