The animal rights movement is increasingly attracting adherents across Israel. Their activism is paving the way for a new era in animal welfare—one rooted in ancient Jewish law.
Israel has the most vegans per capita in the world. In terms of vegetarians per capita, Israel lags only behind India.
Veganism is just one part of the story of animal rights in Israel. Ten thousand people marched in an animal rights rally in Tel Aviv in 2015 following an arson at a dog kennel which killed two dogs and wounded thirteen. The protestors called for heavy punishment for the perpetrators, but also for a cessation of meat imports from countries with a history of animal abuse and the imposition of criminal liability for corporations which abuse animals.
An organizer for the rally, Orly Vilnai, feared being “accused of being disconnected from reality, as part of the Tel Aviv bubble.” But perhaps her fears were unfounded. Unlike in European and North American countries where veganism and animal rights advocacy is generally limited to a clique of secular urbanites, respect for animal rights in Israel is widespread. Veganism is on the rise in the Orthodox community in Israel as well as among secular Jews. A nation-wide ban on possession of fur is even moving through the Knesset—such a law would be the first of its kind in the world.
Veganism exploded in Israel in 2012 following the translation of a 70-minute speech by animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky into Hebrew. The speech has been seen over a million times in Hebrew—very likely most viewers were Israeli. But why did it go viral specifically in Israel? Yourofsky’s speech has been translated into at least 34 languages. The English translation has only three million views—more than Hebrew, but a far smaller percentage of the English-speaking world. What is so special about Israel?
Perhaps it’s Yourofsky’s comparison between the meat industry and the Holocaust—a controversial one, but one which has particular resonance in Israel. “Where they burn dogs, there will also be the burning of people. A society that is indifferent to animals will also be indifferent to its weaker members,” says Miki Chaimovitz, an activist at the Tel Aviv rally. But even before the Holocaust, Jews were unique in their respect for animal rights.
Whatever the next step is for the Jewish people’s relationship with the animals it consumes, the step will undoubtedly be one towards increased rights.
The long history of the Jewish people marks a series of transitional steps in animal protections. Perhaps veganism is the next step, although it is also possible that veganism will decrease if the production of meat and animal products becomes less mechanized and more humane. An Orthodox rabbi, Jeremy Gimpel, became a vegan—and animal rights activist—after seeing slaughter in a factory environment. “I couldn’t stop watching. I was shocked. I was like, that’s not kosher. I don’t care what the rabbinate says.”
But whatever the next step is for the Jewish people’s relationship with the animals it consumes, the step will undoubtedly be one towards increased rights. This is not borne out of a sense of environmental urgency or economic expediency, as animal rights activists in Europe and North America frequently appeal to. Rather, it is the natural continuation of the unique Jewish relationship with animals, which started “in the beginning” with the creation of animals and man, and has evolved to a fully-fledged system of ethical norms surrounding the treatment of animals. Israelis respect animal rights because Jews respect animal rights, due to the Jewish ethical obligation to treat animals with kindness—an obligation which is unique among the Abrahamic religions.
In the Torah, God gives humanity dominion over all animals (Gen 1:28). But this dominion is not absolute. After the flood, God issues commandments to Noah and his sons—and by extension, all of mankind. One of these commandments was to not eat “flesh with the lifeblood still in it.” By requiring that all of the blood be trained from an animal, the commandment essentially prohibited removing flesh from an animal which was still alive. Doing so would cause agony for the animal, to no benefit for the consumer. In such a case, the animals’ right not to suffer must be preserved.
The prohibition on inflicting needless suffering upon animals would be expanded in the dietary laws of slaughter. The knife used must be completely free of nicks and the slaughter must be completed in a single quick stroke in order to ensure that the animal experiences no pain.
The prohibition on causing needless suffering extends beyond the physical. “And whether it be cow or ewe, ye shall not kill it and its young both in one day” (Lev. 22:28). To slaughter an animal along with its young on the same day would risk either the mother or the child seeing the other be slaughtered. To witness such a thing would cause the animal great emotional distress.
Still further, it is prohibited to degrade animals. The Rashbam notes the cruelty associated with boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (prohibited in Ex. 23:19): “It is something distasteful, revolting, something akin to gluttony, to consume the mother’s milk together with the young animal that this milk was intended to nourish.”
Despite the strong foundation in Jewish law for the ethical treatment of animals, Israel sometimes fails to protect animals. For example, despite over 80% of Israelis oppose the farming of fur, a law to ban fur, failed in 2010 due to opposition from ultra-Orthodox members of the ruling coalition. The issue centered the shtreimel, a traditional hat made from sable, which is worn by the ultra-Orthodox on Shabbat and other holidays. The ban was amended to provide a religious exemption for the shtreimel, but the ultra-Orthodox opposed it anyway on the grounds that the vast majority of fur imported to Israel was for religious purposes of some kind.
