A vegan revolution in Israel: fact or fiction?

You may have heard that in the last few years, Israel has gone through a “vegan revolution”, or that it is the most vegan country in the world. I recently was in Israel to give a CEVA vegan advocacy training in Tel Aviv, together with Melanie Joy, whose book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows just came out in Hebrew. My girlfriend and I spent four days in Tel Aviv, three days in Jerusalem, and three days in the occupied territories, and so I had the chance to check things out for myself. Is the vegan situation in Israel indeed remarkable? And if so, why exactly is that?

Answering questions like these is never easy: it is hard to get all the relevant data together and interpret it correctly. But in this case, there are some confounding factors which make the task even more complex. First of all, in assessing whether there’s something exceptional going on in Israel, our personal agenda or bias may be playing a role. For some people, Israel seems to be proof that rather confrontational, in-your-face tactics work, and so they use the case of Israel to argue for a clear, undiluted go-vegan message. Personally, I am – at this point in time – more in favor of slightly toned down messages (including reducetarian ones), which are equally about health and sustainability. So, when looking at Israel, I need to be aware of my own biases in that sense.
Secondly, there is the Palestinian elephant in the room. Many people, mainly on the left, take serious issue with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (I’ll come back to this later), which may color their assessment of how Israel is doing in the vegan department. Some even suggest that Israel is polishing up its image with a dose of vegan-friendliness (“veganwashing”). The situation in Israel seems to be an interesting case study for a discussion about the interconnectedness of oppressions, which is coming more and more to the fore in the animal rights/vegan movement in general.

With these caveats in mind, let’s take a look at what we can find.

What’s happening?
Some tidbits of information: Israel is the only country in the world where the international pizza delivery chain Domino’s (active in over eighty countries) has a vegan offering. It’s also the first country outside of the US where the vegan flavors of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream are available. The Israeli army takes care of its vegan soldiers, offering, among other things, non-leather boots. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed his support for Meatless Mondays and said he is very sympathetic to the idea of animal rights. The 2014 Vegan Fest drew over 10,000 visitors. Happy Cow shows us 20 vegan listings (restaurants, bars, etc.) and 16 vegetarian ones in the city center of Tel Aviv (within a 5 km radius, and in a population of 410,000 people). Travel agencies offer vegan culinary tours of Tel Aviv, and a vegan group tour of Israel.

Israel is the first country where the Domino’s pizza chain has a vegan offering.

Walking around in Tel Aviv, my own superficial assessment was that it is indeed very vegan friendly, on a par with the most vegan-friendly cities in the US, like New York or San Francisco, or Berlin. Tel Aviv is the most progressive part of Israel, while Jerusalem, the country’s biggest city, is much more conservative and doesn’t seem to be quite as impressive in the vegan department. Veganism especially being concentrated in the most progressive cities is of course not a phenomenon unique to Israel.

Very impressive in Israel is also the activist movement itself. The growth of this movement seems to be a very recent thing. When I talked to people about what triggered it, the name Gary Yourofsky, mainly known from his “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” video, kept popping up. Yourofsky – who recently pulled out of activism due to burnout – visited Israel in 2012 and seemed to have galvanized the movement by his talks and many interviews in mainstream media. The Hebrew subtitled version of his video was watched over 700,000 times. Yourofsky is heavily criticized by many people for statements about women, Palestine, and a general misanthropic attitude, but his influence in Israel especially seems hard to deny. Time and again, I heard of prominent and less prominent activists having gone vegan because of Yourofsky.

Apart from him, other influential people I heard mentioned frequently are Tal Gilboa, a vegan activist who won the popular Big Brother show on national TV; Ori Shavit, a food journalist, blogger and activist; and TV celebrity Miki Haimovich, who leads the Meatless Monday campaign in Israel.

So today, the movement in the Holy Land is clearly flourishing. You may have heard about the animal rights march in October 2015, in which no less than 12,000 people participated. The organizers aim to attract three times as many people in the next march, come September – it would make it the biggest animal rights march ever. I had a meeting with people from Anonymous for Animals at their headquarters in Tel Aviv, and was very impressed by the professionalism and results orientation of their relatively young staff (which is 30 people strong!). Equally impressive is the work of the organization Vegan Friendly, led by Omri Paz, which is responsible for the vegan friendly label for businesses, organizes many events, and does lots of other things. The more mainstream organization Let the Animals Live has in recent years introduced vegan campaigns.

