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By going vegan, Israelis can avoid talking about human rights

By choosing an ‘easier’ cause to fight for, some Israelis have decided they can have it all. By showing compassion to animals and their suffering, we can live with the continued blindness to the pain of the humans among us.

By Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg

Israeli animal rights activists take part in a protest against animal cruelty, central Tel Aviv, August 24, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli animal rights activists take part in a protest against animal cruelty, central Tel Aviv, August 24, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israelis have taken to vegetarianism and veganism perhaps more than any country in the developed world. This is a good thing; if you measure suffering in years and number of casualties, it is valid to say that animals are the main victims of history.

I believe Israeli vegans genuinely do care for animals. There is no doubt that many of them fight for other causes as well — in 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest growing economic disparities, resulting in one of the most vigorous social movements in the history of the country. The tragedy with social actions in Israel, however, is that they emphasize just how much Israelis are willing to turn a blind eye to one of the most significant immoral human right violations: Israel’s decades-long oppression and occupation of millions of Palestinians.

By choosing to fight for more mainstream causes, many Jewish Israelis allow themselves to continue living in dissociation. It serves as a way to clear their consciences from their indifference and passiveness in the face of the human rights abuses in the occupied territories.

I want to suggest academic socio-psychological explanations for the reasons why many Jewish Israelis avoid protesting about the occupation, while they are very vocal and comfortable fighting for other causes.

One explanation is the many social and physical walls between Israelis and Palestinians. These walls manifest literally — with the separation barrier — but also in segregated schools, neighborhoods, and institutions that act as emotional, cognitive, and cultural barriers. The result is a distortion of reality that is meant to justify the occupation and dehumanize Palestinians.



We know from a 2010 study on the implications of occupation on the occupying society that many Israelis use various defense mechanisms to dull the feelings of guilt regarding the oppression of Palestinians. Psychological defense mechanisms help them keep their self-perception as “good human beings” while terrible acts and events are taking place nearby.

When people are exposed to information they cannot cope with, they steer away from that information. This state of denial may be an unintentional self-lie. It is a state of knowing and simultaneously not knowing.

In “States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering,” a comprehensive study on the sociology of denial, Stanley Cohen refers to this kind of denial as a way of keeping secrets from ourselves, of turning a blind eye to the truths we find challenging to deal with. As such, denial serves as protection from the moral costs of recognizing and taking responsibility.

The occupation is incompatible with equality. In the face of grave abuses and human rights violations, like those documented by Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, and others, coming to grips with the understanding that human beings in our society can act so cruelly in our name can lead to significant pain. This creates moral confusion and shame, as Feagin and Vera claim in their theory about the emotions of the privileged group in a racialized society. Trying to deal with the contradiction between what people believe in — equality, love, and kindness — and what they are expected to do (fight for it) can have a psychological effect, one that people try to avoid, they write.

Israeli soldiers detaining Avner Gvaryahu, director of Breaking the Silence, on a tour of the South Hebron Hills, August 31, 2018. (Nasser Nawaja, B'Tselem)

Israeli soldiers detaining Avner Gvaryahu, director of Breaking the Silence, on a tour of the South Hebron Hills, August 31, 2018. (Nasser Nawaja, B’Tselem)

The more one becomes aware of injustice, the more challenging it is to ignore the ensuing moral and political questions and feelings. The dissonance builds. Members of privileged groups may feel guilt about knowing yet not acting to change the unjust reality, and often use denial as a defense mechanism. As such, mainstream causes such as veganism can act as a substitute for genuine moral reckoning; doing so helps people anesthetize themselves against the pain caused by guilt in the face of the occupation.

A social reality in which one group is in conflict with another group, in which Israel militarily controls millions of Palestinians, demands consensus regarding personal feelings, according to Cohen. When a group member raises question marks about the status quo, he or she risks condemnation, social distancing, and possibly even ostracism or social boycott. To avoid that outcome, research has found that some will try to avoid expressing these feelings and others will activate a mechanism to prevent the development of guilt in the first place. Protesting, or even speaking out against the occupation, can put one at risk of being bullied by our friends and society.

By choosing an “easier” cause to fight for, such as animal rights, however, some Israelis have decided they can have it all. By showing compassion to animals and their suffering, we can live with the continued blindness to the pain of the humans among us. By adopting a more mainstream cause, scores of Israelis have been able to avoid the responsibility and guilt of doing nothing about the occupation, avoid paying a price in social and family lives, and above all avoid living in an emotional-cognitive state of distress.

Rachel Shenhav-Goldberg is an Israeli living in North America. She has a PhD in social work from Tel Aviv University and a post-doctorate from the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on anti-racism in Israel and anti-Semitism in North America. She is also a group facilitator, practices social work, and volunteers with the New Israel Fund in Canada.

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    1. Firentis

      Cows don’t shoot rockets at our houses.

      Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Presumably they still wouldn’t launch rockets at our houses. Just a hypothesis. Can’t really prove it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            True, but what you did prove is that you want the Palestinians to be dehumanized meek, passive cattle who allow you to herd them into bantustan corrals. Presumably they aren’t going to cooperate with this, even if little, weird, trumpian-transactional Jared Kushner thinks he can buy their meek submission. It’s a hypothesis with much evidence to support it. (Not Jared’s, mine.) Those difficult Palestinians. Why can’t they get with Firentis’ bovine management program? Why, it must be bovine-refusal terror! That’s it!

            Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Yesterday, despite all the agreements, Gaza terrorists sent incendiary balloons burning several fields in Israel, causing pollution and financial losses for farmers.

          Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      Every day 972 mag brings us new surprises .. The person who wrote the article in the USA makes a comparison between the Arabs of Judea and Samaria and animals …

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        All you are doing here, Halevy, in your snideness, is showing what a bad person you are, what a racist you are. You just can’t help it, can you? It’s just so deep in you, isn’t it? As you have probably perceived, I have a particular hostility for you because you are so deeply, contemptuously, racist supremacist, so contentedly, smugly lost inside the cult (but also unwilling to declare it so much as snidely hint around at it behind dishonest Orwellian euphemisms–your specialty). In fact, the joke on you, the irony, is this: You who make snidely racist jokes about animals are in fact bovine-like in your moo-mooing, contented, cud-chewing, placid, herd-following racist supremacism. It is you who have always come across as a mindless, national religious herd-follower of Israeli Jewish racism.

        Reply to Comment
      • john

        in which sentence is that comparison made? keep in mind, firentis is not the author of this article.

        Reply to Comment
    3. James

      True of (aggressively preachy) vegans anywhere.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Shloime Perel

      Thanks for the article, but do we have any data about the extent of overlap between (1) animal rights and (2) vegan activism in relation to activism to end the occupation and at the same time work for peace and reconciliation? What the article argues, that vegan and animal rights activism functions as a diversion might need to be tested, if we don’t have actual evidence l, one way or another.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Lewis from Afula

      End the occupation…………by expelling the PLO animals back to JORDAN (where they belong)

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Nothing but dehumanization. Mere trash talk.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          That is Ben, the SJW Nutter talking.
          (He lives in America)

          Reply to Comment
    6. but why are vegganism and anti-imperialism mutually exclusive. i go for both!

      Reply to Comment