Vegan burgers (illustration)
Vegan burgers (illustration)Thinkstock

Israelis are starting to flock to veganism and forego all meat and animal products, to the point where even the IDF now has options for vegan soldiers.

"Four percent of Israelis define themselves as vegans, it's the most vegan country in the world," according to Omri Paz, organizer of the "Vegan Fest" fair, where stands offered pea-based hot dogs, tofu doner kebabs and wheat gluten goulash.

Like vegetarians, vegans do not eat meat, but they also eschew all animal products - including milk, eggs and honey - with some also refusing to wear leather or use cosmetics tested on animals out of a desire to show mercy to animals.

The Vegan Fest in Tel Aviv, where veganism has the most acolytes, attracted 15,000 people in a day.

The most-visited stand at the specialized food fair was that of US pizza giant Domino's, which last year launched in Israel a vegan vegetable pizza topped with soy cheese, a global first for the company which has reportedly sold 300,000 of them so far.

In Tel Aviv, one of the city's best known restaurants Nanushka, renowned for its vodka-laced grills and party atmosphere, announced in February it was going vegan and completely rewrote its menu.

Israel's vegan community took center stage recently when the popular Big Brother TV show saw vegan activist Tal Gilboa win.

In the IDF as well, soldiers are now offered leather-free boots and a small allowance to buy themselves alternatives to the food in mess halls.

Facebook is full of dedicated Israeli vegan communities and is divided into sub-groups, such as "vegan teenagers" who want special menus in school canteens.

Israel is predisposed to veganism according to some, who note fruit and vegetables are an important part of most people's diet, with staples such as hummus and falafel made from chick peas.

Also Kashrut, the Jewish dietary law, forbids the mixing of meat and dairy products, which has led to widespread acceptance of substitutes, particularly non-dairy toppings and desserts.

Radical veganism

However there is an edge to some radical members of Israel's vegan community who have made the shocking comparison between meat eating and the Holocaust, calling the meat industry a "Holocaust of the animals" in a statement angering many for trivializing and downplaying the Nazi genocidal atrocities committed on Jewish people.

Rafi Grosglik, food sociologist at Tel Aviv University, said of this comparison that "it is precisely in this provocation that the power of persuasion which is so important to us lies. It's also interesting to note that Israeli vegans are often at odds with the Hindu or hippy vegan culture and instead employ a rhetoric of force which favors violent activism."

That violent activism was on display in 2012, when a small group of radical vegan activists calling themselves "Life269" - after the number branded on the ear of a calf they freed from the abattoir on an Israeli farm - emerged from the shadows.

In Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square in front of horrified passers-by, they branded the same number on their own bodies with a hot iron. Since then they have left the bloodied heads of sheep in a public fountain in the city, and released herds of cows from factory farms in nighttime raids.

The activists, whose actions have been widely seen on the Internet, spent several days in custody. They have also spawned copies, with Life269 now operating in about 40 countries.

AFP contributed to this report.