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Interview of Richard Schwartz by the European Vegetarian and Animal News Agency (EVANA)
January 14, 2008

On behalf of EVANA, Herma Caelen talks to Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) and co-founder and president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV). Richard Schwartz is the author of the books Judaism and Vegetarianism and Judaism and Global Survival and also the associate producer of the documentary "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World."

Herma Caelen: Richard, first of all let me thank you for taking the time to talk to us even though you must be very busy with the promotion of the documentary 'A Sacred Duty.' It seems that after the world premiere on 12 November 2007 the film has been very successful. In what countries has it already been shown and are more presentations planned elsewhere?

Richard H. Schwartz: In addition to many areas of the United States, the movie has been shown or will soon be shown in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Israel, Romania, South Africa, the United Kingdom and probably some countries that I am so far unaware of. Thankfully we have found very enthusiastic volunteers in the U.S. and other countries who are arranging showings and getting complimentary DVDs to key people.

EVANA: Does the film address mainly the Jewish community or does it offer vibrant messages to everyone of good will?

Answer: Although it has a Jewish perspective, “A SACRED DUTY” speaks to people everywhere about the ethics of our relationship to the natural world in which we live. The movie's universal message will appeal to anyone interested in such topics as religion, vegetarianism, the environment, health, nutrition, hunger, resource usage and collaboration to help heal our planet.

The movie may be said to be like Levy's Jewish Rye bread - you do not have to be Jewish to appreciate it.

All of the major religions share the same basic tenets. All have teachings that promote compassion and respect for people, animals and all of creation. Since working to heal the Earth is really a universal duty for all human beings, our hope is that A SACRED DUTY will challenge and inspire both Jews and non-Jews. Early indications are that A SACRED DUTY has been well received by people of all faiths, all around the world. There are many positive blurbs, many from non-Jews, at www.ASacredDuty.com. There has been special interest in the Jain community, both in the United States and in India.

EVANA: What gave you the idea to realize such a project and how did you manage to find the impressive support that eventually made the film the success it is today?

Answer: I viewed a very good documentary produced by the Christian Vegetarian Association on Christianity and Vegetarianism, and thought it would be nice if Jewish vegetarians produced a documentary that considered vegetarianism from a Jewish perspective. I suggested the idea in a Jewish Vegetarians of North America newsletter. I received a very enthusiastic response from Lionel Friedberg, a multi-award winning producer/director/writer/cinematographer, who agreed that it was essential that such a movie be made. I have had the great pleasure of working with Lionel for the past two years, and his commitment to successfully completing the movie in the most effective way possible has been consistent and inspiring. He, and his wife, a professional editor, worked diligently as a labor of love and dedication, accepting no professional fee at all, only reimbursement for their expenses.. We were extremely fortunate to have them as the producer and director of our movie.

EVANA: Please tell us a bit about the film itself. How long is it and what kind of information does it offer apart from interviews? Are there any graphic scenes people should be aware of before watching it?

Answer: A SACRED DUTY is one hour long. To dramatize statements in the interviews, there are spectacular scenes that were filmed in the United States, Israel and many other countries.

The movie stresses three major themes:

1. The world is imperiled as possibly never before by global warming and many other environmental threats. Many examples of environmental problems in Israel and worldwide are shown.

2. Judaism has teachings that provide a powerful basis for responding to current environmental threats. Examples of groups in Israel and the US applying these values are discussed.

3. A shift toward vegetarianism is an essential part of the necessary response to global warming and other environmental threats. All the reasons for Jews (and others) to be vegetarians are carefully considered.

Since there are scenes that illustrate some of the many horrors on modern factory farms, there is a cautionary statement at the start of the movie.

EVANA: Are there plans of having 'A Sacred Duty' translated into other languages?

Answer: Yes, we have a volunteer to translate it into Hebrew and another volunteer to translate it into Spanish. We would be happy to have A SACRED DUTY available in these and many other languages.

EVANA: Has there been, or will there be, cooperation with the representatives of other religions?

Answer: Yes. Since I am president of Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV), I have been working with people of other religions to help promote A SACRED DUTY. I have been interviewed by representatives of religious subgroups of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Best Friends for Animals, and these interviews are at the web sites of these groups. We have received requests for our complimentary DVDs from members of various religions, many of whom are arranging showings.

