Big in Israel: Vegan Soldiers

How the IDF is handling the changing dietary preferences of its servicemen and women.

Dan Balilty / AP

Last december, Colonel Avi Harel, a commander in the Israel Defense Forces, was facing a strategic quandary. According to media reports, protesters were threatening revolt from within. They were not satisfied with previous concessions; the status quo, they said, had to change. In hopes of staving off conflict, Harel extended a peace offering: soybeans, legumes, and lentil-based hamburgers.

Veganism has surged in Israel in recent years. According to Israeli news sources, nearly five percent of Israelis now forgo meat, dairy, and eggs, making the Jewish state the most vegan nation, per capita, in the world. Vegan activists point to a 2012 visit from Gary Yourofsky, an American animal-rights crusader, as a turning point. One Yourofsky YouTube video with Hebrew subtitles racked up 1 million views, a substantial number in a country of 8 million people. Israeli restaurants soon jumped on the bandwagon, with Tel Aviv brasseries and Domino’s franchises alike rolling out special vegan menus.

Because Israel has mandatory military service, the surge in vegan citizens has translated into a bumper crop of vegan soldiers. Last year, some of them banded together to protest the lack of animal-free options in mess halls. “We are striving for equal opportunity, to allow vegan soldiers to live honorably and serve the country in the best manner possible,” Major Omer Yuval, a reservist and one of the protest leaders, told Bamahane, the IDF’s weekly magazine.

Which is how Harel, the commander of the IDF’s Food Center, found himself tasked with an unexpected challenge: figuring out how to provide soldiers the fuel necessary to fight, without harming any animals. The resulting vegan meal plan, which debuted in February, includes breakfast boxes packed with tahini, nuts, and dried fruit, as well as soy-based meat substitutes for dinner.

The IDF is also issuing leather-free combat boots and wool-free berets to soldiers who register as vegan, so they can march into battle knowing that no living creature has been harmed in their provisioning. (What happens during battle is, of course, harder to control.)

Support for reduced-cruelty meal plans appears to go all the way to the top. The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed support for Israel’s “Meatless Monday” movement, adopting a vegetarian day for his staff, security guards, and family at his residence in Jerusalem each week. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu has been reading up on the topic. “[I] understood that animals are more conscious than we thought, which is bothering me and making me think twice,” he said at a cabinet meeting.