Shai Hermesh
MK Shai Hermesh trying to bring Zehava the cow into the Knesset. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Shai Hermesh, a Kadima MK, received impressive coverage for his attempt to bring a cow into the Knesset building. In this way, he claimed, he was able to raise awareness for the danger involved in importing milk as a solution to the storm over the price of cottage cheese. The tumult the MK caused at the entrance to the Knesset also amused the Knesset security guard, who explained to Hermesh that the cow, whose name is Zehava, "does not have parliamentary immunity" ( as Zvi Zrahiya reported in TheMarker on 27.6 ).

True, Zehava, the cow, does not have immunity, but MK Hermesh does. And he may very well be pleased about that, as by bringing a cow to the Knesset, fastening a rope around its neck and exploiting it for political and entertainment purposes, he has, on the face of it, violated the law against the abuse of animals.

However, the sad truth is that even someone who does not have the immunity of an MK does not have to worry about violating that law - not only because it is just one more area in which the distance between the letter of the law and its implementation is so desperately huge, but rather, and mainly, because the legislator himself restricts the law and states that it does not apply to animals that are used in the food industry.

This restriction reflects the hypocrisy and repression that are characteristic of our attitude toward animals. We are shocked when we hear about cruelty to dogs and we forbid circuses to use animals in their acts, but when it comes to animals that produce - or serve as - what goes onto our plate or into our glass, this sensitivity disappears. When the cows are "beef" and the hens are "poultry," it is easy to forget that they are animals. When milk is marketed to us in the form of a healthy and natural delicacy, it is easy to forget that its original destination was calves and not human beings, and that the cow does not give us its milk but that we take it.

This forgetfulness is uppermost in the minds of the public, starting with children's books, which describe the cows and calves happily grazing in the pasture, and end with the cows smiling and laughing on the wrappings of milk products and with the names they have been given. Even on the container of the cottage cheese, the root of the current storm, there is a picture not only of a cottage but also of a cow chewing the grass alongside it.

Nevertheless, anyone who has visited an industrialized cowshed can tell you that the reality is far different from this popular fantasy. In order to produce milk continuously, the cows are kept in a perpetual state of pregnancy through artificial insemination, and their enormous output of milk (seven times greater than the normal production ) is achieved by genetic enhancement, injecting them with hormones and antibiotics, and intensive milking that stimulates them to produce more milk.

The cow's body is not supposed to withstand this kind of a load and it leads to pain, sickness and to even more severe distortions because of the poor sanitary conditions in the cowsheds, all of which cause tremendous physical suffering. No less important is the psychological suffering involved in separating the calves from their mothers immediately after birth on their way to becoming a steak, or a milk-producing cow, depending on their gender.

On second thought, this being the case, even though MK Hermesh tied the cow and dragged it along and exploited it for his media needs, he actually did it a favor by taking it away from the nightmare of its life, even if merely for one day. Moreover, this media stunt in itself may cause the public to remember that at the end of the chain of cottage cheese-supermarket-dairy, there are real cows who are suffering real pain.

It is clear that there is a real and urgent need to deal with the greed of the food corporations and the retailers in Israel, but the real reason to support the present boycott of milk products is not the economic reason but rather the cruelty, the exploitation and the violence that Zehava and her fellow creatures undergo every day.

The writer is a research fellow at the Minerva Center for Humanities at Tel Aviv University.