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Israel, the promised land for vegans

A cook prepares skewers with vegetable-based meat, during the 'Vegan Fest' fair in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, on October 13, 2014

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Tel Aviv (AFP) - Israelis are flocking to veganism, to the point where even the army now has options for vegan soldiers and vegan militants woo converts by comparing meat eating to an animals' "Holocaust".

"Four percent of Israelis define themselves as vegans, it's the most vegan country in the world," according to Omri Paz, organiser of the "Vegan Fest" fair, where stands offered pea-based hot dogs, tofu doner kebabs and wheat gluten goulash.

Like vegetarians, vegans do not eat meat but they also eschew all animal products -- including milk, eggs and honey -- with some refusing to wear leather or use cosmetics tested on animals.

The Vegan Fest in trendsetting Tel Aviv, where veganism has the most acolytes, attracted 15,000 people in a day.

The most-visited stand at the specialised food fair was that of US pizza giant Domino's, which last year launched in Israel a vegan vegetable pizza topped with soy cheese, a global first for the company which has reportedly sold 300,000 of them so far.

In Tel Aviv, one of the city's best known restaurants, Nanushka, renowned for its vodka-laced grills and party atmosphere, announced its conversion in February and completely rewrote its menu.

- Vegan Big Brother -

And TV's Big Brother show became a platform for animal rights when vegan activist Tal Gilboa took part and won.

Even the army, in which most Israeli young men and women have to serve, now offers soldiers leather-free boots and a small allowance to buy themselves alternatives to the food in mess halls.

Facebook is full of dedicated Israeli vegan communities and is divided into sub-groups, such as "Vegays" for gay vegans and "vegan teenagers" who want special menus in school canteens.

Israel seems predisposed to veganism.

Fruit and vegetables are an important part of most people's diet, with staples such as humus and felafel made from chick peas.

The Koshur Jewish dietary code, which forbids the mixing of meat and dairy products, has led to widespread acceptance of substitutes, particularly non-dairy toppings and desserts.

Sitting on the lawn at Vegan Fest were Adi, Ofir, Tamar and Ofek, four smiling teenage girls who met on Facebook.

Their T-shirts carried slogans such as "meat = murder" and "tofu doesn't scream with pain".

"My parents took three years to understand that it wasn't a fad and eventually accept that as a matter of principle I would not be coming to any more traditional family barbecues," said Tamar, 16.

She was recruited to the cause by watching a video of vegan guru Gary Yourofsky, who compares eating meat to the Nazi Holocaust.

- Animal Holocaust -

"As an Israeli, I cannot close my eyes. I don't want to be like those people during the Holocaust who said they did not know," she said.

In Israel, to speak of a "Holocaust of the animals" touches a very raw nerve.

"But it is precisely in this provocation that the power of persuasion which is so important to us lies," said Rafi Grosglik, food sociologist at Tel Aviv University.

"It's also interesting to note that Israeli vegans are often at odds with the Hindu or hippy vegan culture and instead employ a rhetoric of force which favours violent activism," he said.

In 2012, a small group of radical vegan activists, calling themselves "Life269" after the number branded on the ear of a calf they freed from the abattoir on an Israeli farm, emerged from the shadows.

In Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square in front of horrified passers-by, they branded the same number on their own bodies with a hot iron.

Since then they have left the bloodied heads of sheep in a public fountain in the city and released herds of cows from factory farms in nighttime raids.

The activists, whose actions have been widely seen on the Internet, spent several days in custody. They have also spawned copies, with Life269 now operating in about 40 countries.

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