The video that radically transformed Israel’s vegan movement is a YouTube lecture from 2010. Filmed at Georgia Tech, it stars a bald, muscled, sandaled Jewish American activist named Gary Yourofsky. “I’m going to challenge your belief systems today, so certain parts of this speech will be intense,” he begins.
It’s no exaggeration. In the hour that follows, Yourofsky calls slaughterhouses “concentration camps” and compares factory farming to the Holocaust. He plays a bloody, four-minute montage in which workers slam baby pigs to the ground, force-feed geese, and sear chicken beaks. Ultimately, he urges his audience to give up consuming meat and animal products immediately: “Animals are being abused. It is not your right and it is not your freedom to do this to them. You don’t get to have freedom when somebody else doesn’t.”
It’s an effective presentation, but Yourofsky’s argument against animal cruelty and factory farming is hardly extraordinary. What made it unusual, and perhaps life-changing for thousands of Israelis, is summed up in just a few seconds of the video. “I am not a Democrat, an anarchist, or some hippie with a closet full of tie-dyed shirts. I’m not a Republican, a socialist, or a fascist,” he says. “You can keep your friends, your politics, and your patriotism.” This was not a message Israelis were used to hearing from vegans. At that time in Israel, as in many places throughout the world, the vegan movement was a small one and closely aligned with the left. Israelis who refused to perform their mandatory military service on ethical grounds were also often vegan. In Tel Aviv, a now-closed vegan bar called Rogatka was operated by an anarchist collective that banned soldiers in uniform and products made in West Bank settlements.
Yourofsky, by contrast, was not just ambivalent about the Israeli occupation in Palestine but hostile to the notion that vegans should have an opinion about it. Asked by +972 Magazine in 2013 about his planned visit to Ariel University, an institution founded by military decree in a West Bank settlement deemed illegal by the international community, Yourofsky angrily dismissed the question: “Since the ‘international community’ is comprised of violent, bloodthirsty thugs who terrorize billions of innocent animals every second of every minute of every hour of every day, the ‘international community’ can go to HELL,” he wrote +972 in an email. “When people start eating sliced up Jew flesh, or seared Palestinian children in between two slices of bread with onions, pickles and mustard, then I’ll be concerned about the Middle East situation.”
Yourofsky might not have cared about the “Middle East situation,” but powerful players within it cared very much about him—and, more importantly, his audience, whose size ballooned as his lecture went viral. Just two years after the video appeared on YouTube, it was reported that more than seven hundred thousand Israelis—nearly 10 percent of the population—had watched it. The percentage of Israelis identifying as vegan subsequently quintupled, according to Vegan Friendly founder Omri Paz, and vegan restaurants became ubiquitous, especially in Tel Aviv. Today, with vegans making up 5 percent of the population, Israel is the most vegan country per capita in the world. For many of the newly converted, veganism isn’t merely a dietary choice—it’s a cause. In 2017, thirty thousand Israelis marched through the streets of Tel Aviv in what was described as the world’s largest animal rights demonstration. Their enthusiasm helped lead to the passage of several progressive animal rights laws in recent years. In 2013, Israel banned the sale of animal-tested products. In 2014, it banned horse-drawn and donkey-drawn carts. And in 2021, it became the first country in the world to ban the sale of fur. “Israel will, one day, become the first nation to abolish animal concentration camps once and for all. And while my speech got the ball rolling in Israel, the Israeli activists are the ones making The Holy Land truly holy,” Yourofsky said in 2015. “They are without a doubt the most effective animal rights activists on the planet.”
While Paz claims that the majority of Israeli vegans cite morality as the motivation for their veganism, they are a politically pluralistic bunch. Many of those who joined the movement in recent years are “far more likely to be single-issue activists or enthusiasts,” and much less likely to be tied to the Israeli left. In this political ambiguity, the Israeli right-wing government saw a unique opportunity to improve its global image by making animal rights a nationalist cause. That campaign is ongoing and escalating—and it’s exposing profound ideological divisions in the growing global vegan movement.
In 2019, another YouTube video showed just how far Israel’s vegan movement had come—and how thoroughly it had been co-opted by the state. The video, which appeared on the Israel Defense Forces’ official YouTube page, advertises the IDF as the “most vegan army in the world,” with more than ten thousand vegan soldiers who enjoy access to vegan boots, berets, and meals. “For me, being a vegan is about health and animal rights, and I am proud I can continue doing my part for both people and animals,” says a soldier featured in the video.
