Israel is “leading the vegan revolution around the world”. A recent survey estimated that there are 1 million Israelis (or 13% of the population) not eating meat, including 400 000 vegans. “Vegan tourism” is expanding, as more and more restaurants offer up vegan options for patrons, and encourage vegans from around the world to visit Israel for the food. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered his support, remarking in 2012 that “animals are more conscious than we thought, which is bothering me and making me think twice.”
Much of the popularity of veganism in Israel can be attributed to Gary Yourofsky, an animal “abolitionist” whose lectures were a hit in Israel, sparking not only dietary changes amongst the population but an entire animal rights movement, 269life.
Yourofsky and 269life’s focus is on speceism – that’s the breadth of their analysis. As Yourofsky remarked to one of his Israeli audiences on going vegan, “You can keep your friends, your politics and your patriotism.”
Which naturally raises the question: what exactly are Israeli politics and patriotism?
While the history of the region is complex, the general dynamics of Israel-Palestine have been succinctly summarized by Jewish Voices for Peace. It speaks to what is most accurately described as the Israeli colonization of Palestine – which includes the Nakba, or ethnic cleansing of more than 700 000 Palestinians from their homes, the further Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the system of Apartheid that currently exists against Palestinians.
As I am writing this, Palestine is under further attack – this time the slaughter in Gaza (dubbed Operation Protective Edge) has claimed more than 700 Palestinian lives, the majority of them civilians, including the cold-blooded murder of 4 young children who were playing football on a Gaza City beach. There have been more than 4500 Palestinians injured and 260 000 more displaced, as Israel bombs mosques, hospitals, humanitarian vessels and homes. There is no place in Gaza that is safe. It is the world’s largest open-air prison, with all borders, seas, and airspace controlled by Israel and its allies. As the attack continues, there seems to be no end in sight.
In Canada and the United States, support for Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians has been, and continues to be, universally supported across the political establishment. Regardless of the West’s complicity, grassroots movements in solidarity with Palestine have answered the call from Palestinian civil society to engage in the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement. It allows ordinary people from around the world to take action in solidarity with Palestine, and in Canada, the movement is spreading like wildfire – from student unions, to the United Church of Canada, to grassroots campaigns being organized by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East against companies like SodaStream. The BDS movement is making a deep impact, with some Israeli politicians calling it “the greatest threat faced by the country.”
Which brings us back to veganism and animal rights in Israel.
Israel is using its “vegan revolution” to counter BDS and gloss over the atrocities it is committing against Palestinians. They do this by deliberately deflecting attention away from their human rights abuses and towards “positive” aspects of Israeli society. A form of “humanewashing”, it serves to boost international tourism, while assuaging legitimate disgust and discomfort that otherwise empathetic people (like many vegans) would feel as a result of Israel’s actions. This humanewashing is an attempt to persuade vegans to break the call to boycott Israel and instead visit for a taste of their vegan cuisine.
To play up a vegan stereotype, we tend to consume a lot of hummus. And falafel. And perhaps you’ve even been lucky enough to have tried maftoul. These are all traditional Palestinian dishes that happen to be vegan, and that have been appropriated by Israel and used in its humanewashing to attract vegan tourists.
Take a moment and let that sink in – in the most bitter of ironies, Israel is appropriating traditional Palestinian cuisine and using it to hinder opposition to the continuing physical appropriation of Palestinian land.
Israel’s humanewashing also relies on the racism that has long existed in the animal advocacy movement. Being White-led and White-dominated, and increasingly organized by professional charities with a speciest focus and no ties to grassroots movements seeking liberation for both human and non-human animals, it is easy to see how Palestine is not a priority. Or how advocates are less likely to be critical of Israel or take a strong stance in support of BDS because of what Israel “is doing for the animals”. More shameful is the outright commending of the IDF for incorporating stipends for vegan meals or “cruelty free” attire – I’m sure the Palestinian child whose face who ends up under that IDF soldier’s boot will be sure to appreciate that it’s “faux-leather”. This racism and dissonance in the animal advocacy movement is dangerous – it reminds me of the outrage expressed in Ontario when marine mammals are kept in captivity, and the deafening silence from those same folks over the prison-industrial complex that sees Black and First Nations peoples incarcerated (or captive) at the highest rates.
Then there are the animal advocates who will be less sympathetic to Palestinians compared to Israelis because Israelis are seen as “more kind” to animals and thus the “moral superior” of the two. When acting in solidarity with the oppressed, one does not “cherry pick” causes based on one’s personal beliefs and the victims’ agreement with said beliefs, but instead recognizes that regardless of personal differences, the systemic oppression occurring must be prioritized and fought against. Or in other words: I don’t care if Palestinians are vegan or not, because it is completely irrelevant to the fact that they are an Indigenous people resisting a colonial power.
This is not to say that non-human animals don’t have inherent worth and that their lives aren’t as precious as human lives. Rather, I am arguing that the prioritizing of specieism over all other forms of oppression is not the way to achieve animal liberation. Yourofsky has it all wrong – if you care about animals, it requires a fundamental restructuring of your politics, recognizing that the gravest threats to animals come through systems of capitalism and colonialism – and understanding how these systems are intertwined and organized through one another.
Lastly, humanewashing highlights the complete and utter dehumanization of the Palestinian people that has occurred. As Netenyahu stated, “animals are more conscious than we thought, which is bothering me and making me think twice…”. I wonder how Netenyahu sees Palestinians, and if their consciousness’ bother him, as the IDF covers Gaza in white phosphorus and flachette shells? Or if Netenyahu “thought twice” after the IDF massacred more than 70 Palestinians in the Shejaia neighbourhood?