In 2012, it was revealed that gross animal abuses were committed at the Adom Adom slaughterhouse managed by Tnuva Food Industries. Animals were shocked and beaten around their genitals and eyes to coerce them into moving. If they could not be coerced, smaller animals were dragged—then hung upside down before being slaughtered. Four workers at the slaughterhouse were indicted for animal abuse as a result, but the Tnuva corporation itself faced no charges.
Similar cases are routinely exposed in the United States. Food Inc, which includes a substantial section about animal abuse, was released in 2008 and received rave reviews, grossing over $20 million between box office and DVD sales. A video depicting the abuse of pigs at a slaughterhouse received mainstream media coverage and was watched by 1.7 million people on YouTube. Yet the American people seem apathetic—there were 1 million vegans and 7.3 million vegetarians in the US in 2008. By 2013, the US had…1 million vegans and 7.5 million vegetarians. The only, and therefore most recent, law regulating animal abuse across all species in the United States is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.
Israel reacted differently. The Adom Adom scandal broke right as Yourofsky’s video about animal rights came out in Hebrew. Vegetarian and vegan rates skyrocketed from 2.6% combined vegan and vegetarian in 2010 to 5% vegan and 8% vegetarian in 2015, a 500% increase over five years. A class-action lawsuit was filed against Tnuva, claiming that they inaccurately labeled their food as kosher. The lead plaintiff on the case obtained rabbinical rulings that stated that any unnecessary abuse of animals is not kosher. “We have a holy Torah,” said the plaintiff, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, “and it explicitly prohibits animal cruelty.”
Tnuva did not dispute that their process was shocking, claiming only that it was technically legal. Their statement to the court outlines in gruesome detail the slaughtering process.
It suffices to mention that in order to slaughter the animals, when they are fully conscious and sometimes die of fright, they are put into a facility called the holding chamber, in which arms that seize them press hard on their heads and bodies. Then, together with the chamber they are turned 180 degrees and as they are held their neck are slit and they bleed until they lose consciousness. It is indisputable that broadcast of a film documenting these actions ‘proper under the regulations’ would horrify most meat-eating consumers, even though this is absolutely legal behavior.
Tnuva went on to blame the strict interpretation of kashrut, claiming that if they could stun animals before they were slaughtered, they would not react with fear. But kosher slaughter performed without abuse—without shocking and beating animals, without tightly clamping them with machines, and by slaughtering the animal before turning it upside down—can prevent the feeling of fear in the animals as well. The slaughtering process is made more horrifying not by the precise method of the kill, which is a swift cut to the throat, but instead by the residual effects of factory efficiency and abuse of animals.
Tnuva ultimately settled the lawsuit, paying out 4.2 million shekels to animal welfare groups. The terms of the settlement required Tnuva to fire the plant manager and additional employees, and invest additional money into preventing a recurrence of the abuse. The settlement was far smaller than the 100 million shekels sought by the plaintiffs, but was still a considerable sum.
These cases demonstrate the Israeli reaction to discovered abuse. After the fur ban failed in 2010, activists regrouped and brought it before the Knesset again in February of this year. This time, it is widely expected to eventually pass. In December of 2015—three months after two dogs burned to death in an arson at a dog kennel—the Knesset overhauled their animal abuse laws. Penalties were increased for abusers, and the law limits people’s ability to harm animals in general. The accompanying notes for the law state that part of its purpose as ensuring that “when there comes a need to harm an animal, it is done for humane purposes alone and the harm is proportionate.”
The law also creates criminal liability for corporate officers who oversee animals and fail to prevent abuse. If Tnuva were to offend again, people at the corporate office would face prosecution. The combination of known civil penalties and potential criminal penalties serve as a strong deterrent to prevent Tnuva from reverting to abusive practices.
The law coincides with the changing religious perspective in Israel on what defines kosher meat. Israelis are unwilling to look the other way when animals are abused in the meat production industry. The new rabbinical rulings carry great weight in the kosher meat market; for Jews who keep kosher, rabbinical approval of the process is considered essential.
But these new rulings are not surprising—there’s no judicial activism happening in the Jewish community. The laws of kashrut are clearly designed to prevent degradation or suffering of animals. Although the letter of the law, requiring and prohibiting specific practices, may have led Tnuva’s apologists to believe that their process was kosher, the purposes behind the practices were clearly perverted. The Jewish ethic prohibits abusing animals, and Israel’s legal system is finally catching up with that spirit.
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