Veganism takes parenthood by storm in Israel

Health, compassion for animals drive move to plant-based diet.

Israeli vegan food (photo credit: ALONA LAHAV)
Israeli vegan food
(photo credit: ALONA LAHAV)
Sitting in her kitchen, Ronit Simana can hear the screams of cows that are caged, abused, and slaughtered on a neighboring farm in her moshav, Kanaf on the southern Golan Heights.
But it wasn’t until five years ago that she realized the cries she heard were not just from cows being slaughtered but also by cows being tortured for their milk.
“The cows are not living, they are arrested; they are locked up and cannot go where they want. [The workers] take away their babies when they are born. I can hear the screaming and yelling when they take the babies,” Simana told The Jerusalem Post last week.
She has been a vegetarian since she was 10 years old, but it was because she did not like the taste of meat, but because she cared for the animals. The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear, a video by US animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky, revealed to her the irony of her situation and pushed her to become vegan.
“I saw this lecture and then it was like, boom. I realized that not eating meat is not enough if you don’t want to be cruel to the animals.”
It took Simana one week to become fully vegan, although she struggled through the first year. Her husband slowly followed and afterward so did her 12-year-old son. Her 11-year-old daughter is a vegetarian, but eats fully vegan at home. They made their decisions independently: Simana never forbade them to eat animal products outside the home.
“You don’t have to love animals to be a vegan. You don’t need to love animals to know that you shouldn’t hurt them or abuse them or kill them.”
Simana and her family are hardly vegan pioneers in Israel: in 2015, Globes reported in a study that 5% of the population is vegan and another 8% is vegetarian.
The trend is growing, as sales of foods commonly found in a vegan diet, such as vegan cheese, tofu and legumes continue to rise, while processed meat sales have declined by almost 30% according to a separate Globes article from 2016.
It comes as no surprise then that the number of vegan children in Israel is also on the rise.
At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the Health Ministry declared that all state schools must feed their students at least one vegetarian meal per week.
Lihi Joffe, a dietitian who works with schools to adapt their menus to include more vegan-friendly options, sees the growth in veganism as a sign of a better world to come.
“Veganism is also about teaching children to be more compassionate and to be aware of the suffering that is being imposed on others [for our benefit]. We will have better children, adults, feminist people, people who will be aware of social injustice,” she says.
“Maybe veganism can be a first or second step to fighting social injustice, incrimination, racism.
I’m optimistic. I want – I hope that these children will be born into a life of compassion.”
Homemade vegan Israeli dip (Alona Lahav).Homemade vegan Israeli dip (Alona Lahav).
Tahel Ilan Ber, whose baby is one years old and has never been fed animal-based products, easily found a nursery in her Tel Aviv neighborhood where half of the kids are vegan.
“Both the medical and nutritional communities have been moving toward plant-based diets in recent years. I therefore have every reason to believe raising a vegan child can be very healthy and beneficial,” says Ilan Ber. “My daughter has been above the 85th percentile [in height weight] since being born and was exclusively breastfed by a vegan mother, and her blood work and general health are impeccable.”
Isaac Hirsch, the owner of Mishmish Playschool, a vegan nursery school on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, bought the nursery when he saw that it served a niche community and is a better way to ensure that children are receiving healthy, balanced meals.
“There’s no disputing a primarily plant-based diet is good for you. And it’s a lot cleaner: Any time you have meat and cheese you can get a lot of cross-contamination, and there’s a very small margin of risk you can allow with young children,” says Hirsch.
Mishmish currently only has one vegan child, but the other children and parents do not mind the vegan diet. For health-conscious parents, the nursery school is a welcome change from many others in the area, which feed their children schnitzels, Hirsch jokes.
The only concern parents sometimes have is that their children may not be getting the nutrition they need, but Hirsch dismisses this worry.
“The only mineral that is missing is B12, and people who eat meat can have a deficiency in that too,” Hirsch says.
Joffe, who also works for the Let Animals Live NGO, disagrees with parents who think the vegan diet does not provide adequate nutrition.
“Parents have a misunderstanding that meat is the healthiest diet for their children. Even dietitians don’t understand that in the Western diet we eat twice as much protein as needed,” argues Joffe.
The US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day.
An average 11-year-old weighs about 36 kilograms (80 pounds), which would require 32 grams of protein a day. According to Joffe, school lunches alone can provide that.
“Children can be getting an 80 g. slice of chicken for lunch that has 20 g. of protein.
For a child nine-13 years old they get almost 28 g. of protein just for lunch. American dietitian guidelines for 2015 recommended 34 g. per day.
We’re talking about 28 g. just for lunch. That extra 6 g. – one glass of milk has 6 g. of protein.”
