Tel Aviv, aptly called the global vegan (tivoni) capital of the world, is the hub of a culinary, social and consciousness movement that is sweeping Israel. Within the White City’s concrete jungle of bauhaus buildings, abutting glass and steel skyscrapers, is a city teeming with “vegan friendly” signs proudly affixed to businesses, from restaurants to markets to stores. The culinary and social atmosphere is decidedly one that gravitates towards conscious plant-based eating. The breadth of this fascinating Israeli social movement was evident at the city’s two day vegan fest that attracted a shocking 40,000 people (and yes, overwhelmingly Israelis). More people turned out for it than Eurovision the previous week. From labane to burgers, the throngs of Tel Avivians of all stripes lined up to eat from local restaurants, taste new Israeli vegan food brands and celebrate in an atmosphere that was decidedly positive, welcoming of everyone.
The vegan movement in Israel spreads well beyond Tel Aviv and has created a consciousness raising that I did not notice even a few years ago. The global immigrant mash-up, turned culinary fusion that makes Israeli food so unique and delicious extends to all of the vegan foods. While some of the Israeli vegan foods are merely replacements for animal products, plenty of others are definitively new Israeli dishes that happen to be plant based. People talk about trying to eat less meat and what it will mean in a few years to eat clean meat from labs. Supermarket shelves are crammed now with plant-based cheeses, yogurts, sour cream, milks, ice cream and meats. Vegan cakes and pastries were ubiquitous in nearly every bakery. Modest corner shops offer vegan bourekas and rugelah.
Myriad factors drive this incredible movement and one is the Freedom Farm, which has transformed a horse farm on a moshav near Netanyana into a lifelong home for hundreds of farm animals that were abandoned or would otherwise have been killed in the dairy or meat industry. (I had written previously about the farm sanctuary here.) Many of the animals have physical disabilities, making them not economically viable to farmers. But, such animals flourish at the sanctuary thanks to wheel supports, prosthetic legs and the extreme love and care from thousands of volunteers. It is not only a home for life for such rescued animals, but is a unique social experiment that offers Israeli youth-especially those with disabilities— the opportunity for special encounters with animals.
By interacting with the animals, whether blind, missing legs or unable to move naturally, visitors have the incredible opportunity to examine what this means for the animals and to recognize the special and unique nature of these beings and the same in humans. Society views these farm animals, instead, as disposable products for humans to wear and eat. How are such people, like these animals, marginalized or cast-away?
During a visit to the farm, I had the unique opportunity to witness the arrival of Alex, a premature calf from the dairy industry. Had he not been born prematurely, he would have been sold and raised for six weeks before being sent to a slaughterhouse. But, his early birth meant it was not economically viable for the farmer to keep him and he contacted the farm sanctuary.
Alex came in a special farm truck, arriving as the other animals hid from the scorching sun in barns and under canopies. Alex was carried out of the truck, his lithe legs delicately taking their tentative first steps. He started to explore the grounds slowly, developing a soft but more assertive stride, that was marked by playful gentle prances in the air. The excitement of his arrival climaxed when the farm’s other cows became inquisitive to this new black and white speckled little being and gathered at the edge of the pasture fence to greet their newest family member.
To endure the intense summer heat, many of the animals lounge in a cool, hay filled barn. Pop your head into a stall and you might find a volunteer hanging out with an animal. For hours. In fact, I spent hours moving between a few stalls to meditatively pet and sit with sheep and goats. Relationships between the farm’s animals and volunteers and staff is no different than between a human with his or her dog or cat. The sanctuary creates a non-judgmental space for humans to witness and connect with these animals and to develop a new understanding of farm animals. And, after a long day with the animals, a return to Tel Aviv for a vegan meal is the best way to end the day.