There is No Such Thing as a Vegan Country
There is No Such Thing as a Vegan Country
By Saryta Rodriguez
It has been reported for some time now that the “vegan movement” in Israel is garnering strength. This year’s Animal Rights Conference near Washington, D.C, even hosted a lecture on the topic: “Success of Israel’s Vegan Movement.” Before we delve into the validity of these claims, an understanding of veganism is necessary. Here, I will give two definitions, and follow up with my own expansion of the second.
The first and most commonly employed definition of veganism is that given by Donald Watson in 1944, upon founding the Vegan Society in England as a response to the preexisting Vegetarian Society of England (founded nearly a century prior, in 1847):
The word “veganism” denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practical—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.
A more recent definition, which I feel does a better job of explaining the ethos of veganism (while the above limits itself to the tenets of veganism—a rejection of the exploitation of animals in all of its various forms), is offered by Will Tuttle in his contribution to a collection of essays which he edited, entitled Circles of Compassion:
Even though we may be vegan in our outer lives and choices, veganism, we begin to realize, is far more than consumer choices, talking points, and animal rights campaigns. Veganism demands us to question absolutely everything in us that has been modeled by our cultural programming, and to bring our thoughts and deeds into alignment with a radically more inclusive ethic that calls for respect and kindness for all beings, including our apparent opponents. We see that veganism, as boundless inclusiveness, is the essence of all social justice movements, and that it is the antidote to what ails our world.
In this second definition, we see that veganism is about more than just abstaining from this or that product, or promoting this or that strategy for changing minds and challenging industry. It is an ethical standpoint that requires boundless inclusiveness— a respect for all sentient beings, as well as the planet on which these beings rely equally. There are those who identify publically as vegan and yet, just as publically, violate this crucial element of the Vegan Ethos. Examples include, but regrettably are not limited to, Gary Yourofsky, who showed a shocking level of disregard and even contempt for Palestinians, Black people and others in his video “Palestinians, Blacks and Other Hypocrites,” and Freely the Banana Girl, who demonstrated even more overt racism than Gary by asserting that the April 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal was karma for the country’s Gadhimai festival, during which millions of animals are slaughtered. (This event, mind you, takes place once every five years, while billions of animals are slaughtered in the U.S. and other first-world countries annually for food, clothing and even mere sport.)
Now, if I may amend this definition just a bit, I would like to suggest that before there is a proper circle of compassion, there must be a flower— one that requires, as all flowers do, watering and sunlight in order to flourish. If we attempt to broaden our circle of compassion without first watering the seed of compassion within us, shedding light on it with our daily practice of mindfulness, living in the moment and understanding our place in the world and our connection to everything and everyone else in it, then the compassion we extend will be weak and unstable. Therefore, we must first nourish our budding compassion so that it can flourish into a strong, healthy flower—a flower that can provide true peace and joy to all those who encounter it, rather than a frail, sickly thing which may produce a slight smile on someone’s lips, but nothing more.
What is needed is a flower that can withstand the hatred and animosity that poison our world, and not just withstand, embrace—because, ultimately, hatred and compassion are two sides of the same coin. The expression of one is entirely contingent on the absence or presence of the other. They are not separate entities, so rather than banish hatred or anything else we perceive as negative, we must integrate it into our being and let it motivate us to do good. (This is a common pillar of mindfulness generally, this absence of duality, and I cannot take full credit for it.)
Nourish, then expand. Such are my personal principles with regard to compassion, and also its sisters, empathy and understanding.
That said, let us now examine the extent to which Israel is a “vegan” country:
- Israel currently owns 121 settlements and 102 outposts on Palestinian land, which are illegal under international law.
- There are now over 6 million Palestinian refugees living around the world who have not been able to return to their homes since they, or their parents, fled the fighting in their native country in 1948.
- Incidents such as arson attacks on their homes, which often kill children and even babies; weaponized assault by Israeli settlers on children as young as 11 years old; and gunshots yielding lifelong repercussions are all regular occurrences in Palestinian communities, among those who remain in their homeland.
