Labor MK Itzik Shmuli had something of a rude awakening in July when, despite polls projecting his surefire win in the party’s rush primaries, he placed third – just behind fellow 2011 social protest alum MK Stav Shaffir, and far behind Amir Peretz, who was elected to lead the ailing party for a second time.
The result of the primaries — Peretz received 47 percent of the vote, compared to Shaffir’s 26.9% and Shmuli’s 26.3% — can, at least partially, be attributed to a new electoral power: the vegan vote.
Israel has the world’s highest per capita vegan population, and that trend is both accelerating and becoming more political.
About 1,000 vegans and animal rights activists have recently joined the Labor Party with the aim of backing lawmakers affiliated with their cause. The July 2 primaries saw them vote mainly for Peretz, who didn’t really need their support, and for Shaffir, who placed second but has since left the party to join the Democratic Camp, a faction comprising former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party and Meretz.
Other parties holding primaries have also seen an uptick in the number of vegans joining their ranks: Likud boasts 800 new vegan fellows and Meretz now counts 700 vegans among its members.
Overall, some 2,500 animal lovers have joined the various parties as part of the Influencing from Within campaign, the brainchild of Vegan Friendly, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote veganism and vegan-friendly labeling in Israel.
“We promote primarily a vegan diet, but the project appeals to animal lovers in general, not necessarily just to vegans or vegetarians,” Orian Ben-Zion, the NGO’s project manager, told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.
“The initiatives that are part of the project — such as banning fur trade or eradicating the phenomenon of stray dogs — are supported by most Israelis, who are willing to become members [of political parties] to promote them,” he said.
Vegan Friendly, Ben-Zion clarified, “doesn’t influence that in any way, and people join [parties] according to their own [political] beliefs. All we want to do is generate presence and power, so at the moment of truth it will affect candidates running in primaries and MKs.”
All we’re doing is simply inspiring… animal lovers to become involved in politics across the political spectrum. There are animal lovers and vegans on the left, right and center
According to Ben-Zion, “five percent of Israelis are vegan and 13% are vegetarians. All we’re doing is simply inspiring them and other animal lovers to become involved in politics across the political spectrum. There are animal lovers and vegans on the left, right and center. We aspire to see 2,500 to 3,000 people join each party.”
According to Vegan Friendly lobbyist Anna Nemkov, Ben-Zion is responsible for the creation of a committed electorate “that gives me the power I need to wield in the Knesset.”
Nemkov said that inspiring 2,500 people to join a political party is an achievement in and of itself.
“It gives me something to work with,” she explained. “I’ve worked in the Knesset, I come from this field and I’ve seen how they get people to join a party. This doesn’t happen – so many people in such a short amount of time. It’s a crazy force.”
Vegan Friendly founder and CEO Omri Paz is also optimistic about the results.
“I’ve always shied away from politics, and I used to think that nothing could be changed — until I became familiar with the inner workings of this method and the number of laws and initiatives that were passed thanks to regular people joining political parties,” said Paz.
Influencing from Within has an annual budget of 350,000 shekel (Under $100,000) and “party registration fees are paid by those joining them,” Ben-Zion stressed, and are not subsidized by the NGO.
Tzahi Ben-Meir, a 28-year-old vegan, joined a political party for the first time in his life as part of this initiative.
“I am vegan and I’m very involved with the issue of animal rights. I came across a Facebook post by Vegan Friendly calling on animal lovers to join the cause, and that’s how a learned about the project,” Ben-Meir said. “I understood that there was a unique opportunity here and just took that step. Since then, I started volunteering with the association myself.”
Ben-Meir prefers not to disclose which party he joined but stresses he feels comfortable with his decision, as he now gets to promote the issue within the framework of a party whose politics he already supports.
“I don’t think animal rights is a political issue. Regardless of which side you’re on [politically], it’s important that all the parties get behind it,” he said.
Nemkov, a devout vegan, has over a decade of political activism under her belt and previously served as Labor MK Omar Bar Lev’s parliamentary adviser. She became Vegan Friendly’s lobbyist ahead of the April 9 elections.
“The elections were held, we thought a coalition would be formed and we’ll get to work and guess what? They called a repeat election,” Nemkov said, explaining the decision to focus on recruiting as many people as possible to join political parties.
When I pick up the phone and say, ‘Listen, I have a few thousand people in your party. They can vote for you or they can vote for the other guy,’ the immediate response is to ask for a meeting
“I am the conduit that connects the will of thousands of people to MKs. I take all these people who join [parties] and translate that into political power,” she said. “When I pick up the phone and say, ‘Listen, I have a few thousand people in your party. They can vote for you or they can vote for the other guy,’ the immediate response is to ask for a meeting and ask what they can do for these party members.”
