“Peace begins at the breakfast table,” Ingrid Newkirk, president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, two days before a large animal rights march in Tel Aviv.A leading figure in animal rights advocacy for decades, Newkirk is a soft-spoken and encouraging voice in her field and has headed PETA since 1981.She draws a direct connection between the conflicts in the region and a vegan diet: “This is not a simplistic statement.How can we expect to have peace if we ourselves are putting animals through a slaughterhouse? They are fellow living beings like us, and if we can’t understand that, how can we expect to have a greater understanding of other people in the world? So I encourage everybody, use your power, us your voice, be the person you want to be.”Newkirk is in Israel for her third time to speak at Saturday night’s “Animal Rights March” in Tel Aviv, which is projected to be the largest march of its kind in history, with some 30,000 attendees expected.PETA is the largest animal rights organization in the world, with some 6.5 million members. And while it has often been criticized for a tendency to extreme views, it has been highly successful using the media and celebrities to promote a “cruelty-free life.”Pamela Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, Paul McCartney, Alec Baldwin, Mayim Bialik and other celebrities have all signed on to lend their names to the cause. According to its mission statement, PETA isn’t just about promoting a vegan diet, but also “focusing its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in laboratories, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry.”The group also works on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of beavers, birds, and other “pests”; the overpopulation crisis involving cats, dogs and other animals; and the abuse of “backyard dogs.”Newkirk is pleased with Israel’s progressive stance on veganism and noted the cooperation with other Israeli animal rights groups – including “Anonymous for Animal Rights” and “Let the Animals Live” – on a variety of issues, including: eliminating animal testing in laboratories and in the military; sterilizing of stray dogs and cats; and ensuring that Israeli soldiers can get vegan meals.Newkirk sees Israel as a leader in promoting a vegan diet: “The upsurge of vegan eating in Israel is very, very strong.Israel is a leader in the switch to vegan eating, vegetarian foods, for animals but also for the environment; there is a huge environmental consciousness.”Newkirk is also aware that Israel has an advantage in this upsurge of vegan diets. As she pointed out: “There is a wealth of wonderful, wonderful fresh produce that the rest of the world is envious of, as well as delicious foods readily available.No effort needs to go into finding them. Tasty vegan food like hummus, falafel and tahina – which were once regional specialties – have now proliferated the global food market and have become mainstream.”Newkirk is proud of the progress PETA has made. “We’ve seen so many improvements, its exponential, I’m 68 and when I was young, nobody even knew what the word vegan even meant or even heard the word! “You couldn’t even buy soy milks and almond milks, now they’re everywhere, and nobody thought there was anything wrong with fur being in fashion and now all the young people want leather that’s vegan, it’s wonderful to see what’s happening and it’s really picking up speed!” Newkirk added. But she does see that there is still work to be done in terms of kosher practices in relation to animal rights.Claiming no stake in this argument, as she is not Jewish, Newkirk explained that PETA does work with religious figures within the Jewish community to promote a cruelty-free diet among practicing Jews.“We do talk about religious rituals but we are very conscious that that must come from within the Jewish community or else it is criticized,” she said.On the issue of kosher meat production, Newkirk said: “I think that we are all good people and that we don’t want to be cruel to animals, but we take comfort that we shouldn’t take in the idea that there is humane slaughter and kosher has always been held out as a standard.”“We have looked at beef and chicken slaughtering facilities in various parts of the world where the meat has been labeled kosher, and the process is petrifying to the animals.The transportation of animals in all weather is extremely cruel and they can smell the blood and the guts in the slaughterhouse and they try to turn back and go the other way. And we also have seen the practice of ‘shackle and hoist’ and putting clamps in cow’s nostrils while they are fully conscious.No one can take any comfort in thinking there is humane slaughter, it’s all a very cruel and frightening process,” said Newkirk.Newkirk has a strong faith in humanity, but also stresses the practical benefits of cutting animal products from our diets: “We can do better, we are good people, we don’t need this, it gives us heart disease and cancer and clogs our arteries and it ruins the environment. So even if someone doesn’t care about animals, they certainly should,” she said.PETA helps fund research for in vitro meat in laboratories in the Netherlands, Russia and Italy.“We offered $1 million to the first scientist who could come up with in vitro chicken, because chickens are the most used and abused animals in the meat business, so that encouraged the scientists to work faster!” Newkirk said.