EVANA: Many consider vegetarians as trouble makers, rocking the boat of culinary traditions. Has there been any resistance to your ecological testimony, which stresses the damages of meat consumption?

Answer: While we have been receiving an extremely positive response from the vegetarian and animal rights communities (as indicated, for example by the many very positive blurbs at www.ASacredDuty.com), most meat-eaters are resistant to our message. As Al Gore quips, “Denial is not just a river in Africa.” Hence, as discussed later, it is essential that we break through the ignorance, apathy and denial that keep so many people eating foods that are so harmful for them and the environment. And A SACRED DUTY provides a valuable tool for doing this.

EVANA: How can interested people obtain a copy of the documentary and what is the price and time of delivery?

Answer: We feel that the fate of humanity may be at stake in our efforts, so we are anxious to get the movie seen and discussed by as many people as possible. Hence, we are offering complimentary DVDs to people who will share it with others, arrange a screening or help promote the movie in some other way. DVDs will be sent out as soon as we receive requests.

Interested people can get a completely free DVD by sending their name and mailing address to the JVNA secretary/treasurer John Diamond at JDiamond4@cox.net.

We are happy to send more than one copy to people who indicate how they will share them with others who will help promote the movie.

We are also working to get A SACRED DUTY onto the internet to make it available to even more people.

EVANA: What is your recommendation to those who for one reason or another won't be able to see the film but who are, just like you, very concerned about the dangers which our present lifestyle represents for future generations?

Answer: Whether a person sees A SACRED DUTY or not, they should contact local religious teachers, educators, media members and other influential people and help make them aware that: (1) the world is heading toward an unprecedented catastrophe due to global warming and other environmental threats, (2) a shift toward vegetarian diets is an essential part of the necessary response to these threats and (3) it is time that we stopped ignoring these inconvenient truths and made the saving of the planet a main focus for society today.

EVANA: Today meat has a terrible press. Not only does the meat industry involve enormous cruelty to sentient and helpless beings, meat is also dangerous for human health and wrecks the environment on a huge scale. Some even say that the industry endangers a safe future for coming generations because its activities lead to global warming, desertification, soil erosion etc. Do you have an explanation on why people continue eating meat even though all these dangers are now known?

Answer: There are a number of factors, including:

* Ignorance: people have many misconceptions about nutrition and health, and this is furthered by industries that have a vested interest in keeping people confused and ignorant.

* A herd mentality: many people do not want to stand out and be non-conformists; they see their family and friends eating an animal-based diet and do not want to be different.

* Apathy and resistance to change: I think of an analogy to the metric system: Everyone recognizes that it is far more logical than the system in the United States, but people in the US resist switching because they are used to the present system.

* Failure of the medical profession to educate people about the many negative health effects of animal-based diets. Part of the problem is that we have a disease-care system, not a health-promoting system. A true "health-care" system would be concerned with preventing disease, and promoting wellness. We wait until all the damage is done then try to "fix" it with medicine (which often does not work).

* Failure of religious leaders to point out how the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is inconsistent with at least six basic religious teachings.

* Denial: people's lack of willingness to consider the realities of their diets.

EVANA: If you had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Al Gore who in spite of informing us about the 'Inconvenient Truth' of global warming continues to eat meat - what would you tell him?

Answer: First, I would congratulate him on his many years of effort that have succeeded in greatly increasing awareness of how threatening global climate change is, and for the recent well-deserved awards that he has won for his efforts.

Then I would very respectfully try to make him aware of another inconvenient truth - that, according to the 2006 UN Food and Agriculture report, “Livestock's Long Shadow,” animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in carbon dioxide equivalents) than all the cars, trucks, ships, planes and other forms of transportation worldwide combined (18% vs. 13.5%).

I would point out that the same report projects that the number of farmed animals will double in about 50 years, and the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions will negate many of the positive changes that he has been promoting. Hence, I would continue, we will never reach the reductions in greenhouse gases necessary to avoid the catastrophe that the world is rapidly approaching, unless there is a major shift toward vegan diets. I would urge him to use his unique position to urge people to shift to plant-based diets as an essential step to move our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

EVANA: Considering that our 'good old' ways bring about enormous risks for the future, humanity may not manage to turn things around in time. What would be the consequences? Do you think that the very survival of humanity could be at stake?