By this time, the cultivation of Israel’s reputation as a “vegan nation”—a “land of almond milk and date honey,” as one Ministry of Foreign Affairs film puts it—had been years in the making. In 2014, the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, added additional vegetarian meals in the government cafeteria one day per week as part of its “Meatless Monday” initiative. In 2017, Jewish Veg and Mayanot Birthright launched a new Vegan Birthright program, which promised Jewish travelers “insight into what makes Israel such a flourishing Vegan paradise.” In 2018, the nonprofit Vibe Israel sponsored a trip to Israel for prominent vegan bloggers from England, Canada, and the United States in an effort to reach the “online vegan community,” a “stronghold among women and millennials,” as well as “people with liberal viewpoints.” “These three audiences tend to view Israel more critically than others, and we felt it would be a good topic through which to raise awareness for Israel,” said Vibe Israel Founder and CEO Joanna Landau. “It fits into our overall philosophy that Israel’s story should be told through its strengths and competitive advantages that are particularly appealing and attractive to millennials.”
Telling a country’s story “through its strengths” is also known as whitewashing, and there’s a long history of it in Israel. In 2005, the Israeli government, with help from American marketers, launched the Brand Israel campaign, an effort to position the country as “relevant and modern” and obscure its record of human rights abuses at a time when the Nation Brand Index deemed Israel’s brand the worst ever measured by a “considerable margin.” A crucial part of this campaign involved promoting the country as an LGBTQ haven and framing the occupation of Palestinian land as a means to protect queer people. While these efforts have been widely condemned as “pinkwashing,” they also successfully generated plenty of positive foreign press.
The Israeli government’s “veganwashing” initiative, likewise, has generated substantial pushback domestically and internationally, and attracted the attention of the global Vegans for BDS movement. But it has also earned a fair amount of unmitigated praise, including among animal rights organizations. In a 2018 blog post, PETA dubbed Israel the “vegan capital of the world,” attributing the country’s leadership on the issue to the Jewish prohibition of “tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” or the suffering of living creatures. It made no mention of the suffering of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
PETA also failed to describe the limits of Israel’s “vegan revolution.” While the Knesset has passed some progressive animal welfare laws, the country still has a spotty track record when it comes to animal cruelty. While Israel does have the most vegans per capita, it’s also one of the world’s biggest per capita meat consumers, and the single largest per capita consumer of poultry. And while the IDF may now have a number of soldiers who care about animal cruelty, before Israel went “cruelty-free,” the state had a history of killing zoo animals and dogs in Palestine. “The dogs were killed because they barked and alerted us to night operations whenever Israeli patrols came up through the streets,” one Palestinian man said after Israeli authorities shot at least ninety dogs in Hebron in 1995. “They didn’t shoot the stray dogs kept by settlers, did they?”
In their push to rebrand Israel, marketers have sought to promote the country in two ways—as a bastion of liberal values and as a “Startup Nation,” a miraculous hub of technological innovation in the Middle East. In its earliest years, Israel’s veganwashing campaign largely served to bolster that first image. But lately, it has been used to serve the second.
In 2020, less than half a year after announcing plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, Benjamin Netanyahu took a bite of steak in the test kitchen of an Israeli food-tech startup and made history: he had just become the first head of state to taste lab-grown meat. “It’s delicious and guilt-free. I can’t taste the difference,” he said as cameras rolled. At Netanyahu’s side was Tal Gilboa, his recently appointed advisor on animal rights and one of the country’s most prominent vegan activists. “Tomorrow we mark Animal Rights Day in the Knesset,” she told Netanyahu as he chewed. “Here we are in a place where technology can outperform most of our work.” After the lab-grown meat tasting, Netanyahu asked his state secretary to appoint a coordinator to serve this promising subset of the country’s food-tech sector. “Israel will become a powerhouse for alternative meat and alternative protein,” he said.
To a large extent, that vision was already a reality. Between 2018 and 2020, investments in Israeli alternative protein companies grew eightfold, from $14 million to $114 million, making it the fastest-growing technological field by investment in the country. There are now more than a hundred alternative protein companies in Israel, and in 2020, four of them went public. In June, one of those companies, Future Meat Technologies, opened the world’s first lab-grown meat factory.