The 2015 Animal Rights March in Tel Aviv

Other initiatives are the very successful Facebook page Best Video You Will Ever See, which has over four million followers and seems to be very good at helping videos go viral. Activegan is a new initiative to help vegan activists be more effective (Chen Cohen, one of their founders, helped organize our CEVA training). A vegan congress mainly intended for activists attracted 1,400 people in February 2017. And then, of course, there is the in-your-face activism of the 269Life movement, which originated in Israel, and where activists publicly allow themselves to be branded with the number 269 – the number of a dairy calf born on an Israeli farm.

That’s how active and dedicated the movement is. But what do the actual numbers say? While some reports show higher numbers (sometimes you read 5% vegans), the more realistic research (by the Central Bureau of Statistics) shows 1.7% vegans and 4.7% vegetarians in Israel. The poll asked what people called themselves, so actual figures may be lower still. Moreover, as activist Dylan Powell explains, Israel is in the top meat consuming countries in the world (after the US, New Zealand, Australia and Austria), and is the largest consumer of chickens in the world. The trend too seems upward for meat consumption, and Powell (who is explicitly pro-Palestinian) rightly says that the number of vegans in a country is not necessarily all that revealing, and should be juxtaposed with per capita meat consumption.

What’s different about Israel?
Even if the vegan success in Israel for now seems to be mainly confined to Tel Aviv and to a cultural elite, and even if it can hardly be called light years ahead of other progressive countries, it is still quite impressive. Especially impressive is the speed at which it all happened. A couple of years ago, the movement was very small. I already wrote about Yourofsky, who seemed to have reinvigorated the movement, but from conversations with Israeli activists, I also found some other factors that may have facilitated a quick growth.

One distinct characteristic of Jewish culture are its food laws. The widespread custom of indicating products as kosher, and avoiding non-kosher products (as many, though by no means all Jews do), probably makes it easier for Jews to understand – and be tolerant and open toward – vegan practices of food-avoidance. Israelis also seem to maintain very direct, open and honest communication, which may make it easier still to talk about one’s preferences and ethics.

Another factor may be that Israel is a really small country and that it is relatively easy to reach a big part of the population through its few media outlets. Also, unlike in most Western countries, there is a good vegan culinary basis in Israel (and in other nations in the Middle East). Hummus and falafel (both made of chickpeas) are staple foods that are just about everywhere (people here actually eat entire plates of hummus).
Finally, in my experience with the animal rights movement in the US, I have repeatedly been struck by the disproportionately high number of Jewish people in it. It is possible that the Jews, having been subjected to relentless persecution and hostility over the ages, have an easier time empathizing with the plight of other oppressed minorities. Which, of course, brings us to the Palestine question.

The Palestine conundrum
While we were planning our trip, one activist wrote me that he found it unethical not to gently push us to also visit the occupied territories. It didn’t feel right to me to just enjoy great vegan food in Tel Aviv while I was aware of all the things happening in the region, and so we took a guided tour of East Jerusalem, and one of the city Hebron. The latter tour was run by the organization Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who decided to break their silence about what they had seen during their army service. As I am writing this, prime minister Netanyahu just canceled a meeting with the German minister of foreign affairs because the latter had talked to Breaking the Silence. Many Israelis consider Breaking the Silence to be a group of traitors, but to me, our guide seemed very reasonable and objective, and even though they were obviously critical of the country, they could hardly be called anti-Israel. All of this is testament to what I experienced myself: that there is a heavy taboo against speaking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that any criticism of Israel will easily be considered anti-semitic by some.

Having seen and heard what is happening in the occupied territories, I find it hard to ignore the whole Israeli-Palestine problem in the context of an article about veganism. Experience has already taught me that there is no position where you can stand on this topic without getting a lot of rather intense feedback. I do understand that the matter is very complicated, and that a short stay in Israel cannot make the whole story clear to me (one of our guides was a Palestinian, another was a secular Jewish woman; so, I didn’t get any religious view on things). Still, what I heard and witnessed in Hebron and other places seemed very unjust, to say the least.

Some people in the animal rights movement – while they may believe that animal rights and human rights are connected – are not in favor of mixing the animal rights message with “politics”, fearing that it will alienate people with different political views from caring about the animals who are so desperately in need of support, independent of our political views and affiliations. Others fear that attention for animal rights, when not combined with a concern for human rights, may come at the cost of the latter, or that a concern for animal rights and veganism can even be used to hide the lack of concern for human rights. This, of course, is especially a concern in Israel. This is a quote from Israeli professor of international law Aeyel Gross:

When veganism becomes a tool to improve the IDF’s [Israeli Defense Forces] image, or that of Israel as a whole (…) and when attempts are being made to cover up the fact that the IDF operates an occupation mechanism that denies people their basic human rights, veganism is being appropriated for propaganda purposes. In Tel Aviv today, it is far easier to find food whose preparation has not involved the exploitation of animals than to find food whose production has not entailed the oppression and uprooting of other human beings.

