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Beliefs lead to activism

Utah native’s protests for PETA has roots in his Jewish faith

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Ben Goldsmith, a West High School graduate, works for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and protests in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

Ben Goldsmith, a West High School graduate, works for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and protests in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

PETA

The last time Benjamin Goldsmith ate chicken was during his junior year at Salt Lake's West High School. He lunched on McDonald's McNuggets, and that afternoon he talked with a friend who is vegan.

Goldsmith questioned his friend. He listened and questioned some more. Then his friend showed him a video, "Meet Your Meat." After that day Goldsmith never ate meat — of any kind — again.

Goldsmith graduated from West in 2000 and left Utah for college. These days he lives in Virginia and works for PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

As part of his job, he travels the country staging protests against big corporations. Goldsmith targets fast food outlets that, according to PETA, contribute to the inhumane treatment of animals. Having made progress with McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King, several years ago, PETA's current target is Kentucky Fried Chicken. The bulls-eye this Wednesday will be the KFC on south State Street in Salt Lake where Goldsmith and some fellow activists will spend the noon hour telling and showing the lunch crowd that the growing and processing of poultry in the United States doesn't come close to being humane — let alone just letting a chicken be a chicken before it becomes food.

Goldsmith says he became a social activist not only because both his parents are social activists, but also because they raised him in the Jewish faith.

If you knew Ben as a boy, his parents say, you would not be at all surprised to see him on State Street this week. "Ben was always very earnest and committed," says his mother, Janet Wolf. "He has always been a lover of things lesser and smaller . . . always loved animals." When her son became a vegan, she knew it was not a passing phase.

Goldsmith's father, Stephen, says, "Ben is nothing if not intense." He's passionate, yet logical, and "I learned as a parent to pay attention to that."

His religious upbringing taught him to respect others and to have integrity, he says. He doesn't see his social activism as a replacement for his faith, but rather as an extension of it. "Jewish law is very firm on the humane treatment of animals." Especially at Passover, he says, he feels the connection between his religion and his career.

In his family there were many conversations about God and morality and the right way to live. He talked not only with his parents but with his Goldsmith grandparents. His other grandparents, the Wolfs, lived in Chicago and died when he was too young to really know them. Yet they had an effect on him, surely, his mother says. It is hard not to be effected by grandparents who survived the Holocaust.

His cause has changed the way both his parents live, they say. They've gradually come to avoid most meat. They don't eat chicken, at all. (His mother does call herself a "flexitarian" who will eat fish, and his father will still, on occasion, do a little catch-and-release fishing. But the elder Goldsmith adds that he fishes far less often than he used to, and with far more reverence.)

The Deseret Morning News spoke to Goldsmith by phone last week as he drove from a KFC protest in Bend, Ore., to a KFC protest in Eugene. The day before he was in Oregon, he had been in Logan picketing at yet another KFC.

Goldsmith says, "We will continue to put pressure on folks who stand to drastically improve the lives of animals." His father says Ben works without anger, without hostility, but that his work comes from his spirituality.

The elder Goldsmith says his son is trying to live the concept of "tikkun olam." Early rabbis used the phrase to express the hope of repairing the world through the coming of the kingdom of God. The phrase is also found in Ecclesiastes, where it refers to "setting in order." (Ecclesiastes 7:13 says, "Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?")

Modern Jews use the phrase to mean we all have a duty to engage in social activism, Stephen Goldsmith says. "We may not be able to complete the work, but we are obligated to try." His son is not going to save every chicken, but he knows he must continue to drive around the country and stand in the sun and hold up a sign.

Goldsmith tells people they don't need to eat animals to be happy. "Vegans and vegetarians are significantly healthier." Heart disease and stroke and so many other ailments are linked to a diet of animal products, he says, to anyone who will listen.

Still, he realizes others have the right to disagree. If you try to pin him down on the minimum it would take to make him happy, he says he would be happy if people who eat meat took a good look at where their food comes from and buy from companies that are the most humane. He'd like it if KFC did something to stop the worst abuses.

Also, he would like to see all chickens die by being given argon gas. With gas, they don't struggle to breathe, Goldman says. They just go to sleep.

In response to a telephone call, KFC spokesperson Diane Bloem, e-mailed the Deseret Morning News this statement: KFC and its suppliers, who also service top supermarket chains and other companies in the quick service industry, are committed to the humane treatment of chickens.

In the past, KFC spokespeople have said they don't own any processing plants and they buy their chicken from the same processors that the big grocery chains use. PETA members countered by saying that if KFC put pressure on the processors, chickens' lives would improve. The new KFC statement seems to imply that KFC is more willing to be linked with the suppliers' practises (although the company did not respond when the paper asked that question).