The Land of (Soya) Milk and (Date) Honey

Among the many reasons to love Israel – and among the many reasons I love Israel – is the fact it has quickly become one of the most vegan-friendly countries in the world. When I started following a vegan lifestyle in 2010, the term ‘vegan’ was practically unheard of. And those who did hear of it were either other vegans (who were few and far between) or people who considered veganism a wacky diet for extremist animal rights activists on the fringes of society. At that point, roughly 2.5% of Israel’s population was vegan.

Fast forward twelve years and Israel’s vegan population is now over 5%.  Tel Aviv, in fact, is known as the ‘Vegan Capital of the World’ where nearly one in ten residents identify as either vegan or vegetarian. Add to that the fact roughly 40% of people in Tel Aviv have significantly reduced their meat consumption in the last few years and even consume entirely vegan or plant-based meals several times per week. I do want to make it clear veganism is not a diet: food only makes up a fraction of the vegan lifestyle. But for the purposes of this post, we will be discussing the dietary aspect of veganism.

As someone who lives in New York and is spoiled by vegan options, even I am in awe when I’m in Israel. Vegan options are available everywhere. Yes, in some restaurants or cafes the option is a large, albeit very beautiful and delicious, salad. But usually, non-vegan restaurants will have at least one or two actual vegan dishes or the chef is will be happy to whip up something.  Veganism has boomed in Israel. But I suppose the question is ‘why’? And furthermore, how did this tiny nation become a vegan oasis?

I have a few theories. My first theory goes back to Judaism’s holiest of works – the Torah. The Book of Genesis introduces us to the Garden of Eden – literally paradise on Earth. In the Garden, every creature coexisted peacefully, eating only plants for nourishment and sustenance. In fact (biblically speaking), it wasn’t until after the Flood that G-d allowed humans to eat other animals, but even then rules on top of rules were given so as to limit our consumption. Or let’s talk about the Book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah extolled virtues of compassion and nonviolence toward other animals. From the beginning of the Book we see Isaiah’s ideals of peace: Isaiah 1:11 tells us G-d does not delight in burnt offerings of rams and bulls or the blood of lambs and goats. Isaiah 11:6-9 describes another Garden of Eden where all creatures dwell together peacefully. Or Isaiah 66:3 where we read killing an ox is the same as slaughtering a human; to sacrifice a lamb is the equivalent of breaking a dog’s neck; to make a meal offering is as if pig’s blood was given out.

Or how about the Book of Daniel? Granted Daniel was not a vegetarian but he refused to eat the food or drink the wine from Nebuchadnezzar’s palace because it wasn’t kosher. Instead, he – along with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – ate pulses (legumes) and drank water for ten days, betting with the palace they would be in better shape than those who ate the palace’s meals. By the tenth day, all four were in better physical and mental health than others their own age who ate the king’s food.

These are of course only three biblical examples. But, perhaps, biblical reasons do not particularly concern you. So let’s talk history. Historically speaking, meat only made up a small part of the human diet until the twentieth century when industrialization boomed. Meat has always been an expensive “luxury” that could only be afforded on a regular basis by the elite and wealthy. The majority of people ate a diet composed mostly of different plant foods and starches. The land of Israel – which sits on the Mediterranean – has always been largely agricultural. The customs and traditions of ancient Hebrews (and modern Judaism) are based on the land which produces vegetation and crops for consumption. It is only with today’s modern farming practices that animal products have become so readily available. But modern farming practices are hugely problematic for the planet.

This brings us to climate change. It is a known fact animal agriculture accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and causes unbelievable environmental degradation ranging from loss of biodiversity to deforestation. Over 50% of land and more than 80% of edible crop foods go to raising animals for slaughter. This is regardless of the type of farm animals are being bred on. Billions of animals crammed onto farms produce enormous amounts of methane – every pound of which is eighty-four times as effective as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within Earth’s atmosphere. On top of that, producing just one calorie of animal-based protein requires eleven times as much fossil fuel input as producing eleven calories of plant protein.

So it’s no surprise Israel – the Start-Up Nation – has been innovating new ways to eat. Israel has become a leader in alternative meat products with over $114 million in investments in 2020 alone. From vegan eggs to vegan seafood to vegan burgers to vegan protein powders and even to vegan digital coins, startup after startup is investing in and creating more vegan products. The high-tech world of Israel is devoted to advancing the way we live and giving us more sustainable and ethical options.

This brings us to my fourth and most important theory: ethics. Nonhuman animals are undoubtedly sentient. They have unique personalities, desires, needs, social structures, and feelings. They form close friendships with each other and with those of different species; they have their own familial relationships, especially mothers with their children; they have specific mating and mourning rituals; etc. Knowing other animals are capable of suffering should be enough to deter us away from using and eating them.

I know people are going to ask about kosher food. The laws of Kashrut were meant to minimize the suffering of animals who were being eaten, and perhaps thousands of years ago those laws were applicable. But in today’s modern world, Kashrut does not mean cruelty-free. One only has to visit a kosher farm or walk inside a kosher slaughterhouse to see it is just as cruel and inhumane as any other farm. There are several farm animal sanctuaries in Israel who have rescued animals from these kosher facilities. Now, I’m not knocking kosher food – I follow a mostly kosher diet. But eating kosher does not need to include animals and animal products. In fact, not eating them makes following a kosher diet much easier as plant foods are naturally kosher, and more and more processed vegan foods are becoming kosher certified.

I know, I know, what we eat should be a personal choice. But here’s the thing: personal choice means the only one affected by your choice is you. What we put in our mouths – the way we eat – is not personal. It affects not just our own health but the health of the planet. We are on the precipice, standing on an edge of no return with only a few decades left to change course. If we don’t make major changes to our lifestyles, we are essentially dooming the planet. Let’s also remember the people who work in animal agriculture: they have been shown to be prone to physical violence, emotional and mental instability, and alcohol overconsumption. All of these are results of working in a violent and destructive industry. And violence not just toward nonhuman animals but toward humans as well.

But most importantly – in my opinion – are the real victims of all this: the other species we share this planet with. Our food choices do not affect only cows, chickens, fish, lamb, pigs, etc. They affect all creatures. The fishing industry is destroying the oceans, depleting the planet of essential nutrients and life, killing ocean animals and plants. We are predicted to lose most ocean life by 2050 due to industrial fishing. Deforestation due to land being converted to feedving lots is destroying animal habitats, killing the ones who live(d) in these areas. This industry is driving other species to extinction at an alarming rate. We are losing animal and plant species faster than we ever have. And once they are gone, they’re gone for good.

Israel is becoming the land of soya milk (or oat, almond, cashew, coconut, or any of the plethora of non-dairy milk now available) and date honey – which is the type of honey originally used before people started farming and exploiting bees which are also endangered now due to honey production. If date honey isn’t for you, agave and maple syrups are also great; apple honey is becoming popular too. It’s 2022 and Israel is leading the world in technological advancements, creating new and more efficient ways to eat and live. The path here is to consume less and fewer animal products and to follow vegan lifestyles. When the biblical Land of Milk and Honey of our ancestors meets the Startup Nation of our current time, the Land of Soya Milk and Date Honey is a natural conclusion. It only makes sense Israel would be leading this revolution.

About the Author
Klarina Usach was born in Odessa, Ukraine. Her family fled as Jewish refugees to the USA in 1992. She has grown up in New York but Israel is in her heart. She is currently working on her first book.
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