He adds:

It should be emphasized that there are many vegans who are strongly opposed to any form of oppression. For such individuals, veganism is not a substitute for struggling against the oppression of other human beings, but instead is part and parcel of that struggle.

Worth mentioning in this context is the young vegan movement among Israeli Arabs (who constitute 20% of the Israeli citizens). Their group is called “The Vegan Human”. The Palestinian Animal League (PAL) is Palestine’s only locally-run animal protection organization, and has successfully crowdfunded a vegetarian/vegan cafeteria in a university in Jerusalem.

Food
The food we tasted, everywhere we went, was awesome pretty much across the board. These Israeli vegans know how to cook! The best experience was the fabled Georgian restaurant Nanuchka in Tel Aviv, which used to be a very meaty place, but was completely veganized after the owner, Nana Shrier, went vegan herself. It seems to serve as a kind of symbol or landmark of the vegan changes that are happening in Israel. In spite of the warnings the owner received, veganizing the restaurant has not hurt business, and indeed, the place was crowded when we were there. We dined with good friends in a wonderful atmosphere, sampling wonderful Georgian dishes from an extensive menu. There were delicious “krtofiliani”, or puff pastry filled with potatoes and onions, and the famous dumplings stuffed with spinach and nuts. I also remember wonderful “meatballs” in tomato sauce, with a Georgian twist. It’s a place I can’t wait to go back to.

Breakfast at Landwer Cafe

On Sunday, we had brunch in the wonderful Café Anastasia, which was alive with the energy of numerous families. I was moved to see that so many people came to eat here and that veganism seemed, at that moment, the most natural and accepted thing in the world.

Goodness is a new fast-food-like, small, all vegan restaurant, with delicious food and friendly service. And we had yummy stuff from the vegan bakery Seeds, most of which I unfortunately accidentally left on the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, we enjoyed the food at Landwer Cafe, a chain of over sixty restaurants that offers traditional Israeli food, and recently added a decent choice in vegan dishes to its menu, one of them a vegan breakfast. In the famous Machane Jehudah market, we had ice cream and a waffle in Gela, which is a small chain of ice cream cafes practicing what I call “stealth veganism”: if you don’t know this is an all vegan place when you walk in, you won’t know by the time you walk out. A table near the window in the well-hidden Fig restaurant offered us a beautiful view of the old city wall.

What’s next for the vegan movement in Israel?
The animal rights/vegan movement in Israel is definitely kicking ass. I do think that confrontational tactics and morality-infused messages can be very effective to recruit new activists. But they might be – as some Israelis told me – more effective in Israel than in other countries because of the very direct way of communication Israelis have. We can also wonder whether new activists recruited by these messages should then employ the same tactics to convince the rest of the population. We may be, as Che Green of Faunalytics has written, the low hanging fruit, and what convinced us (early adopter vegans) may not be what will get the masses to join our ranks.

The young movement in Israel, though, is already using different tactics to enlarge its appeal. Anonymous for Animals is putting a lot of effort into Veganuary-like vegan pledges, organizing Facebook support groups of four hundred people each, and taking their message to the classroom. The Meatless Monday campaign is geared towards a large audience. The group Vegan Friendly seems very successful at working together with businesses and is thus helping to make alternatives better and more available. The Modern Agriculture Foundation brings together and encourages different stakeholders in the field of clean (cultured) meat, and jumpstarted the initiative Supermeat, which tries to to create clean (cultured) chicken meat.

What’s happening in Israel in terms of veganism is inspiring. I hope the vegan movement there will find a way to incorporate human rights and speak out for disadvantaged and oppressed groups without alienating possible supporters with more conservative views. This, of course, is a challenge for animal advocates anywhere.

Thanks to Chen Cohen, Elina Zolotushko, Sahar Vardi, Yossi Wolfson, Omer Ginsburg, Shahar Osovsky, Lihi Joffe, Ronen Bar, Ori Shavit, Or Benjamin, Miki Haimovich, Omri Paz, and others whom I forget, for making our trip even more enjoyable, informative, and effective, and for making this article more complete and correct.

Sources
The Rise of Israel’s animal rights movement
The Myth of vegan progress in Israel
Greenwashing: Vegan Israel eats a lot of chicken
Israel is the most vegan country in the world
Israel has most vegans per capita and trend is growing
In the land of milk and honey, Israelis turn vegan
Can animal rights take precedence over human rights?
Will Israel become the world’s first vegan country?

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