Veganism on the Rise Among Israeli Arabs

A few years ago, Arabic didn’t even have a word for the practice, but activists in the Galilee are making strides in their conservative community.

Daniel Tchetchik

When someone wants to write about veganism and vegetarianism in the Israeli Arab community, the road begins in Haifa’s Ein Hayam neighborhood at the home and clinic of Sharbel Balloutine.

On Monday afternoons, his day off, he’s busy writing another lecture on veganism. The only sound disturbing the waves audible from his balcony is the crowing of roosters, the quacking of geese and the bleating of baby goats in his backyard. He calls them survivors.

The 38-year-old posture-alignment specialist basically invented the Arab word for veganism when he wrote a book on the subject a few years ago. “I decided to write the first book on veganism in Arabic,” he says. “There was no such word; until then they would say ‘vegetarian,’ ‘total vegetarian’ or ‘radical vegetarian.’”

When he discovered the practice seven years ago, he was already largely vegetarian for health reasons, but he was still eating fish and seafood.

“In 2008 my aunt sent me a book from the United States documenting what happened in cuisine over a decade. It described how to make salami from horses,” he says. He went to bed with a bad feeling but woke up with a good feeling and decided to become a vegan.

He then discovered how much ignorance there was regarding everything about animals, so he promoted the ideas in his book via lectures, interviews and social networks. “After a period on Facebook I saw there were people who wanted to be involved,” he says.

Leo Atelman

Two years ago, he and the other activists held their first demonstration in the Arab community. That took place in Haifa, but later they demonstrated in Nazareth and other towns and villages including Sakhnin, Shfaram and Maghar.

Most people were understanding. “There were a few arguments, and that’s legitimate,” he says, adding that the harshest response happened in Sakhnin, when he and his colleagues demonstrated outside a shawarma restaurant.

“The owner or one of his workers began shouting, ‘You're destroying my business, you’re against God.’ We didn’t respond.”

Balloutine says the most common counterargument is based on religion — God sanctified the eating of meat, so are the activists more compassionate than God? He has a set answer: While Islam doesn’t forbid the eating of meat, the religion requires that animals be treated compassionately.

“If the industry worked this way, it wouldn't be profitable,” says Balloutine, adding that he tries not to be antagonistic; that way he can draw as many supporters as possible.

“I respect others. I choose actions that are hard to object to or attack,” he says. “I don’t attack the religion, though we have atheist activists who say religion is the problem. I don’t even like putting shocking pictures [on Facebook].”

Arabs and Jews

There's also cooperation with Jewish animal-rights activists. After more than 1,000 people from various groups demonstrated in Haifa in July, he thinks every demonstration should be mixed.

“We need to work together. The concept of Jews and Arabs works,” he says. “Politics divides us. We draw closer through the demonstrations.”

One activist taking part in the demonstrations and information campaign is Lubna Rinawe, a bookstore owner from Raina. She has been a vegan for 15 years — it all started when she saw animals being slaughtered, then films on social media.  Family and friends would tell her she was foolish; meat is delicious and eating it is the right way to live.

“Now they tell me, ‘You’re right,’” Rinawe says. “In the body of someone who always eats from animals — meat, cheese or any animal products — there are endless diseases. I’m 55. I don’t take one pill.”

She says she has convinced 50 relatives and close friends to stop eating animal products, most of them women. Two of her three children are vegan. Her husband isn’t vegan but only eats meat outside the house.

“I have no meat at home, but you can have everything without meat. Everything is so tasty,” Rinawe says, immediately offering a recipe for meatless maqluba. She says her husband always enjoys her cooking.

“It’s easier to convince the women because of compassion," she says. "As mothers they have compassion for animals. They understand the suffering and awful violence.”

It’s still hard to find Arab vegan restaurants that are ideologically driven, but Yakoub Khayat, owner of a restaurant in Rameh, says most Arab food, outside holidays or special events, is based on plants and legumes. He originally opened his restaurant to serve breakfast to his fellow villagers and offers a wide range of vegetarian and vegan dishes.

About 60 percent of his lunchtime customers are Jews, he estimates, not that these people are thinking about compassion. “It’s about health, light food, not heavy on the intestines, he says. “It’s a new step toward healthier things.”

According to Waseem Godia of Isfiya, health-motivated vegans “will break at the first shawarma.” The 35-year-old career army officer has been a vegan for two years.

A graduate of the geography and environmental studies department at the University of Haifa, he sees a direct line between the environment and veganism, both because of environmental damage caused by the consumption of animal products and pollution from the beef industry.

His wife and 5-year-old daughter are vegetarian. “We don’t keep animal products at home, but it’s hard for them to give up Druze labaneh and fish,” he says.

Godia says he strongly supports the PR campaign but is very much against preaching and brainwashing "like a religion.” “I don’t impose myself on others. The girl is exposed in kindergarten and day care,” he says. “I can’t impose such a big change on her.”

He doesn't take part in the demonstrations but does help run a vegan Facebook page. His older brother, a Border Police officer, is also a vegan, as are two of his uncles. Recently he and his wife convinced his father-in-law, the owner of a restaurant in Isfiya, to add seitan-based shawarma and kebabs to the menu. The vegan options have been successful.

Godia notes that Druze cuisine is based on worshipping the soil, so, for example, there's plenty of grape leaves and majadra. The industrialized meat culture seeped into Druze culture as it did into all cultures.

“I’m not differentiating between Druze, Muslims and Jews,” he says. “They were brainwashed and got used to eating animal products.”

Veganism is linked to the environmental change he’d like to see happen around the world, so information campaigns are vital. “Knowledge is power,” he says. “It’s awareness and consciousness, and it will slowly seep in.”

Something significant among all the activists is that none of them is surprised by the increasing numbers of vegans and vegetarians.

"We’re at the start of something interesting,” says Balloutine. “I’m sure it will expand. I only hope that this expansion takes as little time as possible.”