By Ahmad Safi – Executive Director, Palestinian Animal League
Edited in English by Liz Tyson – International Director, Palestinian Animal League Solidarity.
If I had a shekel for the number of times people have asked my views on the Israeli animal rights movement, I would be a very rich man. Animal advocates all over the world are fascinated by it: this tiny country in the Middle East where an alleged 5% – 13% of the population is vegan. The “most vegan country in the world”, it has been called. In Israel, vegan restaurants abound, I am told. Even the army provides for vegan soldiers – with berets devoid of wool and boots made, not from leather, but manmade materials. The BBC recently ran an interview with the “IDF’s Vegan Warriors” – offering a platform to young vegan soldiers in the Israeli armed forces to talk about their compassionate lifestyle choices and, importantly, to explain why they believe that being part of armed combat against an unarmed civilian population does not conflict with their concept of veganism. I was somewhat baffled by a particular passage in the article, taken from a radio interview which said of one of the vegan soldiers: “Her diet is so important to her that had the army not been able to provide conditions that had harmed no living creatures, she might not have enlisted in a combat unit”. The only way in which I can interpret this is that the soldier in question does not consider Palestinians to be “living creatures”.
Before I continue, I would like to be very clear about the issue I want to address in this piece. As a vegan Palestinian, I welcome the news that more people around the world, regardless of where they live, are choosing to take animal cruelty out of their diets and practices. That between 5% and 13% of the population of Israel is thought to be vegan can only be a good thing (although the “vegan Israel” trope has been compellingly critiqued by Canadian activist, Dylan Powell, whose work raises important questions over the accuracy of the claims of vegan progress in Israel. I recommend you read his blog, but will not address this issue in detail here). That there is an abundance of vegan restaurants in Israel must make it easier for people to move to a plant-based diet – again this cannot be a bad thing for animals. The very basis of my organisation’s work is founded on the belief that you can make progress in one area of society, while other areas take longer to change. In fact, the progression of the Palestinian animal rights movement in spite of the ongoing occupation is one of our major aims. It makes little sense that if I believe that Palestinian citizens can work towards animal liberation while under occupation, I should advocate that Israeli citizens should ignore animal suffering unless and until a lasting solution to the conflict can be reached. In my opinion, more people causing less harm to animals, regardless of the circumstances, can only be a good thing.
No, it is not the progress of the animal rights movement in Israel that concerns me or gives me cause for criticism. My concern is with the promotion of the Israeli Armed Forces (the IDF) and veganism as an interrelated theme; using the supposed ‘vegan credentials’ of the armed forces, whose role is to uphold the illegal occupation of Palestinian land with weapons and brute force, as a means to perpetuate the Israeli government’s rhetoric that the IDF is the most “moral army in the world”.
I am someone who has had family members and friends killed, abused, arrested and held without charge or trial by the Israeli armed forces. I am someone whose own home was destroyed by the IDF as part of Israel’s ongoing (illegal) policy of collective punishment and I am someone who, myself, was beaten so badly by a sergeant in the Israeli army when I was ten years old that I coughed up blood from internal injuries. Would my experience, or that of my friends, family, fellow countrymen and women be different if the boot that kicked me was vegan, or the hat on the sniper’s head who took my uncle’s life was made from polyester, not wool? No, of course not. When animal advocates congratulate the IDF for eating cous cous during their lunchbreaks but pointedly ignore the starring role the IDF plays in the violent oppression of the Palestinian people, this sends a clear message to us that our plight is unimportant. It is sending the message that the vegan boot is more important than the young boy’s body it is used to kick. It is sending a message that the wool content of the beret is a more pressing issue that the deaths caused by the automatic weapon its owner wields.
The narrative surrounding the Israeli armed forces and veganism not only concerns me as a Palestinian but, in my view, it equally presents a corrupt and manipulated version of veganism; something which I believe should be of concern to all animal rights advocates. 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.
And yet, the IDF’s claims that it provides vegan supplies and clothing to its soldiers has been actively promoted by leading animal rights organisations around the world. Just yesterday, PeTA recommended that other armies around the world “take a leaf out of” the IDF’s book in this regard. Other huge organisations, with significant reach and influence, such as Mercy for Animals and online green lifestyle magazine, One Green Planet, have also published congratulatory articles in support of the IDF’s supposed vegan policy, whilst remaining silent on its human rights abuses.
When pro-Palestinian, pro-human rights advocates who share my views on this matter highlight concerns with the tendency towards congratulating an army waging a war on unarmed civilians, they will usually be shouted down by those who accuse them of “politicising the issue”. Those people who do not want to hear our concerns suggest that the “small victories”, such as vegan army boots and wool-free army berets, should be celebrated and there is simply no need to consider the wider issue, much less discuss it lest it take away from the vegan progress. Those of us raising concerns are made to feel like killjoys who cannot help but seek the bad in good news. But this response to concerns suggests a belief amongst those who take offence to our critique that publishing an article with the specific purpose of applauding the moral conduct of an army complicit in documented human rights abuses is an inherently apolitical act. It is not.
The very existence and perpetual repetition of the “vegan IDF” trope is, in and of itself, intensely political. For example, the “news” that the IDF is introducing vegan supplies is presented in the press every six months to a year and the persistent tendency to specifically mention the IDF in most other news articles on veganism in Israel has created a strong narrative whereby the IDF and veganism in Israel have become inextricably linked in people’s consciousness. It seems that the “vegan IDF” story came from a tweet published by the IDF’s official account back in 2012.
Despite the “vegan policy” already clearly being in place at the time the IDF published its meme to attract vegan recruits at this time; the “news” has been published again and again as “breaking” year on year. And not just by individuals’ blogs who might be forgiven for having missed it the first time, but by major news outlets, such as the BBC and Reuters. For example, in addition to the story being published again in September 2013, October 2014, December 2014, February 2015 and December 2015, articles in July 2015 and February 2016 (penned by Reuters and BBC respectively) used an almost identical headline, interviewed the same restaurant owner, used the same quotes from the same animal rights activist and made similar references to the IDF “starting to cater for vegans”. In practice, this “breaking news” is the same (sometimes almost identical) article being thrown back into circulation under a different by-line. Clearly four years on from the introduction of the IDF’s vegan policy, it can no longer be considered “news”. Instead, the constant referencing simply serves to further fuel the positive publicity that the IDF receives from the animal protection community who keep the story alive and keep heaping on the praise, as the vegan boots continue to walk over our land, our lives and our freedom.
As a human being who is deeply concerned and committed to the furtherance of both human and animal rights, I would like to make a plea to those of you reading this. While animals may be your priority, and while you may not have a clear understanding of the situation here in the region in which I live, I ask that you trust that I do. As someone who lives with the military occupation enforced by the Israeli armed forces every day of my life, and having seen the terrible consequences of it on my land and my people, I ask that you think carefully before promoting the IDF in any forum; and particularly in one, such as the animal rights community, which ostensibly rejects violence in all forms. The continued positive publicity for this army in the international arena may seem like harmless, apolitical support for small victories in veganism, but for us it simply serves to further legitimise the atrocities carried out against the Palestinian people by these self-same soldiers.