Do Israelis Love Peppers More Than They Hate the Occupation?

As the vegan movement in Israel grows, the dilemma of purchasing succulent West Bank produce grows with it.

Dani Mimon, one of the biggest (and oldest) pepper farmers in the Jordan Rift Valley, doesn’t think too highly of Europeans.

Those vegetable-eating Europeans, he sneers, boycott Israel for humanitarian reasons - until their stock of produce runs out. Then they come running, he says. “As long as Spain can supply the Europeans with peppers, they’ll buy from there. When they can’t they’ll buy from anywhere, including from here." But don't do Dani no favors. "They've been begging me for peppers since Christmas, because of their bad weather," he says. “I boycott them."

Avigdor Arbel grows dates in the Jordan Rift Valley and says much the same. When the Europeans have the vegetable they need, he says, they want nothing to do with him. When they run out, they call. "They know how to hide the fact that the produce comes from occupied territories when they want,” he shrugs.

Maimon and Arbel, and other Israeli farmers in the West Bank, disdain what they see as hypocrisy – and not just among Europeans. They're no fonder of Israeli vegans within the Green Line. Supporters of the boycott claim to be protecting the rights of Palestinians, they say - but when push comes to shove, they love their peppers more than they love their fellow men.

Vegans and veg-lovers may want to boycott the West Bank, but can't resist its organic produce, which is the best produced in Israel. And as Maimon proudly presents his signature yellow peppers, as big as cantaloupes, it’s easy to understand why the vegans feel the horns of dilemma in their guts.

Vegan-washing

Not all vegans in Israel have this problem. The more radical ones in Israel abhor any form of oppression, and wouldn't touch a West Bank pepper to save their lives. But politically milder ones within Israel’s burgeoning vegan movement feel conflicted, with the winds of boycott (indecisive and flaky as they might be) blowing from Europe.

On the one hand, they think the occupation is immoral; so should they eschew veganism and eat animals? But animal abuse is immoral too. When these two philosophies conflict, which morality wins out?

Writing in Haaretz, Aeyal Gross, professor of law at Tel Aviv University, expressed this duality in a piece entitled “The ethics of the plate”. In the piece, published last November, Gross accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials of “vegan-washing”, meaning portraying Israel as an enlightened vegan-friendly country in order to hide its abuses of human rights.

Gross also suggested that certain vegans, like author Eyal Megged, co-operate with this “vegan-washing”, praising Israel’s growing official embrace of veganism and thereby distracting from fact that it relies to a degree on abuse of Palestinian rights.

Megged himself published an op-ed piece in Haaretz in October, in which he said he is “proud of Bibi” for his recent comments supporting animal rights.

Sliced-up Jews and seared Palestinians

The debate has become divided into two clear camps: those, like Gross, who see veganism as a moral choice to reduce the amount of cruelty, violence and oppression in one’s life. The other camp sees veganism as a lifestyle choice devoid of ideology other than the will to be healthier.

Take radical vegan guru Gary Yourofsky, who has spoken about the tension between veganism and resistance to occupation within the Israeli left-wing. While making a deeply moralistic statement, Yourofsky still managed to negate the importance of human rights. “When people start eating sliced up Jew flesh, or seared Palestinian children in between two slices of bread with onions, pickles and mustard, then I’ll be concerned about the Middle East situation,” he said in an interview with Haggai Matar in +972 Magazine.

While Yourofsky is certainly out there when it comes to his misanthropic views, more rational left-leaning vegans in Israel are caught in a bit of a dilemma. Being vegan is a demanding lifestyle that necessitates a certain commitment to proper eating, and there’s no argument that the best stuff comes from the West Bank.

But how to correlate between your wish to eat well, with the understanding that you have to settle for inferior products in order to be more humane?

Also, one doesn't always know what you’re eating. Restaurants use produce from the West Bank, but don't mark their dishes "Green-Line Garden Salad" as opposed to say "West Bank Watercress". Do you as a vegan take the initiative and ask, or just enjoy your salad, blissfully ignorant of the suffering that might be involved, much like non-vegans choose to stay ignorant of the suffering involved in the making of their food?

Animal Rights Day in Knesset

This isn't a niche issue. In recent years, much thanks to Yourofsky and his viral YouTube lectures, veganism has become quite the trend in Israel. Last week the Knesset held its Animal Rights Day, throughout which the Knesset’s cafeteria served a vegan menu. Israeli news sites increasingly publish items with titles such as “A guide to raising a vegan child”. This isn't some neo-hippie enclave, either: centrists and right-wingers are jumping on the vegan wagon too.

So animals can bless the disassociation between veganism and political leftism. A country-wide embrace of veganism depends on the choice not to eat animal products not being politically colored.

It also depends on vegan food being tasty. If vegan dishes are gross, people won’t eat them. And you know where the good stuff comes from? That's right, the West Bank.

Once again, who do you love more, people or animals? People like Yourofsky choose animals, but not everyone can make that choice. Some are forced to obsessively check labels, ask pesky questions at restaurants and settle for what is certainly lesser food.

So in order to keep growing, veganism in Israel is forced to ignore the struggle against the Occupation.

Of course, this brings us back to the question of what is, exactly, veganism: a lifestyle choice meant to selectively reduce cruelty and upgrade your health, or an overall philosophical approach that entails the reduction of cruelty in all facets of life?

The first, it seems, is the answer most Israeli vegans would choose. The second, on other hand, might be true.

Central-and Northern-Arava R&D
Eyal Toueg
Eyal Toueg
Arava R&D