Answer: Absolutely, and this is the greatest moral, political, environmental, spiritual issue of our time. It is becoming increasingly clear that the world is rapidly heading toward an unprecedented catastrophe and steps must be taken immediately to respond, that it is essential that religious values be applied in response and that a major shift toward vegetarianism is an essential part of efforts to shift our imperiled world to a sustainable path.

There are almost daily news reports re severe storms, floods, droughts and wildfires, melting polar ice caps and glaciers and many other indications of global warming.

Key climate scientists, including James Hansen of NASA, are warning that we may reach a tipping point within a decade after which global warming will spiral out of control, with disastrous consequences -- unless major changes are soon made.

It is therefore urgent, and more timely than ever, that the message of “A SACRED DUTY” -- with its emphasis on the urgent need for a global shift to plant-based eating and agriculture -- be widely spread and heeded.

A major report by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense pointed out Israel's special vulnerabilities to global climate change, in terms of reduced rainfall, severe storms and flooding from a rising Mediterranean sea.

EVANA: Compassionate and concerned people are forced to helplessly witness unrestrained cruelty to animals and mind boggling recklessness towards nature. Can you give any kind of moral support to those who are about to despair about the damage humanity is inflicting upon our earthly home and its creatures?

Answer: We should consider the following:

* The good news is that most people have become aware of global warming and its threats, and many positive changes are occurring at the personal, local, regional, national and international levels. Of course, much more needs to be done, but there are many signs that the momentum has shifted in terms of awareness and actions.

* We have many recent tools to help in educating people, including the UN FAO report mentioned above, the recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group composed of thousands of the worlds leading climate scientists, that show convincingly that global warming is a reality and that changes are urgently needed to avoid disaster, and A SACRED DUTY. Also, many vegetarian and environmental groups have greatly increased their efforts to increase awareness and positive responses.

* We should also consider the major changes that have occurred in relatively recent times, including the end of slavery, the granting of voting rights to women and the end of child labor, due to the actions of committed activists.

Finally, we should consider the in importance of the issues and the urgency of our responses. We cannot give in to despair. As Thomas Paine stated, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph!”

EVANA: One final question: How can people accepting the recommendations of 'A Sacred Duty' promote them within their own communities?

Answer: I hope that everyone reading this interview will join JVNA and other groups in building a massive, unprecedented campaign around showings of A SACRED DUTY to help shift our imperiled world to a sustainable path, help revitalize Judaism (and other religions) and get vegetarianism and related issues onto the Jewish and other agendas.

We plan to use our many contacts in the vegetarian, animal rights, Jewish and other communities and the increasing awareness of current environmental and health crises to challenge all societal groups to make the major changes, including a shift toward plant-based diets, necessary to address current environmental threats.

We would like the movie to be screened in as many venues as possible. We hope that people reading this interview will request DVDs and use them to help set up such events and see that they get widespread media coverage and a sizable attendance, including religious leaders, educators and other key people.

To build on and magnify the publicity related to the movie showings, we are also planning a major letter writing campaign building on the themes of the movie, discussing the nature of present threats, why Jews (and others) should be involved, and the importance of a shift toward vegetarianism.

We have produced 10,000 DVDs, and are sending out free copies to Rabbis and other key members of the Jewish community and other communities. We would like to challenge Rabbis to respectful email discussions/debates on “Should Jews Be Vegetarians?” and hope to extend this into other communities. We also wish to challenge the media to stop generally ignoring the messages we are presenting re the major threats to humanity, the failure of the Jewish community to adequately respond and the necessity for major dietary shifts in response to current threats.

Through these and more steps, we aim to do nothing less than change the consciousness of Jews and others regarding the threats facing all of humanity and the entire creation, vegetarianism, the need to respond to current environmental threats and much more. We have great potential, and we welcome everyone's help in promoting the movie and our messages.

Of course, we also desperately need financial help to continue and greatly expand our efforts. People may give tax deductible donations by visiting www.JewishVeg.com/action.

EVANA: We thank you for having given us the opportunity to find out more about the documentary and wish all involved in the production and promotion an even faster growing national and international success.

Response: I want to thank you Herma and the European Vegetarian and Animals News Agency (EVANA) for this wonderful opportunity to share our message and for your long-time most welcome cooperation, help, valuable suggestions and cooperation for my efforts and for the efforts of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. I look forward to working cooperatively with you on future initiatives.