If we reject Gary Yourofsky and his ilk, as I think we should, on the grounds that their circle of compassion does not extend to Palestinians based on something they SAID, is it not reasonable to also hold Israel accountable for the many human rights abuses it has committed, in spite of the fact that Israeli soldiers now have the options of eating plant-based meals and wearing “vegan” boots (boots that are comprised of neither animal flesh nor animal byproducts)?
When we say that Israel is a vegan country, we are not being mindful of the plight of Palestinians. Does this mean that the citizens of Israel should not be commended for moving towards individual vegan lifestyles? No— but to credit the entire nation as a vegan nation opens a dangerous door through which all manner of atrocities against humans can be overlooked in the face of mounting concern for nonhumans, thus widening the divide that currently exists between advocates of human and nonhuman liberation—advocates who either fail to realize or habitually forget that these struggles are inextricably linked. Indeed, one movement cannot hope to succeed without the other.
This is not to say that we as an animal liberationist community should not be supportive of animal liberation efforts made in Israel. Any effort to benefit nonhumans, in any region, is admirable and exciting. Still, there is a big difference between acknowledging that there is a growing awareness of the plight of nonhumans and desire to reverse it in a particular country, and to assert that that same country is unequivocally vegan, extending justice to humans and nonhumans alike. I also find it rather curious that animal liberation efforts being made in Palestine, such as Palestinian Animal League Solidarity (PALS), receive little press coverage in the US, in spite of the fact that these demonstrate the broad reach of nonhuman animal compassion— that it is not limited to the privileged or even the safe, but is an ethos that can and, indeed, already has been adopted even by some of the most severely disadvantaged human populations in the world.
You know what is a vegan country? NONE. There is currently no such thing as a vegan country. So, shall we make one? If you have the means with which to discover some unclaimed bit of land, assuming such a thing even exists anymore, and assert your authority there, naming yourself the leader of your very own country, then by all means, accept the challenge! For most of us, this is not an option. So again, should we, the rest of us, seek to create a vegan country? No. Instead, we should be advocating for a vegan world. Why? Because no country will ever be truly vegan as long as there is war. As long as there is oppression. As long as there is violence. We must seek to eradicate all of these things in an effort to have a vegan world; we will never be able to eradicate any of these things, in any country, so long as there is not a vegan world.
Suppose we did succeed in having a vegan country. A country in which everyone was safe from violence, all voices were heard equally, and so forth. What happens when another country, that is not vegan, sees what we have and decides that it wants some? It wants our land, our people, our infrastructure? Or, suppose it decides it hates us. Our principles threaten it. Citizens of that country start looking at our country and think, “I want that! Give me that life, that existence, or I shall rebel!” That country will resent our country. It will declare war on us. If we maintain our vegan ethos, and uphold our respect for the lives of the sentient beings who encroach on our borders with their weapons, we will be conquered— and we will be a vegan country no more. If we take up arms to defend ourselves, we will be forced to forgo respect for the lives of all sentient beings. We will be forced to take some of those lives—and we will be a vegan country no more.
So let us forgo all of these shortsighted and discriminatory claims that this or that country is a “vegan” country, and instead work together towards a vegan world—the only world in which such a country could ever exist.
Finally, in the interest of mindfulness with respect to our activism, we could learn a valuable lesson from the Black Lives Matter movement, which has recently joined forces with Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a group determined to boycott various Israeli companies operating in or otherwise profiting from illegal settlement on Palestinian land. We often speak in activist spaces about how to bring others to our cause, but we rarely, if ever, speak about how our cause is already linked to other causes. It is not a matter of persuading, say, a racial justice advocate that the lives of nonhuman animals are important, but rather for both the racial justice advocate and the animal liberationist to see the ways in which each of these struggles naturally depends on the success of the other. This is perhaps one of the most moving and spectacular coalition formations I have witnessed in many years, and I hope it will inspire many more. It is time we erased the borders that divide this injustice from that, and reject all injustice with equal vigor.
All content © Saryta Rodriguez, 2015