Joffe says a vegan diet is better for children because it provides nutrients that the common animal- based and processed-food heavy diets do not provide.
They need more fiber and antioxidants, both found largely in plant-based foods. The diet also provides more of vitamins C and A, and can provide equal or greater amounts of iron.
“Children have bad eating habits because we live in a culture of bad eating habits.
The processed-food industry is something I very much fear,” says Joffe. “One third of young children in Israel are overweight or obese. Children are sitting at home, inactive, and are vulnerable to fatty diets, with an excess of protein and processed sugars.”
People eat without understanding the impact the food has on the world, their bodies, and their minds, says Joffe, but when people become vegan, they become more health-conscious and are more open to avoiding processed foods.
“Vegan children will have a much better starting point for better eating habits,” says Joffe.
“People sit and eat and don’t think about how did this food get to my plate and my home? Everything is so accessible you don’t think about it. You’re more aware of these thoughts when you go plant-based.”
Veganism does not guarantee good health, she warns, and every parent, vegan or not, should be aware of what their children are eating and of what their children’s blood tests are saying, but it is an excellent start.
“If you eat wholesome foods you see the difference, and you think more and more and then you ask, who is adding these things to my diet and telling me to eat these things? At whose expense are these things happening?” While being more aware of a food’s ingredients and origins is certainly a positive side of veganism, Simana finds it a challenge for her vegan son.
Wherever he goes he has to ask for the ingredients in the food being served, she says, and often nothing is vegan. It is an isolating feeling.
“People are so sensitive to gluten-free or sugar-sensitive people, but because it’s our choice [to be vegan], it’s our problem,” she says.
Ilan Ber finds that one of the biggest problems is the social challenge it creates and the backlash she receives from parents when they find out she is raising her child vegan.
“You’re told that you are imposing your ideology on them without letting them choose, which is funny because everyone imposes their ideology on their children, whether its religion, or diet,” she argues.
“For me, parents that teach their kids to be kind to others and serve them animals for dinner are not only imposing an ideology, but they are forcing their children to participate in a form of passive violence.”
Ilan Ber also faces obstacles when she takes her child to the doctor for check-ups. There is not enough research, she says, for professionals to support the diet.
Homemade Israeli vegan food (Alona Lahav).Homemade Israeli vegan food (Alona Lahav).
“Because there are no long-term studies on raising vegan children, health professionals generally give their private opinions on the matter that are rarely grounded in facts,” she says. “I accept that raising a vegan child (as well as being a vegan adult) is not completely based on peer-reviewed science, however I don’t see doctors reprimanding parents that give their kids cereal for breakfast or any other form of the accepted conventional nutrition which puts them on the fast track to childhood obesity and diabetes.”
But in the last five years with the increased popularity of veganism in Israel, more medical professionals are recognizing the health benefits of a plant-based diet. It has gained popularity in Israel for several reasons.
“In a small country like Israel news spreads fast. Israelis use a lot of social media, maybe the most in the world, so it’s easy for us to spread the message,” says Omri Paz, the founder of Vegan Friendly, an activist organization working to make vegan food and education more accessible.
“And people here are comfortable to go up to strangers and tell them their opinions,” he jokes.
Ilan Ber also credits the Mediterranean diet for making the vegan diet so popular and accessible.
“Becoming vegan is not that extreme as in other countries where you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, here we have salad,” she says. “Our national foods are all vegan: hummus, tahina, falafel, it isn’t a far reach for Israelis to go vegan.”
Additionally, the prevalence of kashrut has led to the creation of a whole group of dairy and meat-free foods that were available long before veganism became popular. She also points to kosher standards for turning some religious people away from the meat industry.
“None of the meat in Israel lives up to kosher standards,” she says. “The kosher meat industry has come into question in recent years and influential rabbis have been declaring themselves vegetarian due to Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim infringements.”
Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim is the commandment not to cause animals undue suffering, and may cause the next wave of people turning to vegetarianism or veganism. Ronen Bar, a leader in recent investigations into the kosher meat industry, dismisses the validity of kosher meat.
“This investigation was done in a few slaughterhouses over the course of two years.
It proved that the myth of humane kosher slaughter is a lie,” he writes by email. “Many people that talked to me were shocked after the investigation was released and told me that they stopped eating meat. Some are concerned that factory farming does not keep up with the Jewish tradition of compassion.
Even if technically the meat is kosher (though some doubt that also), the problem goes much deeper. The way animals are raised and killed goes against the very fundamentals of Judaism.”
Bar believes that the meat industry can never be humane and compares it to slavery, as does Simana, who hopes this is only the beginning of a vegan revolution that will change the way people see animals.
“They feel, they know, they love, they want. Many people are telling me: What can I do I’m just one person, I cannot change the world. But this is not true. Even slavery ended because a few people started talking about it.”