If Israel’s plans come to fruition, this industry will soon have a global reach. Leaders at Future Meat Technologies are in talks with U.S. regulators to start offering their products in restaurants by the end of 2022. After that, they hope to expand to Europe and China. “With governmental support in this industry, Israel, which currently exports only five percent of the food it produces, could become a global supplier of raw materials and advanced production technologies for alternative proteins,” said Nir Goldstein, the managing director of Good Food Institute Israel, which supports the country’s alternative protein industry.
Given the projected increase in global meat consumption—and the violence and environmental degradation that traditional meat production involves—the rapid advancement of alternative meat and protein is a positive development, one broadly supported by vegan activists as a harm reduction mechanism. But Israel makes for an awkward world leader in a field that pitches itself in moral terms as “cruelty-free” because of the close ties between the country’s alternative protein industry and its military occupation of Palestine.
Take Aleph Farms, the company behind the lab-grown meat that Netanyahu tasted. It’s co-founded by the Strauss Group—a food manufacturer that has provided financial support to the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade, which has a history of severe human rights abuses—and the Technion, the university whose research and development in military technology helps sustain the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Future Meat Technologies, meanwhile, is based on founder Yaakov Nahmias’s work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is licensed through its technology transfer company, Yissum. In 2014 the university, which is built in part on occupied Palestinian territory, established a donation page to support the “warrior students” who joined Israel’s attack on Gaza; in 2019, it was announced that it would host an army base for IDF intelligence officers. The Technion, Strauss, and Hebrew University have all been targets of the BDS movement.
This incongruity raises a fundamental question: Can any system—an industry, an army, a government—that advocates for reducing the suffering of animals while contributing to the suffering of humans rightly be called part of the vegan political project? For Ahmad Safi, the vegan founder and executive director of the Palestinian Animal League—the only local animal protection organization in occupied Palestine—the answer is clear. “If veganism truly is about not harming another living thing to the best of our ability, and we can accept that people are animals, it is logical that a ‘vegan’ soldier engaged in armed combat against a civilian population is not just nonsensical, it is simply not veganism,” he wrote.
Safi is obviously right—if one views veganism as a radical and comprehensive liberatory philosophy. But the partial success of Israel’s veganwashing campaign around the world makes clear that his definition of veganism is not universally shared. This is, to an extent, to be expected, since disagreements about the meaning of veganism are as old as the movement itself. The world’s oldest vegan organization, The Vegan Society—whose cofounder Donald Watson coined the term “vegan”—has changed its definition of veganism thirteen times since 1944, largely due to factional debates about how best to frame veganism in order to maximize its appeal. (In 1957, for instance, one definition struck all mention of animal rights in favor of an emphasis on health and diet.) Today, according to the Canadian vegan activist Dylan Powell, “Israel is currently the world stage for a larger conflict within animal advocacy between those who want to continue to push the primacy of ‘animal rights’ above all else and the opposite side who want to place animal advocacy within a social justice context.”
Proponents of an “apolitical” veganism—that is, the kind of animal rights-centric veganism Yourofsky promotes—argue that it provides the fastest path for growing the movement, an urgent priority given the scope of modern animal suffering and the speed of global ecological collapse. For them, the exponential adoption of veganism in Israel since its untethering from the left can be seen as proof of the wisdom of this line of thinking. But for vegan leftists, the ease with which the right-wing Israeli government has been able to co-opt the movement is proof of the unacceptable tradeoffs that come with that ideological realignment. “I do not welcome the promotion of veganism at any cost, because a veganism that does not concern itself with intersectional questions of human oppression is both logically incoherent and of no interest to me,” writes Sarah Doyel in Mondoweiss. “Veganism is freedom, abundance, and liberation for all. Or, it can be. But only if there is justice for Palestine.”
While plant-based diets have, in fact, been connected to leftist ideals of freedom and liberation for centuries, they also have a connection to nationalist, right-wing principles. In Germany, some members of the nineteenth-century ethnonationalist Völkisch movement and the twentieth-century Nazi party connected a meat-free diet to notions of racial purity. Today, American white supremacists who embrace veganism and vegetarianism continue that tradition. In India, meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promotes “Islamophobic politics in the garb of cow protection and vegetarianism,” as Sohini Chattopadhyay has written. As the appeal of veganism grows around the world, more “vegan nations” like Israel could very well emerge. But if world leaders can, as Yourofksy suggests, keep their politics and their patriotism, then their veganism could stand for freedom for all just as easily as it could stand for oppression for some.