January 21, 2019

Where pro-Israel teaching meets pro-animal rights

The first time Israeli animal rights activist Chen Cohen met the StandWithUs (SWU) staffer who invited him to speak at last weekend’s Los Angeles conference, he thought she was a spy for the meat and dairy industry.

At many environmental and animal rights conferences, he explained, people from the factory farming industry will send their own undercover employees to gather “inside intel” on the tactics that activists plan to use to go after the major industry players.

“This woman showed up at every speech I gave, and filmed and recorded everything I said. I was certain she was working for the other guy,” Cohen told the Journal.

Instead, it turns out she was hoping the young Israeli’s message could help SWU — an Israel education organization — broaden the scope of its pro-Israel message. 

In recent years, Israel has become a leader in animal rights and plant-based eating movements. It has the world’s highest per capita vegan population, with the millennial generation leading the way in normalizing vegetarian cuisine as part of mainstream foodie culture, according to Cohen.

Even the Israel Defense Forces offers vegan food and clothing options, while the nation, as a whole, has banned foie gras, rodeos and circuses with live animals.

Cohen addressed these issues and more before kicking off his first U.S. campus speaking tour. He spoke to a room of roughly 150 students, shlichim (unofficial Israeli emissaries) and staff at the StandWithUs Milstein “Israel in Focus” Student Conference sponsored by the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation, held at the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport hotel on Nov. 12. 

Cohen, 31, has been a key social activist in Israel for years. In 2011, the year he became a vegan, he helped organize a social justice rally in the southern Israeli town of Beer- Sheeva that attracted more than 20,000 participants, including this reporter. 

When Cohen’s good friend (and a former barbecue lover) became vegan in 2011, something clicked for Cohen.

“I had been involved in social justice and anti-vivisection campaigns,” he said, “but when I talked to him about being vegan, it connected to something deeper. I had been working to help protect and fight for the weakest members of society. Weren’t these animals, with no voice, part of the world? How could I believe that everyone deserves a good, pain-free life except them? I couldn’t.”

Cohen, as well as other activists, began doing undercover research on animal cruelty in factory farms. Israeli news outlets started to run the stories, and the animal rights movement gained traction. A former software engineer, Cohen eventually left his job to dedicate himself full-time to animal rights activism. 

He said Israelis have been at the forefront of the movement because they already have such a strong focus on kosher and parve food; the labeling allows people to more easily identify vegan and vegetarian options.

Ron Krudo, SWU’s executive director of campus affairs, thinks Cohen’s message will help students broaden their pro-Israel message to their peers.

“The issue of animal rights isn’t just a ‘progressive’ issue. It’s an issue of understanding different perspectives, an issue of human health and environmental justice,” Krudo said.

“The fact that Israel is proactive in something so positive can really inspire our students to reach out to others — to say, ‘Look at this really important thing Israel is doing that is outside of the realm of the most common pro-Israel discussions.’ Chen is providing an access point to a broader community, and the students are very intrigued.”

Dana Benavi, an SWU Emerson Fellow at UC Davis who attended the conference, couldn’t be more excited to have Cohen speak at her campus. 

“Davis students are exceptionally environmentally friendly. Our school emphasizes sustainable agriculture practices and has a large veterinary medicine program, so I reached out to places like the veterinary medicine school knowing that Chen would be a great speaker to have on campus,” she said.

Benavi said that while 10 percent of people will hate Israel no matter what, and 10 percent will defend it no matter what, 80 percent of people are open to learning more about the country and the people who live there.

“Before hearing Chen speak tonight, I had watched his videos. The kinds of things he cares about are exactly what students care about, and it’s wonderful that it’s exposing them to a positive part of Israeli society that they might not otherwise be aware of,” she said. 

While ideally Cohen would like to see everyone adopt a vegan diet and lifestyle, he knows that convincing people to take incremental steps away from animal product dependence is a more reasonable goal.

“For some people, taking part in ‘Meatless Mondays’ is a good, sustainable way to begin the journey toward a plant-based life. For others, they can start trying to incorporate more vegetarian recipes into their diets,” Cohen said. “Or perhaps they can try eating exclusively vegan food for a few days, just to see what it’s like. If you can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean you should do nothing. You should always try to do something.”

Cohen understands that, especially for vegans, dietary choices can complicate life. Social events that revolve around food can be difficult and people can feel like outsiders when they have to make special food requests. 

Cohen likes to cope with that by reminding himself, and others, that veganism and vegetarianism are practices involving compassion, and practicing a plant-based existence is an expression of that value.

“If given a choice, I believe all people would choose compassion over cruelty. I want to help show them how,” he said.