According to Nemkov, this was particularly evident during Labor primaries in July, when the 1,000 activists joined the party.
“Stav Shaffir and Amir Peretz cooperated with us during their chairmanship bid and posted videos and statements supporting our initiatives. We approached Itzik Shmuli as well, of course, but he didn’t cooperate. The activists reacted accordingly,” she said.
Peretz’s spokesperson Shai Gal said that cooperation is now a practical choice.
“Amir attended the association’s vegan conference in Sarona to support and underscore its message,” he said, referring to the popular indoor culinary center in the heart of Tel Aviv. “We’re in touch with Anna and the CEO of Vegan Friendly on a near-daily basis, and we support the initiative to promote animal rights.”
We approached Itzik Shmuli as well, of course, but he didn’t cooperate. The activists reacted accordingly
Asked whether Peretz sees himself promoting the relevant legislation in parliament, Gal said, “We are already doing that. When Peretz was the environmental protection minister [from 2013 to 2014] he supported reassigning the issue [of animal rights] from the Agriculture Ministry to the Environmental Protection Ministry.”
Nemkov is equally unfazed by politicians’ tendency to make campaign promises before primaries and elections, only to renounce them once they are elected.
“Labor’s primaries are actually a great example because we can feel Peretz’s support as the party’s leader. He sympathizes with our content and understands the power we have, and this is fully reflected in his statements on the issue. And he is not the only one. We’ve begun networking with vegan and pro-vegan MKs and the response is impressive,” she said.
Among others, Nemkov names Meretz MKs Tamar Zandberg and Mossi Raz, who she said have supported the NGO’s goals “since its infancy,” and Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who is a “strict, fully committed vegan. I keep in direct and continuous contact with him.”
“We’re also in touch with [Likud MK] Miki Zohar in an attempt to promote his legislative proposal calling for an end to live transports; with [MK] Miki Haimovich from Blue and White, who introduced ‘Meatless Monday,’ which is one of the most important initiatives promoting a vegan diet; and with [MK] Sharren Haskel from Likud. We have a strong connection with her, she’s vegan and it’s clear to me that we’ll work together,” Nemkov said.
Haskel, for her part, understands what is expected of her as an elected public official.
“From my early days in Israeli politics, I realized that in order to effect change you have to be part of the Knesset committees, the legislative process, and public initiatives, so I welcome the Influencing from Within campaign,” Haskel said.
“The more people who care about animal rights and register [as party members], the more power the activists and I will have to promote initiatives, legislation, and discussions, and to lead a fundamental change on this issue,” she said.
But so far, and despite the support of the lawmakers Nemkov named, attempts to pass legislation on animal rights have failed.
“It’s different when you have the backing of party members,” Nemkov said. “Now, politicians understand that we have power and they respond accordingly. We also have media presence – tens, if not hundreds of thousands of followers.”
“We have something to give. It’s reciprocal, a give-and-take relationship. There’s nothing you can do about it, that’s just how it works,” she said. “What we did was bolster our ability to bargain and our ability to be present and strong over time. Influencing from Within isn’t just the project’s name – it’s the very essence of it.”
Asked how she plans to counter those who will try to impede Vegan Friendly’s goals in the Knesset, Nemkov said, “If that happens, we’ll make sure the public and other lawmakers are aware of it.”
Parties that do not hold primaries are not impervious to vegan influence, Nemkov said.
“We have a wide variety of tools we can use in our give-and-take relationship with Knesset members,” she said. “It goes beyond party members and includes extensive media exposure, social media power, knowledge, and research. Beyond that, there are MKs’ own agendas and desires to promote influential initiatives that will leave a positive mark on society. We will know how to adapt our work for every MK and every initiative.”
As for whether vegans who join certain political parties end up voting for them, Nemkov said her NGO “encourages those interested in joining a party to seek one they can identify with. Fortunately, there are democratic parties on the left and the right, so animal lovers and vegans can realize their agenda together with their broader political vision, and not apart from it.”
Among the goals that underpin the project, which Nemkov plans on promoting through legislative initiatives in the Knesset, are labeling meat products as carcinogenic, subsidizing vegetarian products, and banning fur trade.
Influencing from Within also wants to see enforcement of the Animal Welfare Law transferred from the Agriculture Ministry to the Environmental Protection Ministry, as well as the implementation of a program to eliminate the phenomenon of stray dogs and animal euthanasia in shelters.
Nemkov emphasized the need to work extensively to achieve the desired results and promised this is only the beginning.
“I intend to sit in the Knesset, attend every committee meeting, take every bill and make sure it passes every step, until we see it come into force,” Nemkov said.
This article is adapted from the original on Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew language sister site.